Article Date: 10/1/2011

Don't Forget: Patients are Customers, Too
business insights

Don't Forget: Patients are Customers, Too

Your recommendations help guide patients to the best choices, while also improving your bottom line

Jennifer E. Davis, O.D.

I went to school to become a doctor, but quickly learned to embrace the added role of businessperson, which is essential if you own a practice. I've always believed that there's nothing wrong with making good money doing what you love to do—under one condition—that profits are reinvested into the practice (through the purchase of high-tech instruments and so on) with the sole purpose of giving better patient care. It's a win-win situation.

Perceiving value

As doctors, we typically think in terms of “patients,” not “customers customers.” But our patients make purchasing decisions in our offices all the time (spectacles, contact lenses, orthokeratology, and so on). Thus, generally speaking, patients are customers, and customers are consumers. It has been proven time and time again that consumers will pay for value and convenience. I'm referring to “value” as the perceived benefit (relative to the cost) as defined by the patient, not the optometrist. After all, there's no logical reason a person would pay for a more expensive option if he perceived no advantage. If price is the only thing that differentiates a product or service, customers will always choose the lesser price (and they should!). Bottom line: It is the customer's job to question the price. It is your job, as doctor, to establish value. If a patient doesn't jump at your recommendation, it's typically because he fails to see the value in it.

When a patient's lack of knowledge is coupled with a doctor's meek approach, a recipe for stationary thinking and stagnant business looms. Instead, hone your skills to ask the right questions, then carefully listen to your patient's needs and desires. A smart colleague once told me if you listen to your patients, they'll tell you what's wrong, and if you listen long enough, they'll also tell you how to fix it.

Make specific recommendations and don't be afraid to adopt new technology. Newer materials and sophisticated optics make it easier to see than ever. New instrumentation allows us to care for our patients better and manage them more efficiently.

Today, more than ever, we simply must do something that sets us apart (ie, adds value). Our practice follows a medical model and we are providers on many medical insurance panels. However, to align with our practice philosophy, we only accept vision plans as out-of-network providers. We enjoy offering the most comprehensive, most unhurried eye examination in our area, which we would be unable to do if we accepted the low reimbursement offered by vision plans. Although our prices are very competitive, our patient base has discovered that if they pay more out of pocket for our services, they'll get more in return. Patients looking for the quickest, cheapest option in eye care will not appreciate our office and we are OK with that. Our niche is to focus on quality, not quantity, and most patients typically have no problem paying a little more to receive a specialty product and personalized, friendly service.

Customer service

Times are changing. In today's era of corporate America, where computers replace people, and exhausting phone trees replace a live voice, consumers are fed up. It's crucial for all of us to reremember customer service basics.

Last year alone, the Better Business Bureau logged 1.1 million complaints against North American businesses, up 10% over 2009. Jack Abelson, retail industry consultant, attributes the decline in customer service in the U.S. today to corporate America's focus on cutting costs instead of increasing revenue.1 “There's almost a complete failure to recognize and appreciate the value people can bring to the equation,” says Abelson, who terms good customer service “a profit producer.”

Hire for qualities that can't be taught

Hire for personality attributes, work ethic, common sense, and so on. You can teach anyone to answer the phone or take a history, but the intangible traits (such as a friendly disposition and great organizational skills) make all the difference when it comes to customer service. I believe your staff is, without a doubt, your greatest asset.

It pays to say thank you

Far too often, businesses forget to say “thank you” to their customers. Data from Arizona State University's Center for Service Leadership (studies from 2003 to 2007) show that 70% of consumers want the company to thank them for their business.1 So simple and easy!

Frustrations run high

Based on a new nationwide survey conducted by Consumer Reports, almost 1,000 customers shared what they dislike most about today's brand of care.1 Clearly, frustration runs high among consumers. For example, 64% of respondents said that during the previous 12 months, they had left a business because service was poor, and 67% ended their customer service calls without having had their problems addressed. When an office error occurs involving a patient, resolve it quickly. Correcting the issue is expected, but turn lemons into lemonade by going one step further with an unexpected gesture (such as a gift card or other “make good”). This takes service from satisfactory to exceptional and leaves the patient with a great moment to remember, as well as a great story to share with friends.

