The last three tip articles focused on building patient demand and I’ll finish that trend with this piece on customer service. I’m sure all optometrists know that customer service is important for practice growth, but in my consulting experience, there are obvious lapses in putting that into effect. And many ODs and their staffs may not fully understand just how powerful customer service is as a tool for increasing patient volume. In my opinion, customer service is the most effective tool there is.
The biggest problem facing optometry today
Let’s put the importance of customer service in perspective by realizing that lack of patient demand is the biggest problem facing optometry today. As you consider all the challenges facing our profession (and there are many), understand that they all go away if you have enough people calling your office for eye care. Although rare, some practices have the wonderful problem of “too many patients”. That is a problem that is fairly easy to manage and capitalize on. Let’s look at how those practices got that way.
Optometrists who own independent private practices generally agree that word-of-mouth referral is the largest source of new patients. Even though marketing trends are changing rapidly, ODs still do not do a lot of traditional advertising. Happy, loyal patients telling their friends, family members and co-workers about how much they love your practice has always been extremely powerful. This still happens in live conversations, but it also occurs on social media. It is all considered word-of-mouth. Even patients who say they found you on an insurance provider website may have been aided by word-of-mouth. They may look up doctors in their zip code area, but when they see the list of names, they remember a friend who said she went to your office.
All practices obtain some word-of-mouth referrals from happy patients, but some practices receive a huge amount. Why is that? Of course, the size of the patient base is a factor, but the beauty of word-of-mouth is that it grows exponentially. A core of happy patients recommends you to others and then they recommend you to others, and so on.
Word-of-mouth referral occurs when patients are beyond satisfied with your services. We must set a higher goal than merely satisfied. We must reach for enthusiastic. We achieve that through the patient experience.
What is great customer service?
We may all think we know great customer service when we see it, but let’s break it down to the real world of optometric practice. The doctor and staff must be really great in all of the following areas:
The facility. Much of the patient experience is based on factors that have nothing to do with eye care. The appearance of the physical office affects the perception of everything else. This includes the décor, the interior design factors, colors, flooring, furniture, countertops and more. Unnecessary, but thoughtful touches aimed at patient comfort are a factor. Smells and noises are a factor. The exterior of the building, parking and landscaping are factors. The appearance of the clinical equipment and the optical dispensary play a big role. Even the clothing or uniforms worn by staff influence the perception. At the very least, the entire office must be impeccably clean, even the bathrooms.
The interpersonal factors. This is really just being nice to people. It includes good manners and being attentive and thoughtful. Smiling has a huge effect. Using a patient’s name (even though you don’t have to) builds relationships.
Convenience. You might not think of convenience when it comes to customer service issues, but you should. Making wait times minimal, reducing the paperwork for patients, easy parking and accepting most insurance plans are examples. Being open some evenings and Saturdays and telling people with an urgent need to come right over are also factors.
Easy to do business with. This is related to convenience, but I’d use examples like quick check-in and check-out and fast delivery times on glasses and contact lenses. Explaining policies and quoting fees in advance are other ways to earn points in the patient experience.
The professional services and products. This may seem obvious, but the patient must think the eye exam was performed well and any optical products purchased must meet or exceed expectations for visual function, comfort and cosmetic appearance.
Service recovery. How well does your office handle matters when something goes wrong? It’s easy to provide great service when the patient loves you and cooperates, but how do you handle the unreasonable person? This takes a deeper understanding about the big picture of customer service as a business development tool, but ODs who get this and inspire their staff to get it are usually the recipients of lots of word-of-mouth. Big picture, long term profitability is worth far more than the minor cost of letting the patient win. Don’t let your ego get in the way of your business goals. In my practice, we have office policies that work 95% of the time but we make exceptions to those policies whenever someone is unhappy.
Best wishes for continued success,
Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Editor, Optometric Management Tip of the Week
Dr. Gailmard's new book, Practice Management in Optometry: A Blueprint for Success Based on the Optometric Management Tip of the Week, is now available on Amazon.