Optometric Management Tip # 305   -   Wednesday, November 28, 2007
What is the secret to success in eye care?

There are many factors that contribute to building a successful practice, but I'm occasionally asked to name one overriding thing. I actually have an answer and if you ever attended a lecture seminar of mine, you may already know it. What would your answer be? Let's define success as a practice with very high gross and net incomes, strong patient demand, high productivity, a large, excellent staff, high tech instrumentation and a great optical. We may all define success differently and that may not be your definition, but let's assume it is.

Drum roll, please...

I want to build up a little drama before I name the single biggest factor in building a successful practice. Are you ready? It's customer service. Whenever I reveal that answer, I always wish it were something more dramatic that no one ever heard of before. But it is what it is. I believe legendary customer service is at the core of every great company and it's no different for eye care practices. But sadly, customer service in health care is at an all time low. While we might like to think our offices are the exception, I find many that are not as great as the owners think. I work on service continuously in my practice and ours could be better.

By the way, I prefer to use the term customer service in this context rather than patient service because the latter implies something clinical, and I'm not referring to clinical care at all. I always use the term "patient" in the real world, but this publication is about business and it's good to use business terms.

Whose wants and needs?

I like to look at customer service by looking at the usual policies and procedures that occur in an eye care office. It all comes down to whose wants and needs are being served by the policies. The definition of marketing is identifying and satisfying the customer's wants and needs, but I find many office policies are based on the owner's wants and needs or sometimes the staff's.

Of course, the policies are up to the owner and he or she can have them anyway he wants, but I have to think that these doctors don't get it. Sure, we tend to set policies that are easy for the practice and there may be some short-term advantages in getting what you want, but if your goal is a practice similar to the one I described in the first paragraph, the tough-love approach is not going to do it.

Many eye care practitioners have a difficult time with an approach that lets patients win. After all, the public can be so unreasonable. The mantra is often that the practice is better off without this type of patient. And if you give in to these folks too much, the practice will gain a reputation that it's an easy mark and then everyone will want special care! Frankly, I can't think of anything better than a reputation like that. It's not as easy to build as one might think, but if you really become known far and wide for having a practice that patients love, you've got it made. You will let patients win all the way to the bank.

How far do you have to take customer service?

My short answer is how much money do you want to make? How fast do you want to make it? If income is important to you, I'd go ahead and take customer service all the way. Make it an obsession. Don't worry too much about when to draw the line. Try to say yes first; try to satisfy the patient's needs another way if possible, but when you have to say no, do so diplomatically and explain why your stance is necessary and fair.

Since many of the times when you must stand firm involves the billing and collecting of fees, you can go a long way toward avoiding problems if you adopt a policy that no one will ever be asked to pay anything unless they were told in advance. Telling patients the tough news in advance is an amazing equalizer that makes everything OK. Don't tell them and you risk unhappy patients and angry confrontations. It's really not that difficult. Start by telling every patient over the phone if your office will accept their insurance plan and if not, tell them what the exam fee will be - even if they don't ask! Think you can't do that because (insert your favorite excuse here)? I think you aren't really trying.

Specifics

We all know what customer service is, but consider how well you do with these basic examples.

Convenience Comfort and happiness Service recovery
Best wishes for continued success,

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