What is Customer Service?
To define this, we need to define customer and service. This may sound tedious but hang on.
Customer: a person or organization that buys goods or services from a store or business.
Service: the action of helping or doing work for someone.
Putting that together for us:
Customer service means helping a patient who buys our healthcare services.
I recently went to Chick-fil-A while driving to visit the clinics. Two employees were deployed outside the drive-through taking orders on iPads. They were there to expedite flow through the line and reduce customers' wait time. They could even accept credit payments with an iPhone payment system on their hip. Swipe...done - just hand my food out the window and I don't even have to wait while they run the transaction. They were sharply dressed, well groomed, clean, and in the company uniform. One greeted me at my car window with a hearty "Good afternoon." When I asked him how he was, he smiled and said, "Fantastic." It was a bright, crisp spring day, so this wasn't far fetched. He took my order, repeated it back to confirm, and gave me the price. I said "thanks" after he ran my card, and he responded, "My pleasure." At the window, my food was ready. I grabbed it, said thanks again, and they smiled and said, "My pleasure." They really seemed to enjoy serving customers with efficiency and with great food. My order was correct and piping hot, and I was in and out in about 4 minutes during the lunch rush. Then I ate the delicious spicy chicken and my love for Chick-fil-A grew even more. I now know where that location is near Hermitage, and they will see me again.
Nameless Burger Place
Contrast this with my experience at a local burger place recently, which shall remain nameless. I pulled up to the drive through kiosk that had a blinking cursor and computer gibberish on the screen and waited for about 45 seconds. No response. I said, "Hello?" into the void. I waited another 60 seconds, because I was really hungry. Finally someone came over the speaker, "May I take your order?" I placed my order, pulled forward, and waited, literally, for ten more minutes. After waiting, they said, "$7.56," took my card, handed it back, and closed the window. They handed me my food in the bag and said, "Did you want ketchup?" The ice had melted in my drink by the time I got it, and the fries were cold. I never want to go back.
What was the difference?
Both places provided customer service. The difference was in the quality of customer service. One place had outstanding customer service. One place had terrible customer service. One place will have a repeat customer. One won't. I will tell my friends to go to one place and tell them to avoid the other.
But aren't patients different?
Patients are customers and they are different. In fact, they are far more than customers. No one going to Chick-fil-A divulges private, personal, potentially embarrassing information. We simply go and buy a chicken sandwich. No one going to Chick-fil-A risks being harmed by a misdiagnosis of their lunch needs or by being sold the wrong sandwich. The cost will be under $10, and they don't take food insurance. Employees at Chick-fil-A are trained and skilled in their respective jobs, but the education, training, skill, and competency needed by medical professionals is far greater.
So the skill needed is greater. The risks are higher. The expense is much more. Privacy concerns are paramount. And the level of trust needed in a medical professional cannot compare with that of a chicken restaurant. Though Chick-fil-A food could potentially make a customer sick, we are routinely prescribing drugs or treatments that could cause serious harm, even death, if prescribed or rendered incorrectly. A cure could be a poison simply by prescribing the wrong dose. This is a weighty responsibility.
Client or Patient?
Most businesses have clients or customers. We have patients. There is a world of difference. A client is one who utilizes professional services of some kind. In that way a patient might also be considered a client. The difference is that a patient is receiving medical treatment. Their body is affected by the encounter with a medical professional. Their body is examined, and powerful substances are prescribed or treatments rendered that directly impact their body. The lawyer doesn't do this for a client. But the doctor or clinician does this for a patient. The difference is the unique vulnerability of a patient vs a client.
Why focus on customer service?
So why focus on customer service, if patients are more than customers? Although patients are more than just customers, they are also not less. Our patients are our customers. They are the lifeblood of our existence. They are our purpose. They deserve special care and attention as patients, with the inherent vulnerability that comes with this relationship. But they also deserve the basic courtesies that all good businesses offer their customers or clients. And we know the difference. Why do you choose one restaurant over another? Why do you shop for groceries at one store over another? Why do you use Amazon to order things online? Why do you choose this cable company over that one? Why do you trust one car dealership over another? A key driver is customer service.
What makes great customer service?
Let's dig into what some companies do to make customers feel like they were treated well.
