A Helpful Voice at the End of the Line,
One in an ongoing series
“Thank you for calling Einstein. How may I help you?”
Toni Smallwood repeats those words all day, every day, when she answers the phone at 1-800-EINSTEIN, the concierge call line to Einstein Healthcare Network. As manager of this specialized call center, Smallwood works alongside three colleagues to respond to inquiries from patients and would-be patients who need help.
The 1-800-EINSTEIN line receives between 150 and 200 calls a day. They range from a simple request for information – about the date of the next free bariatrics information session, for instance – to a patient needing follow-up from a doctor; from confused inquiries about scheduling diagnostic tests to help with selecting a practitioner or a conveniently located physician’s office.
Sometimes, callers will want their symptoms diagnosed – a service the team doesn’t provide. Some callers just want to hear a human voice. “They’ll keep you on the phone,” Smallwood says. “You can tell they’re lonely.”
Smallwood and her team are the junction between Einstein and the outside world, and they fully appreciate the impact they can have on a caller’s impression of the hospital. “It boils down to this: if they have a good experience with us, they will tell their friends and that will help Einstein,” Smallwood says.
On this typical weekday afternoon, Smallwood sits at her desk, with headset on, taking calls. She always does a direct handoff to make sure the caller is connected, rather than simply forwarding a call.
Most callers are polite, she says. Even the ones who are frustrated usually calm down, or apologize and say, “I’m not angry at you. . .”
Still, she says, “sometimes you’re going to get a call from someone who is going to be mean for no reason. I try my best to help them.” Occasionally, a caller gets aggressive or resorts to profanity. Smallwood maintains her steady composure throughout.
Smallwood recalls being swamped with new callers after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, witnessing the fact that the insurance industry was apparently ill prepared. Newly insured callers were assigned doctors who were no longer practicing, for instance, and in one particularly memorable case, a male caller was assigned to an obstetrician-gynecologist as his primary care provider.
Smallwood’s mother and aunts are schoolteachers, and she studied administration and management in college. Neither occupation suited her, so she found her way to customer service. As the go-to person in her family who gets a bill corrected or a miscommunication resolved, she’s well suited for the job. “My aunt calls me ‘The Fixer’,” she says with a smile.
Smallwood knows the telephone numbers of every hospital department by heart. (“It’s sort of scary,” she says.) And in between calls, she methodically responds to a huge pile of emailed requests. She previously worked at Comcast and the Internal Revenue Service, so she’s also experienced in dealing with frustrated callers.
“I think all people want is to be respected and to have their problems solved, and that’s it,” she says. “They wanted to be treated with empathy and dignity, and a lot of that is missing in today’s world,” she says – but not at the other end of 1-800-EINSTEIN.