Demographic differences

The survey also found women to be more annoyed by unapologetic employees and by the need to wade through automated phone-menu prompts to obtain help. Men were especially annoyed by representatives who pitched unrelated goods or services. Young consumers, ages 18 to 34, had the lowest tolerance for repair people who didn't show up on time. People age 50 and older were more annoyed than others by convoluted voicemessaging systems.

Consider having a human (preferably a friendly human), answer your office phones whenever possible. I once worked in a high-volume office where one employee's main responsibility was to answer the phone, direct the call appropriately, and handle appointment scheduling, recalls and reminders. She worked in a back room and answered every call by the second ring and with a big smile, which you could always “hear” on the other side of the phone. This set-up allows the friendly receptionist out front to greet patients promptly, make copies of insurance cards, ensure smooth operations of the office, and so on, all without phone interruptions.

Specifically, for eyeglass sellers, survey respondents rated independents/private doctors' offices best when it comes to fitting frames and selecting lenses, which they viewed as an important aspect of customer service. Optical is a big profit center for many offices and investing in a skilled optician oftens makes all the difference.

Experiencing value

Earlier, we discussed the importance of patients perceiving value. To expand upon that idea, experiencing value is a totally different thing. In fact, it is more often the difference between “I want” and “I need.” Think back to a “necessity” in your life that perhaps just a few years ago seemed like a luxury (for example, high-speed internet connection, cell phone, DVR, GPS, iPods, etc.). In most instances, experiencing these products, having an opportunity to try them out, changed these luxuries (“I want”) into necessities (“I need”).

To reiterate your desire for patients to have the latest and greatest technology, consider putting simple office procedures in place that allow them to experience new products and technology without financial risk. Doing so will build an immediate rapport with patients who will see you in a whole new light—as a doctor who is genuinely trying to help, not one who is just trying to sell them another product. Moreover, you're steadily building a patient base with loyal “customers” who return year after year, genuinely excited to try something new.

Here are some examples of steps we've taken in my practice:

► Existing spherical contact lens patients are charged a yearly fee, which is above and beyond that of a spectacle examination, even if there's no change to their contact lens prescription. But, at no extra charge, we also give them an opportunity to leave with a different pair of contact lenses to showcase some advantage (modality, vision, health) compared to what they're currently wearing. Patients are rechecked a week or two later (assuming they're pleased with the newer lenses), and understand they will incur an appropriate charge for that visit. We have an almost 85% success rate with this procedure. With the use of a contact lens technician, the return visit should take very little doctor time.

► Recently, we've begun selecting appropriate patient candidates to try a complimentary in-office pair of the soft multifocal contact lenses. Doctors will pull a pair of diagnostic lenses based upon today's accurate fitting guides for initial fit, using the most current spectacle correction and K readings.

Patients are first placed on the technician's schedule, so as not to interfere with chair time. At the technician appointment, if the patient seems enthusiastic and willing to return for a fine-tuning of the contact lens prescription, the diagnostic lenses are held and labeled for the patient's return appointment with the doctor. They're quoted at that time for the appropriate contact lens fitting/evaluation fee.

► We also offer a money-back guarantee on computer design progressive spectacle lenses. When selected for the right patient, we find that nine times out of ten, patients think this is the best purchase they've ever made.

If you simply talk (or preach) to your patient, it often goes in one ear and out the other. Showing patients a visual may help, but I think the most meaningful interaction happens when patients are able to experience your recommendation first-hand. More often than not, experiencing it makes all the difference.

Enthusiasm sells

Last, but certainly not least, the most important factor for business success is doctor motivation. Enthusiasm sells, so believing in your recommendations is absolutely imperative. Walt Kelly once said, “We've met the enemy and he is us.” And as the hockey great Wayne Gretzky once said, “You miss 100% of the shots you never take.” Don't be discouraged when a patient fails to jump at your recommendation. Practice makes perfect. So hone your approach and keep it real. As long as you're more successful than not, you've added value to the majority of your patients lives as well as your practice. OM

1. What's wrong with customer service? Consumer Reports; July 2011.

Dr. Davis has been in private practice for 10 years. She practices in Waynesboro, Va., and serves on the Board of Trustees for the Virginia Optometric Association. She was selected as Virginia's Young Optometrist of the Year in 2007. Dr. Davis is a visiting Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology at the University of Virginia, and a member of the speakers bureau for Ciba Vision and Alcon.

Optometric Management, Issue: October 2011