Judge Your Practice Through a Patient's Eyes
A new marketing tool gives you objective feedback on your
BY ROBERT A. GOODMAN, O.D.
Poor treatment of telephone inquiries can negate all the efforts -- and expenditures -- to attract and maintain patients. Mishandling even one call per day can lead to large losses in potential revenue. Along with the lost appointment, there is the ripple effect of lost patient referrals.
Optometrists are well aware of the need to provide consistent, quality service to their patients, yet today there is less time to train, monitor and update staff in delivering superior care. A tool from the retail industry, the "mystery shopper," could provide the answer.
The mystery shopper can help you improve your booking and optical departments by providing valuable objective feedback. While the program is labeled "mystery shopper," readers should understand that this refers to "mystery patients." The program doesn't advocate retail practices that would be considered inappropriate for eyecare professionals.
ILLUSTRATION BY CHRIS VAN ES
Some practices evaluate staff through use of return comment cards or recording incoming calls for review. Mystery shopping is another monitoring method that is used by retail, service and government agencies. More than 500 companies in the country offer the service with more than 200,000 independent contractors (or customer service evaluators as they are professionally known) nationwide.
Mystery shopping companies come in all areas of expertise. A potential vendor should be willing to explain how shops work. The best companies have a stable of experienced shoppers who share extensive demographic information with the company. This is important when assignments require specific characteristics such as age, gender or lifestyle.
What doctors need to know
Jason Rivera of JC and Associates,
L.L.C., a shopping and marketing company specializing in service groups, says that he feels healthcare practitioners need reports that:
- Deliver evaluations including responses to a series of "yes/no" questions divided by sections (i.e., telephone inquiries, appointment making and on-site evaluation).
- Show grades for each evaluation allowing for score comparisons by month, quarter and year. A practice with more than one office can compare by location as well.
- Include a comment portion for each section describing what was said and seen.
Focusing on phone manners
The doctor should have the opportunity to personalize the shop format. He can decide what is important to discover about his practice. In optometry and other healthcare offices, where making appointments by phone is the key to acquiring business, the telephone shop portion is usually given a high priority. Sample questions are:
- How many rings to answer the call?
- Does the responder identify the office and themselves?
- If the caller is placed on hold, is caller asked permission to do this and is time allowed for response?
- Is there use of "yeah," "ok" or like words?
- Can responder give accurate directions?
- Do they offer the Web site URL (where applicable)?
- Can the responder answer questions on services and fees in a method that an appointment will be an outcome?
- Was responder friendly, polite, interested and helpful?
- As a result of the call, would you make an appointment or visit the office?
Additionally, the shopper should be assigned a scenario to test how the staff answers important queries. Some sample scenarios for optometric offices include such questions as, "My daughter is 14 and wants contact lenses. How much will it cost?" "What about ad XYZ in the paper?" Or "I'm new to the area. How much are the exam and glasses?"
An actual appointment could be made and then cancelled, revealing how well the staff handles those duties.
Your office through new eyes
For the on-site portion of the shop, the prospective patient could "check out" the doctor or office, or in an optometric office, a shopper could appear with a prescription for a visit to the optical. This segment of the evaluation would start with the facility -- both inside and out. It can be extremely revealing to "see" your office through the eyes of your patients. Evaluation of the facilities could include such considerations as the comfort of the waiting room and the cleanliness in general including the rest-room, reception area and hallways.
The on-site section for optometry could be as involved as a complete vision analysis including greeting, pretest and doctor interaction to optical department. In my estimation, the best use of marketing money for most optometrists initially would be a "drop in" visit by the shopper to either investigate the office for a future visit or to have an outside prescription filled. Again the process would continue to include the greeting, the transitions to other staff members and how the optical staff handles its part. A vital aspect of this part would include the staff's presentation of options to the faux shopper.
Mr. Rivera adds that he gives his skilled shoppers a final segment called "overall comments," which is the shopper's impression of the interaction from start to finish. It could include:
- Are telephone calls handled in a manner that would turn calls into appointments?
- The impression patients have of the interior and exterior of the facility.
- Greeting -- is patient made to feel welcome? How about in the optical area?
- How much time is spent in the reception area?
- Are the correct questions being asked?
- Is information about the patient/consumer used?
- What options are the patients given?
- How are products and prices presented?
Some alternate methods of performing similar evaluations would be for managers of like offices, significantly distant, to visit each other's offices and go through a call and an on-site visit, then exchange results and make suggestions. Another technique used by a vision care group in New Jersey was to have members of a local service club visit their offices and report findings to the manager with compensation in the form of donation to the club. Potential issues with both methods would be the validity and consistency of the research conducted, as well as the ability to maintain anonymity.
Follow a plan
Combining my experience in managing a practice with my knowledge of mystery shopping I feel the following sequence of evaluations would produce the best results for most practices:
- Four to eight shops per location over the first two months
- Information gathering to determine the staff training needed to meet the standards required by the office/doctor
- Retraining of staff with explanation of mystery shopping (service evaluation) program that would follow
- Staff reward programs (mystery shop programs should not be used to terminate or negatively affect employees)
- Follow-up shops to monitor and fine tune training
- Continue shops at this level as ongoing patient satisfaction portion of marketing.
The cost for a plan like this can be remarkably economical. According to Mr. Rivera, the industry charges between $55 to $95 dollars per shop, depending on the shop's complexity.
Shopping for a shopper
When selecting a company to conduct your program, keep in mind that the report should contain summary narratives for each report section with an overall area for the shopper to express her impressions. Each section of the report is weighted either equally or using any method the client wants.
Also, numerical comparisons should continue month to month, quarter to quarter and year to year. Finally, completed reports should be available to the doctor within 48 hours. All this, along with guidance and help designing the shop details, should be included in the plan offered by the shop company.
I can say that as a shopper in a large metropolitan region performing shops in many service areas, I have seen over time vast improvements in the quality of service delivered. Staffs seem happier, as are the clients. Healthcare practices are slow to incorporate new marketing tools, but mystery shopping is worthy of your consideration.
At a cost of less than $2,000 per office each year, the doctor can observe his practice through the eyes and ears of his patients, harvesting the rewards of reducing the loss of appointments and sales and a reduction of complaint calls to a health plan administrator, which can help keep the doctor on the plan panel. The ultimate reward, though, is that the doctor can devote more of his time to patient care without major concern about staff activity.
Dr. Goodman is retired from private practice in Vestal, NY. You can contact him at (480) 502- 9749 or at
Optometric Management, Issue: March 2003