Optometric Management Tip # 431   -   Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Customer Service: Why is it so elusive?

Customer service is king when it comes to practice building.  Many eye care practitioners still don't really realize the direct and rapid connection between excellent customer service and increased revenue production.  While many ECPs think they are very good at customer service, if we look very close we see they are really only average.  Even ECPs who get it and want to make outstanding customer service part of their practice culture often find it is more difficult than they thought.  In this article, I'll take a look at the major factors that stand in the way.

Fees are too low
Who knew that the practice fee schedule would have a big impact on customer service?  They seem somewhat separate at first glance.  After all, customer service seems like a philosophy that depends on the office staff and if the proper training and motivation is present, couldn't it be great with any fee schedule?  Does it cost any more to provide great customer service?  Actually, I believe it does cost more and your fee schedule may be the strongest factor that stops you from providing legendary service.  A business can't deliver outstanding customer service with a low price model.

If your practice is based on the marketing strategy of value pricing in all areas, from exams to glasses to contact lenses, the profit margin on each transaction is simply too small for the practice owner to be extremely generous with office policies.  The office culture is based on this intangible knowledge that going the extra mile for patients often brings an added cost which the practice cannot bear.  Here are some examples of little things the value driven practice usually won't do or can't do:

It is really a case of circular logic.  If you charge more, you can afford to give the patient what he wants and if you give the patient what he wants, you are providing the service that makes you worth more.

Organizational culture
Customer service is driven and maintained by the office culture.  The culture is a set of unwritten rules that defines how we do things in this practice.  The culture is always a reflection of the leaders of the practice: the owners, doctors and managers.  It matters far more how the leaders think and behave, rather than what they say.  If the practice owner makes a snide remark about a complaining patient behind the scenes but in view of the staff, the true culture is being defined.  The action speaks louder than words.  The owner may say she wants to provide great service, but the staff has seen how she really feels.  It's obvious that the owner actually resents having to give in to the patient.  A sincere desire to make the patient happy is the principle that the owner should be teaching to the staff.

Office policies
Consider who your office policies are designed to please.  Most policies are designed for the wants and needs of the practice owner or the manager or the staff.  But marketing is defined as identifying and satisfying patients' wants and needs!  I'm not saying it's easy to design your policies from the patient's point of view, but that is what builds highly successful practices.  Patient friendly policies quickly become impossible for many practice owners once a policy impacts them personally.  Consider evening and Saturday office hours as one example.  This is why the goal should be to develop a practice that doesn't totally depend on the owner.  Associate optometrists and a large, cooperative staff can make these challenging policies possible.

Staff are protective
Companies that excel at customer service routinely surprise their customers by being extraordinarily easy to do business with.  They are innovative in coming up with new ways to delight the customer.  Employees understand that this level of giving the customer what he wants is a business strategy that is much more important than the transaction at hand.  The customer who receives such excellent service simply can't help but share the experience with others, and that is far more valuable than the office policy if an exception were granted.

Unfortunately, many staff members in eye care offices do not get this.  They have not received any training in this level of customer service and they think they are doing good things for the practice by not letting people take advantage.  Practice owners often believe in this tough approach as well and praise staff members who stand up to patients.  There is a school of thought that the practice is better off without this type of patient (the complainers).  I don't agree with that.  Letting the patient have his way is a very smart business strategy that results in higher net income.  As Zig Ziglar said, “You can get anything you want in life if you just help enough other people get what they want.”

Best wishes for continued success,

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