Regular readers of this column know that I believe customer service is the single biggest factor for increasing practice revenue production. Excellent customer service is the basis for all things that are good in a practice: patient loyalty, higher fee structure, more word-of-mouth referrals and reduced reliance on vision plans. Yet, as important as customer service is, most practices are just mediocre in this regard. I know my practice could be much better at customer service and I'm obsessed with it. I know how easy it is for great service to erode when your staff is faced with a busy day or they've brought some personal problems to work with them.
Here is a technique that I use to stay on track with customer service. I teach my staff to think this way all the time. It really just follows the Golden Rule that we all learned as children, but it turns out that rule fits quite well in business.
My practice motto
I have a motto that I use internally in my practice: “We look at everything we do from the patient's point of view.” As much as possible, I set policies and handle live situations with an effort to do things the way the patient would like. It's really pretty easy to determine what the patient would like when you think about it, but most practice owners and managers don't think about it. Most office policies and procedures are based on the wants and needs of the staff or the doctor; not the patient. In business, your wants and needs are secondary.
As an exercise in reviewing your customer service level, consider your office procedures from the patient's point of view. A great way to do this is to follow every step in a typical patient experience; from the first phone call to the actual office visit to financial transactions to picking up optical products. Be objective and be tough on yourself. Review this with your staff and ask their opinions. Focus especially on areas where patients have been known to complain occasionally.
Review the following policies and ask yourself what the patient would like in each instance.
What are your office hours ... especially evenings, Saturdays and those odd half days off? (Remember ... the patient's point of view).
What happens during lunch breaks?
How do you decide on billing a vision plan or medical insurance?
How often do you begin a patient's visit within five minutes of the appointment time?
How long is the history questionnaire and must it be completed at every comprehensive exam visit?
When are patients told about the contact lens evaluation fee... over the phone or when they are checking out?
If patients arrive at the office ten minutes before posted office hours, is the door locked?
I'm sure as you read the list above you have very good reasons for doing things the way you do them. Experience has shown me that there are always alternative methods that work just fine as well. Don't be stuck in your ways. Times change and we must be innovative and ask: how can we do it better? How would patients like us to handle it?
Patients are smarter than you think
As you review your policies, be wary of clever business strategies that you have implemented that may be more obvious than you think. Patients are very smart. Many own businesses themselves or work for companies in management positions. They can spot a business move a mile away. They will be too polite to embarrass you or your staff at the time, but they form impressions about your integrity and your motives.
I'll use an example to illustrate my point. An optometrist trains her staff to preappoint all patients at checkout and has provided scripts to assist with the process. A 35 year old male with excellent eye health is told that he should return in one year for re-examination. The receptionist says she has reserved a date and time for next year and she will contact the patient to confirm the appointment a couple weeks in advance. She prints an appointment card and gives it the man. The patient says he would rather not have an actual appointment and he will just call when he is ready to return. The staff member says the office uses this procedure in order to ensure there is space in the appointment calendar for our established patients (that's what the script says). The problem is that when the patient called for this appointment he was given a few choices within the next three days. And his wife called a few months ago and got an appointment the next day. The man decides to not argue the point, but he feels the office staff is dishonest and pushed him into an appointment for next year that he didn't want and probably didn't need. It's not likely that he will keep it.
What if you don't have time?
You simply have to make time for management if you want a successful, fast growth practice. I think it requires the practice owner in addition to a good office manager. The eye care professional/owner has a huge effect on the practice culture, so management and marketing cannot be completely delegated.
Most practices actually see accelerated growth when the ECP schedules more time for management. And that is the best way to correct the hundreds of little flaws that exist in every practice. Schedule time for it. Of course, no practice is ever perfect, but we must keep trying to reach perfection. You may naturally be concerned about reduced productivity if you take a day or two for management. In my experience, most practices are extremely inefficient and if you began a new plan to delegate more and speed up the exam process (without sacrificing quality or stressing out the staff) you could compress all the patients you currently see in five days into three or four days.
If you have unmet patient demand of more than a week or two, hire an associate optometrist to see some of the patients so you can work on management!
One of my favorite quotes is by Zig Ziglar and it sums up this philosophy very well: “You can get anything you want in life if you just help enough other people get what they want.”