Switchboard Operators Forge Human Connection

MaLisa Burns, patient representative II, Customer Connections

“Hi, thank you for calling Cincinnati Children’s. Your call will be answered by the next available operator.”

As the hold music plays, Customer Connections employees are on the other end of the line, preparing to answer the next call. On average, it takes less than 8 seconds to be connected to an operator. With over 850,000 calls a year, our Customer Connections team is essential in connecting patients, families and fellow physicians with the right department. Take a moment to get to know more about the people who staff our phones. From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, our operators were on the frontline, fielding and answering patients’ and family’s questions concerning the virus.

Calming Fears

At the rise of COVID-19, there was a panic. Calls coming into the medical center surged as individuals from all over the world had questions and concerns about this novel virus. Customer Connections staff handled these calls with poise.

“We are the first call they make, and everyone expects us to have the answers, and we did,” said Alan Henry,

department manager. “At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we took the brunt of everything. Parents were frustrated, and we were the ones they were complaining to.”

There is no knowing what type of call will come into our phone lines. It is essential for our agents to stay well-versed on what the medical center is doing and how to communicate that message effectively. With the abundance of questions about COVID-19, agents had to adapt quickly and keep up with the constantly changing processes and procedures that the hospital was adopting.

Throughout the pandemic, the Customer Connections staff has learned the importance of team communications. Working from home, while difficult at first, has ultimately been beneficial. The transition has gone smoothly, thanks to Microsoft Teams. Teams allows the department to stay connected and up to date from an at-home perspective. Customer Connections will continue to work from home indefinitely and are excited to do so.

Jacob Owens, lead patient representative, Customer Connections

Three Groups Serve Medical Center Needs

Customer Connections

There are three different departments within Customer Connections that play a vital role in running the medical center efficiently, General Operator, Physician Priority Link, and Marketing.

General Operator

General operators handle calls that come to the main Cincinnati Children’s number and our scheduling number. These calls include general information calls, international calls, scheduling appointments, patient information inquiries, and physician referral calls. We receive around 4,500 calls a day to our main Cincinnati Children’s number.

In addition, general operators serve as the answering service for almost all departments during busy times and after working hours. Our operators enable departments to receive important calls and connect people with the right department.

Physician Priority Link

Physician Priority Link (PPL) is a unique doctor-to-doctor service that was first implemented 25 years ago. This line connects outside physicians or medical providers to a specialist attending on call within two minutes 24/7. A busy PPL agent might take 25-30 calls in an 8-hour shift.


Patients and families from all over the world can email our Customer Connections Marketing department when searching for a physician specialist. The Marketing team triages these emails and connects families with specialists from Cincinnati Children’s. Thanks to this department, our patients and families receive a call back from the proper specialist to meet their needs.

All members from Customer Connections are cross-trained between these three departments.

A Day in the Life

MaLisa Burns is just one of the 35 agents who make up our Customer Connections Department. Burns has worked 8 years as a customer service representative. Her day usually consists of receiving 10–20 calls from the Physician Priority Link (PPL) and 50+ calls from the general operator line.

“I know not everyone can say this, but I have always loved helping callers. I pride myself on delivering the best customer service” said Burns.

“I am the first voice a lot of our patients and families hear. If I am that first contact a family has with Cincinnati Children’s, I want them to know that every experience they have here will be just as great as their first phone call.”

Burns, who smiles throughout her conversations, does not always encounter the nicest people. 

“Dealing with angry individuals is a major stressor of my job. I must try to focus and remember that the anger they are feeling is not directed towards me. In my role, it’s extremely important to be mindful of that. You never know what the person on the other end of the line is going through.”  

Burns reflected on a time when she received a call that tested her training. 

She was working one holiday evening when a call came into the general hospital number. The individual on the line said he wanted to kill himself. He was crying, saying he hated himself and that he did not want to be here any longer. He explained he was searching for a homeless shelter, but they were closed because of the holiday, and he had nowhere else to go.

“No matter how many calls you receive, you can never get used to a call like that” said Burns. 

She started by telling him her name. The simple act of engaging him in conversation gave him the stability and support he sought. She transferred him to the University of Cincinnati Hospital Psychiatry hotline where his needs were better met. 

“After the call, I needed a minute to myself. Those types of calls are never easy,” she said. 

Every time Burns or any of her colleagues pick up the phone, they never know who will be on the line. Whether it's transferring a call, providing information or saving a life, our Customer Connections team is essential to the success and mission of our hospital.

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