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Customer service for building your practice

By Mary A. Shaub, MHS

Building a reliable patient foundation is essential for the financial success of your practice. By developing a network of satisfied customers, the physician practice has a mechanism to insure itself of a competitive advantage to retain existing patients and attract new ones. The successful office practice understands each of its customers’ needs and makes each of them feel important and valued. This article will discuss the three phases involved in building your practice through quality customer service: developing your customer network, maintaining quality customer service and evaluating your practice’s effectiveness at customer relations.

The first step towards quality customer service is to identify your customers. An immediate response may be that the only customer is the patient; however, your customers are any individual or agency with whom you or your staff interacts. There are four types of customers: patients, staff, trusted community members including those working in the health care setting, and the community at large. Remember, patient referrals will come from a variety of customers, including your office staff.

According to Michael Cafferky, author of Patients Build Your Practice: Word of Mouth Marketing for Healthcare Practitioners, a patient is most likely to tell other people about your practice within 14 days of a visit. Patients’ perceptions and opinions of your practice will depend upon three factors: Can they trust you? Are you good at what you say you will do? Will you care about me? The answer to these questions establishes a quality customer-oriented relationship with every patient from the first telephone contact through each continued visit. This rapport will determine if existing patients will refer friends and associates.

Satisfied office staff will portray to all internal and external customers that your practice’s philosophy is to promote quality service to all, including the employees. Your staff’s nonverbal communication is as important as their verbal communication, including the office stories that are told. Employees, who are involved in process decisions as valued customers, will demonstrate positive actions and behaviors that will communicate the excellent service being delivered. Complimenting staff and focusing on positive behaviors engenders a desire to continually improve. Satisfied employees will refer friends and associates to your practice.

Trusted community leaders such as local clergy, realtors, pharmacists, medical equipment suppliers and police offices have a large sphere of influence. It is imperative that your staff understands the importance of their communication with all external customers. Establishing positive relationships with community leaders insures that a positive image of your practice is communicated by these trusted leaders to all their contacts.

The community at large is influenced by your involvement and your marketing approaches to the public. An Agency for Health Care Policy and Research study found that three out of four respondents would prefer a surgeon they were acquainted with to an unfamiliar one with a higher rating of some kind. Name recognition can be achieved by such activities as writing articles for a local paper or volunteering with a community group.

At this point, you have identified your customers, going from the micro to the macro level. Once your customer referral network is identified, it is now important to maintain the patient base created through their referrals.

When a patient feels that your practice embraces the philosophy that his or her needs and anxieties are the priority in the service delivery process at each visit, a solid relationship is established. Dr. Alex Munthe reveals that the secret to medical success is “To inspire confidence. The doctor who possesses this gift can practically raise the dead.” Inspiring patient confidence encompasses more than the medical service rendered. It involves the total experience of the patient visit.

To understand the patient experience, examine the customer service messages that your practice sends to patients from the initial telephone contact, to the waiting room experience, through the visit. Perform a quarterly practice check-up using the questions listed below to identify whether your practice encourages or discourages quality customer service.

How is the office staff answering the telephone? Are they friendly, courteous and helpful? When the “staff only” and “back desk” telephone line rings at the same time, which is answered first? If your office has an automated telephone system, is it addressing patient needs adequately?

Are the patients referred to in a derogatory manner, even in jest? Are they waiting on staff to finish telling a story before being helped? Is the staff able to knowledgeably answer questions?

Is your waiting area customer service friendly? Are there age appropriate activities to make long wait times pass quickly?

Are your forms, brochures and education materials legible and written for easy comprehension? Do they address all patient issues?

Do patients receive bills for testing before test results are discussed with them?

Essential to the continuance of quality customer service is the evaluation of the satisfaction level each of your customers has with your practice. In the 1950s, the Japanese asked W. Edwards Deming, an American statistician and management theorist, to improve their war torn economy. By implementing his concepts of total quality management (TQM), Japan experienced dramatic economic growth. In the 1980s, the United States rediscovered TQM to improve their world market share. Incorporating some of TQM’s key components such as employee involvement and training, problem-solving teams and statistical analysis of customer service satisfaction surveys will distinguish your practice as a leader in customer service.

Since employees are office ambassadors to internal and external customers, providing staff with educational opportunities insures patients and external customers that your practice endorses a high degree of professionalism. Knowledgeable staff expand your practice resources in developing effective office processes. They are instrumental in resolving practice problems and in obtaining accurate customer service information from all internal and external customers.

Effective customer service satisfaction surveys are an indispensable tool to your practice’s patient-focused processes. Design customer satisfaction surveys that are concise yet capture the essential practice information such as access, communication, facilities and feedback on doctor and staff performance. Use a five-point scale versus a yes-no response to improve reliability of the results. Use a large type font to insure legibility. Ask for outstanding staff achievements. Use postage paid return post cards made of white or pale paper with dark ink.

Determine what customers are satisfied with or dissatisfied with in your practice by analyzing survey results. The statistical analysis can be as simple as determining an average, or as complex as a linear regression. Whatever approach, the results can be used to develop office practices that continually improve customer service as well as create management reports to evaluate patient census, customer needs and practice trends.

The successful office practice achieves a balance of consistency and flexibility in which all customers have the predictability and comfort of knowing that their individual preferences will be identified and considered. Maintaining a high quality of customer service will provide your practice with the standard of excellence needed to build and maintain a successful practice in a dynamic environment.

Mary A. Shaub, MHS is president of Shaub Medical Consulting in Philadelphia.

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