Optometric Management Tip # 513   -   Wednesday, December 28, 2011
The Customer Service Culture for 2012

The single biggest factor in building a successful optometric practice is customer service. Great customer service is responsible for all the good things you want to achieve: higher fee structure, more word-of-mouth referrals and a reputation as the best eye care practice in the area. As important as customer service is to success, it is actually relatively mediocre in most optometric practices. In this article, I'll break customer service down into some basic elements that will help you lead your staff to embracing it in the New Year. A note to colleagues who hate the word “customer”: I understand, respect and use the term “patient” as the word for the people we care for, but customer service is an excellent generic term that conveys the spirit of what I mean, so I'll use it in this limited context.

Examine customer service everywhere
To elevate the customer service culture in your practice, the owner and manager must be passionate about it. Obsessed with it. Think about it and talk about it. Be a great example. One way to do this is to be aware of customer service in all aspects of commerce in your personal life: at the supermarket, the gas station, the bank, the restaurant, the retail store, and certainly at other health care offices. You will likely find that customer service is generally quite poor. Use these real experiences to help you build great service at your office. Talk about these examples with your staff and ask them to share their experiences with customer service; both great and terrible.

With those stories as a backdrop, think through every point of contact that a patient has with your office as they receive eye care. Talk about each step with your staff, being completely honest about what you do well and not so well. What are your office policies that seem to cause problems? Are the policies designed for your wants and needs... or the patient's wants and needs? Do you ever make exceptions to policies? Should you ever make exceptions?

Fee structure matters
In my experience, a practice (or any business for that matter) can't have truly great customer service unless it has a strong profit margin. Many practices try to have a philosophy of great customer service and excellent quality at low prices, but it really doesn't work. The low profit margins force the owner to be tougher on customers who are more difficult to please and to cut costs whenever possible. These practices end up being average in most aspects. They do not develop true competitive advantages that set them apart from the competition.

By setting your fees and prices higher, even if you have a high concentration of vision plans, you and your staff will find it easy to let patients win. Once your service is established as truly outstanding, your patients will easily accept the higher fee structure. They still feel like they are getting a good value because they love the service. It is a very desirable cycle.

Tell people in advance
Many of the sticky situations that occur in a practice can be prevented if your staff explains things in advance. Review the more frequent issues that make patients unhappy and decide what your staff should say and when to say it. Some things should be discussed over the phone when the appointment is being scheduled. One example is mentioning the additional contact lens evaluation fee. Patients don't really mind the fee but they hate to be surprised by it.

Some policies can be discussed in person as an order is being placed. This may include eyeglass warranties, what happens if we break your frame while putting new lenses into it and what if you can't adapt to a progressive: is there a refund on the difference in price?

In some cases, a patient education handout can be used to remind staff to bring up a policy and to be sure patients understand. But use handouts and disclaimers very sparingly, especially those requiring signatures.

Convenience is part of great service
Excellent customer service is more than just treating people fairly and respectfully. While not always easy to achieve, consider these convenience factors that add up to high levels of patient satisfaction and excellent online reviews.