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 By Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO, Editor August 31, 2005 - Tip #189 
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Favorite Phrases for Patient Service

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I don't usually give my staff full scripts to use in various office situations, because I like them to use their own words. We do, however, work on the right response and I try to teach principles more than policies. I have found that a specific leading sentence can get my staff (and me) started on the right foot when responding to patient complaints. Here are a few phrases that I've found helpful. Discussing patient service and reviewing these phrases makes for an excellent agenda at a staff meeting.
  • "Oh, that's horrible." This is a great response phrase after hearing a complaint from a patient. It puts you in the right frame of mind; it clearly says you care about the problem and it should never have happened. It tells the patient that he won't have to go any further to convince you to take action. Now what can we do to fix the problem? Credit a great business book for this phrase: Customer Satisfaction is Worthless by Jeffrey Gitomer.
  • "What took you so long to tell me about this?" This is very effective when a patient brings up a complaint about something that occurred a long time ago - like months or even years. This question allows you to get that time factor out in the open and to imply that there is a fair responsibility on the consumer to voice complaints within a reasonable time period. It's an issue because warranties expire and lab polices for return are limited. Listen to the answer - it will often be enlightening and it can guide your response, which may be nothing at all, or propose a partial credit of some amount.
  • "What do you think would be fair?" We often want to let patients win and go with the customer-is-always-right philosophy, if we could just figure out what they wanted! In those situations, I like to just ask them - but if you try this approach then be prepared to give them what they ask for. Usually the patient is easier on you than you would have been.
  • "Hello, Mr. XX, I see you're about 15 minutes early (or late)" There is an art to checking patients in for appointments. It's best to acknowledge (without a negative attitude at all) if a patient is early or late at the moment you greet him or her. If you don't, the early patient who is called in for his visit 10 minutes after the appointed time feels like he was made to wait 25 minutes. And the late arriver will not understand that you had to take the next patient ahead of him and now it will take a while until you can work him in. By acknowledging the situation up front, you can indicate that you'll do all you can to accommodate the scheduling mishap.
  • "I want to make an exception in your case..." finish this sentence with an ending of your choice, such as "because we must not have informed you about our policy" or "because you have been such a good patient and we value your business". You are letting the patient win, but there is sometimes value in letting him know that you are treating him special, while educating him that your office won't be able to honor such a request again in the future.
  • "Thanks for your patience as we work on this. We want your glasses to be perfect and sometimes problems like this can't be foreseen in advance."
  • "In order to be fair to everyone..." While I'm a big advocate of always trying to say yes to patients and not worrying too much about drawing the line, there are times when you have to say no. This phrase is a great way to do that. Alternatives are: "In order to provide the excellent service we stand for..." or "In order to protect your eye health...".
  • "I'm sorry." Sadly, you don't hear those two words used much by optometric staff or doctors, yet a sincere apology is sometimes exactly what is needed. Consider your own feelings about when it's appropriate to say I'm sorry and how often you say it, and then talk about it with your staff. Too often staff members are worried about taking the blame for something if they say I'm sorry, but a practice culture that does not focus on blame fosters an environment of honesty and mutual support by co-workers. And doctors sometimes worry about the implied admission of making a mistake, but we're not talking about potential malpractice issues - just eyeglass issues. Admitting you made a mistake, and not passing the buck, is a humbling gesture that disarms what could become an angry confrontation. Even the disgruntled patient knows everyone makes mistakes - usually all he wants is acknowledgment of it.

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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