All healthy businesses exist for the purpose of providing their customer base with goods and services that are sold at a profit. That much is fairly obvious and self-evident.
Past that however, the concept of serving customers in an excellent manner gets murky and muddied. In many markets, including in health care provision, excellent customer service is the delineator between a thriving, high-energy practice and one that suffers from low exposure and utilization. This has little or nothing to do with the technical skills or knowledge basis of the doctor, and everything to do with the perceived human relations factors.
Everyone has had the experience of poor or negative customer service, and (rarely, unfortunately) the experience of excellent service. The ongoing challenge we face is how to define our standards for excellent customer service and how to bring that into reality in every single patient (customer) encounter.
First step is to understand who your customers are. A simplified definition would include all patients who are presently under care and listed as active in your office. However, I prefer a much broader definition that includes past and no longer active patients, future, potential patients, your staff (both administrative and professional), your referral network (both actual and potential) and your local community in general. A larger definition allows you to think of the much larger service opportunities that exist right now, and also requires a higher standard of behavior from all parties.
Next step is to identify your company’s service offering and core values. This is actually more challenging than it sounds, but is a critical exercise to go through. If you do not have a written mission and core value set, you will not be able to deliver excellent customer service consistently, because they employees do not have a clear standard to adhere to. Sometimes an organization will have a written mission and value set, but the standards are bent, ignored, sidestepped, etc. This is about the same as not having one at all. A critical point here is that the employees in an organization will generally take the same pathway as the manager or owner, so you do have to walk your talk!
Next step is to cultivate an office culture that is outward looking and service oriented. This means remembering on an ongoing basis that the purpose of our existence is to help people according to practice parameters and specialty. We’re here to serve people, not the other way around. The current lingo for this is “patient-centered”, but this applies to all service businesses. Organizations that are dominated by in-fighting, turf wars, who said what to whom, etc. are inward focused and typically cannot deliver excellent customer service. If your company has these characteristics, it’s critical that you notice it and change it. Cultural change happens over time with persistent effort and consistent thoughts. Epiphanies in this arena are rare indeed!
Next, use a teamwork and frank communication format to understand when poor customer service is being delivered and how to change that. This will most typically occur in subtle ways, rather than frank or heinous ways.
An example is a situation at the front desk when the phone is ringing and you have a live person at the same time, needing something. Lack of eye contact, curt or impolite phone manners or incomplete cycles of action all constitute poor customer service. Not knowing the patient’s name means that you do not have a personal connection and can be perceived as not really caring about them. You will know this is happening if you have a disproportionate number of patients who seem to be happy with the clinical results of care, but disappear prematurely, and do not complete their treatment programs.
Another example is when the doctor is frequently late in delivering routine care. Reasonable standards are that the patient is seen within 10 minutes of the appointment time in 19 out of 20 cases. If this show of courtesy and valuation of the patient’s schedule is not in evidence, the patients will vote with their feet and discontinue or transfer care.
A very common example is calling a business and being placed on hold without being asked, or having to punch through a long phone tree, only to get a recording or get disconnected. Mission not accomplished.
I invite you to notice and write a short synopsis of your own experiences with both excellent and poor customer service from your actual experience over the coming 2 weeks. What features can you adapt to your company? Are you guilty of the same indifference, rudeness, incompetence, and unprofessionalism that you may have encountered?
In the present age of instant and widespread communications, excellent customer service can be quickly over-rewarded and poor customer service can be savagely punished through the use of review sites such as yelp, google reviews, angie’s list, etc. Detailed, negative reviews on these sites are clearly measures of internal problems in your company and are unequivocal signs that you have a lot of homework to do.