Every Patient Has a Story
The most important aspect of great customer service is to remember that every patient has a story. Many times that story includes painful or frightening aspects. This is the foundation of empathy. Remember that your patient comes to the encounter today with a story that is unique. Simply knowing that our patients, and all of us, have emotional issues that shape our everyday interactions will help us develop empathy. We will devote an entire session to the topic of empathy.
Greet, Smile, Be Present
These three simple practices can drastically change a patient's impression of you and of our clinics.
- Greet every patient. Say, "Good morning. Welcome to Vanderbilt Health Clinic." This is a basic courtesy, and patients feel the slight when it is not offered.
- Smile - the least expensive but most underestimated aspect of customer service is a simple smile. A smile makes people feel welcome and drops their defenses. A genuine smile seems so easy but can the hardest thing to do when you are hurting personally. Do your best to set aside your own emotions temporarily while at work and focus on your patient's needs. As you focus on the needs of others, this may even help you feel better too.
- Be Present - Staring at a computer or mobile device makes patients feel unwelcome, like you don't have time for them. Look away from the computer; put down mobile devices; look directly at your patients and engage them.
Do more than is required
You've no doubt heard the adage to "go the extra mile." There are things required by our job descriptions. Of course we do these. But to do more than you are required in order to serve a patient is what makes customer service great. For example, Chick-fil-A didn't need to send out two employees with iPads to expedite lunchtime flow. But the fact that they did shows customers they are really trying to get them through the line quickly. This prevents "drive-offs" when customers see a long line of cars, and it makes me want to come back.
What is something extra you could do to make your patients have a good experience? Could you gather more information for the APC? Could you start POC testing? Could you go ahead and get them a urine cup if you think they will check a UA? Could you straighten up the waiting area when patients leave trash on the floor? Could you set out candy at Halloween or put out flowers in a vase? Could you make an extra call to check on a patient? Could you go back and check a critical lab after hours to make sure the potassium is OK? Could you take the time to visit a local business and tell them about the clinic?
Do the little things
Small unexpected surprises or amenities can make all the difference between mediocre customer service and great customer service.
- Giving a patient a box of tissues
- Helping a young mom juggle her baby, car seat, and diaper bag
- Sweeping up spilled cheese puffs on the floor
- Keeping your uniform and appearance neat and clean
- Keeping the rooms neat and orderly
- Offering a patient a chair, even your chair if all are taken
- Taking time to talk to an elderly patient who is lonely
- Walking over to the pharmacy to make sure an unusual medication order is clear
- Taking a follow up call from a patient and going out of your way to help
There are literally 1000 little things we can do. It doesn't take much. One small act of kindness can change everything about a patient's perception of the visit.
Remember our mission statement. One aspect is convenience. Time is money for us and our patients. Our patients are busy people. That is why they have chosen retail care. They are missing work to come. For them, time is money.
The same is true for us. There are only 2 ways we are financially viable: volume of patients and amount collected per patient. There are a few things we can do to change the latter, but there are many ways to increase the former. Each year at our locations, if only one patient a day walks away without being seen, it costs us hundreds of thousands of dollars. That is the difference in us existing sustainably or going under. It is that important.
What that means is that anything you do to make the visit more efficient for the patient helps our company succeed.
- How can you make check-in quicker?
- How can VS be done more efficiently?
- What POC tests can you get started while patients are still waiting?
- APCs, how can you develop clinical efficiencies in seeing patients?
- What would make check out faster?
- How can prescription pick-up be expedited?
- Where are the bottlenecks?
- What other things can you do to expedite things for our patients?
Keep patients informed
Giving an honest ETA and keeping patients informed about any delays is extremely important.
Say thank you to patients for coming. This small gesture at departure can leave them feeling cared for and welcomed. After all, patients have a choice in healthcare. There are dozens of clinics. We are lucky to have them, not vice versa. Our existence depends on our patients and not the other way around. We're happy they came to see us.
What is our expectation?
To wrap up, here are some simple actions you can start today to make our patients' experiences better.
- Every patient has a story - be empathetic.
- Greet them with words, a smile, and your undivided attention.
- Do more than you have to do to serve our patients.
- Pay attention to the small details, and do the little things that make a big difference in the patient experience.
- Expedite everything - do everything in your power to improve efficiency and patient flow.
- Keep patients informed.
- Say thank you to our patients. They have a choice, and they chose us. We are lucky to have them.