I often write and lecture on the power of customer service in building a successful optometric practice. If I had to pick one single factor (not really possible, but if I had to…) that is most responsible for building a fast-growing, highly-profitable practice, it would be customer service. Not surprising, really; we should acknowledge that this key success factor is the same for all businesses. As well-known as this strategy is, however, it is still elusive and maybe even more so in health care. Executing the customer service strategy is more difficult than it appears.
Here are some thoughts on how to deliver great customer service, but also when and how to draw the line with patients.
Tell patients in advance (even if they
Before we get into how to say no, try to prevent having to disappoint patients by telling them what they need to know in advance. Realize they may not know enough to ask, but if you find an issue that occurs repeatedly, consider training your staff to talk about it up front. This is especially true about fees. We work hard to always tell patients in advance if we are going to expect payment and how much it will be. It is not that hard to do.
For example, we remind contact lens patients over the phone, when they schedule their appointment, that our contact lens evaluation has an additional exam fee not covered by insurance and we tell them what the fee is. We know who this applies to because we look up them up in our software system while we are talking to them. Surprisingly, patients do not mind hearing the news about the fee at all. To the contrary, they appreciate knowing what to expect at their visit and we never have a confrontation at checkout about the contact lens fee.
Pick your battles
It may seem obvious, but try to say yes to patients if you can. Truly great companies give in to customers and let them have their way whenever possible. Surprise your staff and patients by being generous. This creates a positive office culture and inspires staff members to see things from the patient’s point of view. Office policies are just a way to say no and you don’t need them if you are going to say yes.
Say yes with a condition
Figure out what you really need in order to say yes and then respond to the patient by telling him that. For example, here is what we do if a patient asks to buy more contact lenses, but is several months late for an exam. We tell these patients we will be happy to give a free trial pair or sell a box of lenses for each eye as long they schedule an appointment for the exam right then. If patients show that intent, I want to help them out. I realize they can always cancel the appointment, but I'll eventually find that out and all they end up with is an extra box of contacts. If they won't schedule the visit, then we politely let them know that the Rx is expired and we can't sell them anymore. We treat it much the same as an expired drug Rx. We act as if the decision is out of our hands at that point.
Do not embarrass
If you have to say no, be slightly apologetic and take the blame yourself in order to save the patient from embarrassment. This tactic can be very difficult for many employees who have a hard time apologizing, which is increasingly common in society today. But empathy is extremely important in customer service and I think staff members (and doctors) should work on this skill.
For example, let’s say a patient just had his new glasses dispensed and is wearing them as he gets up to leave and the optician mentions there is a balance due. The patient replies that he did not bring his wallet, but he will send a check when he gets home. Here is what my staff might say: “I’m really sorry Mr. Smith. We may have forgotten to explain our payment policy when you placed your order, but all products must be paid when they are picked up. We accept all major credit cards if that helps, but I can’t dispense the glasses without payment. We will be happy to hold them for you until you can return. I’m so sorry for the inconvenience.”
Use “In order to…”
It is always helpful to give a reason or explanation when you have to decline a request. Here is a good phrase that helps: start the sentence by saying "In order to..." and fill in the rest with whatever is appropriate. You might finish by saying: "… safeguard your eye health" or "… be fair to other patients".
Your response will always work out well if you see the situation from the patient’s point of view and try to say yes.