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 By Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO, Editor March 25, 2009 - Tip #372 
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Cancel the Glasses!

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I've had three questions this week about how to handle requests by patients to cancel an eyeglass order. It's really a great question because it gets right to the heart of your practice marketing strategy. Here is an email from a reader to get us started:

I thought I might ask what your policy is or recommendations are for patients who place an order and then decide to cancel in the next day or two after everything has been processed/ordered. Obviously, this is an expense to the practice in time and effort. Thanks for your thoughts.

Here is how I handle it

First, we check with the lab and see if the job can still be cancelled or not. The lab could be my own in-office lab or an outside wholesale lab; it makes no difference. Whatever the answer, we tell the lab we may have to cancel and to hold the job until we call them back. We then call the patient back and tell them the true status. If we can cancel with no cost we say so, but at that point, we ask why they want to cancel. We try to work with the patient to help them get what they want, but we do not make a deal for a lower price in order to keep the order. Doing that would compromise our integrity. But, we could move to a lower priced frame or change the lens design. Ultimately, we do what the patient wants and if that is to cancel, we do it.

If the job is done, we tell the patient that and ask why they want to cancel. Then we listen. The resolution depends on the circumstances, but if the patient stands firm and does not want the glasses and does not wish to change the order, we will still agree to the cancellation. We require at least 50% down at the time of the order and that amount would be refunded. We would most likely incur the full lab cost on the glasses, but we tell the lab and try to get any credit they may offer. The job may not be finalized and we certainly stop any remaining work. The frame is returned to us; we reglaze it and put it back on display.

The reason I like this question is because it is an excellent test of your customer service policies. Many practices may fight to prevent the loss of the sale. My practice has been successful because we let the patient win. Here is how I see it:

  • We allow refunds on glasses if a patient is very unhappy. Of course, we work with patients to try to find another solution to a complaint, and we're successful about 99% of the time. But if a refund is all that the patient wants, we give it. Knowing this, how could I not allow a cancellation when all the patient would have to do is pick up the glasses and then bring them back a week later and demand a refund?
  • Providing legendary customer service like this has a powerful effect on my relationship with the patient. All patients are different, but I like to take the high road. Many of these patients become strong ambassadors for my practice. Many of them return to buy more services and goods in the future. They clearly realize how easy we are to do business with and they love us for it. I would disagree with the sentiment that we don't want this kind of patient. Most of these patients are perfectly normal.
  • This generous move is also good for my organizational culture. It shows my staff how strongly I feel about patient satisfaction. It speaks loudly about how I want them to handle problem cases.
  • The frequency of cancellations (or refunds) is generally very rare. See the big picture and the look at the cost based on your annual gross revenue.
  • Consider your response to this issue and how it relates to your practice philosophy. Many practice owners have never really thought about their philosophy, but you should have a vision for the practice.
  • Part of our "let the patient" win approach is to not badger the patient about staying with the practice for glasses. If the cancellation was due to buyer's remorse and he wants to go to a lower priced vendor, we let him go. He knows all about our optical by now. We want to preserve the long term relationship for professional services and we stand a good chance of winning back the optical business next time, if we don't blow it now.

Is my response too generous?

Some practices may not be quite as accommodating as mine, but many business experts will make the case that satisfaction guarantees are usually profitable in the long run. We find eye care practices at the high end and low end of fee structures that do this, although some may be more understanding about it than others.

The generous and friendly response in my practice is easier to live with because we have higher fee schedules and profit margins than most. It's why I believe a high fee practice can truly offer better customer service than a middle of the road practice. A side benefit is that patient friendly policies make my practice a nice place to work with very little stress. It fosters good attitudes and lower turnover among employees.

How long do you stay nice?

So what if the situation is very unreasonable? Let's say the patient is very rude and very loud at the front desk and wants a refund on a pair of glasses that you made for him two years ago. I can't give a blanket answer specifically, but here is what I do (it could be me or my office manager or another staff member). I would first ask the person to calm down and I'd assure him that we want to help. I would ask the patient to follow me to a more private place in the office and I would listen to the complaint. The next part is key and I don't know why most eye care personnel don't ask it, but I look the patient in the eye and I say "why didn't you tell me about this sooner?" That question makes everything clearer and you'll know what to do. It reminds the patient that a reasonable person would have voiced the complaint sooner, but you may be surprised to hear a reason that will make you sympathize (a little). Getting this issue out in the open may also make the patient more amenable to a fair resolution. A new eye exam may now be needed. Perhaps a discount on a new pair of glasses is fair. A great tactic is to tell the patient you're sorry for the problem and ask what he thinks would be fair at this point. And then be prepared to do it.

In the end, if the patient still felt that the problem with the glasses was present from day one and he wants a refund, I would grant it. That cost is much less than the ill will, bad word of mouth, negative report (to a state board, business agency or insurance plan) and a possible lawsuit.

It reminds me of a story that made the rounds in business schools to make a point about how far a great company will go with customer service. A man returned a set of automobile tires to a Nordstrom's Department store after a couple of years of use, saying he was not satisfied. The store manager refunded the purchase price - and Nordstrom's doesn't even sell tires! Google it for the full (and more accurate) story.

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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