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 By Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO, Editor January 12, 2005 - Tip #156 
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Practice Resolutions: The Year of Customer Service

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In my last tip, I described the 5 top management topics for building a successful practice. To re-cap, they are practice investment, customer service, delegation, fees/collections/managed care, and staff training. If you dedicate yourself to these areas for the coming year, there is no doubt your practice will be on its way to achieving great rewards. This week, let's look into customer service.

What is customer service?

First, let's define customer service and why I use the word customer. Like most optometrists, I generally refer to the people that I serve in my practice as patients. But when we wear our business hat, it's helpful to think of them as customers. It gets our priorities straight and it prevents us from hiding behind any pre-conceived excuses about why we can't do things, or why we must say no to the customer, when we probably don't really have to. Customers go by many names, including patient, client, guest, passenger, diner, subscriber, and many more, but shake up your thinking by accepting that they are all customers in the truest sense.

Secondly, we all know excellent customer service when we see it. You know it when you've been the customer and you received it. It's the most commonly understood of all the business terms that have been used for it. It's something a company provides. Providing it creates customer satisfaction and customer loyalty and word of mouth referrals. Customer service is identifying and satisfying the customer's wants and needs, and the more you do that, the more successful you'll become.

Customer satisfaction is actually the lowest acceptable level of service that a company can provide, so we must condition ourselves to realize that a satisfied customer is not the goal. That's way too low of a response. Satisfied customers don't refer their friends - enthusiastic ones do!! Customer loyalty is many steps above customer satisfaction, and loyalty is what we should strive for.

Why customer service is important

I would hate to pick just one factor that breeds success and growth in optometric practice, but if I had to, it would be customer service. Every successful optometric practice that I've ever seen was primarily built on word of mouth recommendations. If we all agree that's where the new patients come from, then let's go after that source! Excellent service (and I'm talking way above and beyond the expected) breeds referrals because it makes people talk. They just can't help but share their eye care experience with others because it blew them away. That talk is so valuable to the practice that it's worth considerable time, training, effort and financial investment. Because that talk is not directly visible to the practice owner, many ODs are not even aware of it. If you knew how to buy that kind of favorable patient talk, you would order it by the ton.

Most optometrists are not as good at it as they think

Most ODs that I speak to feel like they are already doing a good job with customer service issues, so they tend to dismiss this category of management as if they already have it covered. Most of these docs are mistaken and they don't get it. You may be so close to the daily routine that you and your staff have developed, that you may not be objective. To properly analyze the service aspect of your practice, break down and list each office process that occurs every day. This starts with a phone call and goes through reception, office forms, pre-testing, exam, specialty care, optical dispensing, billing and recall. Those are very broad headings, so go back and break all of them down much further.

It's obvious that your staff is responsible for much of the customer service in your practice. But many doctors and practice owners have become somewhat removed from that service. Many don't really know what is truly happening in other parts of the office, and many are so busy with their own world that they can't know. This brings up the importance of a unified team approach and a mutual philosophy on the importance of customer service. To achieve the legendary service that is needed, service excellence must be ingrained in each staff member; it must become part of the office culture. It takes leadership to foster this, but it can be done. Just become obsessed with it.

How much customer service is needed?

My answer to that is: how profitable do you want your practice to be? My friend Bob Levoy, O.D. (consultant, writer and lecturer) once said: "Good enough is no longer good enough." How wise that is. We all see problems in our offices every day if we just look, but many of us adopt an attitude that overlooks them, as if to say its "good enough". The market for eye care today is such that an approach like that is not good enough to build great success. We must make time to tackle those weak areas.

If practice building is the goal, it makes no difference if the doctor thinks the service is adequate. All that matters is the perception of the customer. The customer's judgment of the level of service trumps all others. Unless you're getting praise and thank you notes and lots of word of mouth referrals, your service may be merely satisfactory.

Other health care specialties

To drive my point home, let's step outside of your practice and look at a practice of an average family practice MD. Customer service is generally terrible in health care. I won't delve into why that is, but what has been your experience? There are the good exceptions, but patients today have come to expect the worst. A typical visit might be as follows: you walk into the office and there is no one at the front desk. Or, if there is a receptionist, she's busy on the phone and does not look up from her work. You sign your name on a steno notebook, and sit down in a full waiting room, hoping that there is some system of fairness. There are numerous hand-made signs taped on the walls, stating all kinds of things the office can't do, and that the patient shouldn't do. You wait a long time, and then you are called in - only to wait a long time again in a small exam room. You get the picture.

Some medical specialties are fortunate to be immediately busy without needing to provide excellent customer service. Reality check: optometry is not one of them.

Best wishes for continued success,

Read Past Tips Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Editor, Optometric Management Tip of the Week

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Send questions and comments to neil@gailmard.com.

Dr. Gailmard offers consulting services to eye care professionals through Prima Eye Group; information is available at www.primaeyegroup.com.
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