The single biggest factor in driving more patients to your office is customer service. Great customer service stimulates word of mouth referrals and that is how independent practices are built. Yet, customer service in most small businesses and in most health care offices is mediocre at best. I think eye care practitioners in general fail to realize the direct connection between outstanding customer service and profit. Most ECPs think they are pretty good at customer service, but they spend 90% of their time in the exam room so they really don't know.
Review your office policies
The definition of marketing is identifying and satisfying customers' wants and needs. Yet many policies in eye care practices are designed to satisfy the doctor's wants and needs. Or the staff's wants and needs. Let's take a look at a few hypothetical situations and ask yourself if the policy is based on the patient's wants and needs – or the ECP's? See if any of these situations exist in your practice.
The office closes at noon on Friday and reopens on Monday morning. This works great for the doctor and staff. Not so great for patients who love Saturday hours. Oh well, there are plenty of other eye care offices that are open during the convenient hours. I've heard the argument from offices that are closed on Saturdays that they just had too many no shows, but I see the thousands of dollars that are generated from 9am to 1pm on a single Saturday and I see that these appointments are booked weeks in advance.
The office closes at lunchtime. Great for the staff isn't it?
Patients who drop in to pick up glasses or have an adjustment may have to wait more than 15 minutes before they are served. This way the office only needs one optician.
Patients must fill out long history forms at every visit. This helps the staff not have to ask as many questions and it helps the billing department in case the visit may be billed at a higher CPT code (even though that hardly ever occurs).
The waiting area and the optical are very small. This helps keep the rent low. Is a small office a customer service issue?
Many phone calls go to voice mail. This allows the office to reduce costs with fewer phone lines and it prevents interruptions when the staff is busy.
Tell patients who miss an appointment that they will be charged a no-show fee if it happens again or that they will be double-booked. This makes people realize they are lucky to get an appointment. The practice is better of without this type of customer so if they go elsewhere, so be it.
Patients often walk in and find no one at the front desk. The staff is busy; they have to be in many places in the office.
So what's wrong with having it your way?
Nothing, as long as you have all the patients you could ever want. And truly, that is why some businesses have such horrible customer service. Primary care physicians are often so busy that they can set their policies to be anyway that suits the doctor and staff and they will never have a shortage of patients. Unfortunately, optometry is not like that. We need more patients and our approach must be very consumer friendly.
My local cable television company is another example of a business that has plenty of customers, so they do things their way. With very few local options for television service, the cable company is thriving in spite of poor service. The cable boxes work poorly and there is a line out the door at the local office to exchange them. After you wait about an hour, the employees are very rude. But businesses like this are vulnerable because the marketplace is always changing. With satellite, fiber optic and internet-based television options on the way, those cable customers are ripe for the picking.
Some policies are hard to change
I realize that it is not easy to overcome some of the examples listed above. Many of them will create additional expense, such as more staff, and that can seem impossible. That's fine as long as the practice owner and manager know it is a shortcoming and there is a desire to improve. I opened my practice cold and I know very well that you can't do everything at once. But think of the practice as a business – not as an extension of you. Realize that the business must be convenient and a pleasure to work with for the customer. Try to build a system that does not depend totally on the practice owner. Visualize a time when you can hire an associate OD and more staff, and try to make that happen. Look at new, larger office space before your lease is up for renewal. Don't wait for things to happen to your practice; make things happen.
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.