Optometric Management Tip # 107   -   Wednesday, February 04, 2004
Customer Service in the Real World

Continuing with our series on building patient volume through internal marketing and word of mouth referrals, let's focus on customer (patient) service. If we accept that customer service is the key to growth in any personal service business, what does it really mean? How do we get doctors and staff to understand and care about it?

I stated in last week's tip that customer service conjures up an image of the way we hope to be treated when we are customers at any business. Outstanding customer service is what we might experience at a Ritz-Carlton hotel, or Nordstrom's shoe department, or Disney World. We can draw many parallel characteristics in an eye care practice; they are evident whenever we interact with patients. Examples include how we handle phone calls, and how we greet patients in person. It's how we call patients in from the reception area for eye exams; how we explain the testing; how we discuss eye problems and treatment options; how we present fees and how we ask for money. It also includes our office policies and methods of operation. It starts with being polite and considerate at all times. Are you simply too busy to work on all these little details? If you're interested in practice growth, these little details must become a priority.

I advise doctors and managers (and ultimately all staff) to adopt the following philosophy:

We look at everything we do, from the patient's point of view.

The fact that this phrase rhymes makes it easy to remember as you apply it to your practice. You may use this patient-centric philosophy in developing your office policies and in day-to-day decision making. Remember that marketing is identifying and satisfying patients' wants and needs. But many policies and decisions in professional practices are made with the doctor's wants and needs in mind. Or the office manager's. And that's fine if you aren't looking for growth and volume. But the more aggressive you want to be about building volume, the more you should base policies on patients' wants and needs.

I suspect a few of my colleagues are starting to get turned off by the direction this tip is going. There is a large segment of practice owners who feel the notion of "the customer is always right" is complete nonsense. After all, we all deal with the public and we know there are plenty of times when they are simply unreasonable. Actually, I think the "customer is always right" philosophy is right on target, but I know I differ with many on that.

When do you draw the line?

So how do we make sure the public doesn't take advantage of our practices? Well, we do need polices, and we need to adhere to them, but I find that many practices worry about drawing the line too much. The problems of drawing the line too soon are actually worse than not drawing it at all. In other words, letting the patient win is a very smart business decision. It results in loyalty and great word-of mouth, and the actual monetary cost is often minor. When the practice gets tough with patients, it can develop an adverse reputation. The owner may feel good about the short term victory, but there is invisible damage that is much bigger.

I find most staff members are naturally over-protective of the practice, and they don't want to be judged as having made a mistake, so they stand firm on some issues. Staffers need to be guided toward giving in more than they need to be taught to draw the line. There are many egos at stake when a patient complains, or tries to shift blame away from themselves. The practice culture must allow that mistakes will happen; we all make them. We should learn from them of course (privately), but if too much pressure is placed on employees, or on ourselves, we won't be able to admit our mistakes.

If we always focus on making sure that the practice is treated fairly, we are guilty of looking at things from the practice's point of view - and we've violated the patient-centric maxim we stated above as being so important! The key to protecting the practice, in my view, is to always explain things to patients in advance - this includes fees, payment policies, eyeglass warranties, etc. Patients generally want to follow the rules, but they don't know what to ask, so we tell them.

Organizational culture

It takes time to develop this culture of great customer service, but if you can do it, your practice will grow to levels you never dreamed of. You build this culture by practicing it yourself, and by continuously training all staff members to practice it. Eventually, all senior staffers are able to convey the attitude to all newcomers. It becomes second nature. It's like our Disney World example. When faced with a request from a theme park "Guest" (customer), the "cast member" (employee) remembers that he/she works at Disney World, and responds in a way that is befitting that organization: friendly, gracious, knowledgeable, helpful. It's the Disney World culture.

Best wishes for continued success,

Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Chief Optometric Editor, Optometric Management