Several years ago, a colleague and I were presenting market research to a large audience of employed physicians and administrators. A few minutes into the presentation, a physician in the middle of the hotel ballroom raised his hand and said, rather adamantly, “Don’t call my patients customers! They are not customers, they are patients!”
His comment provided a wonderful opportunity to discuss the importance of customers and what that term means in a practice setting.
So, who really is our customer?
While we talk about patient care and caring, it is essential to recognize that not every person walking through our practice door is a patient. Not every person who calls us on the phone is a patient. And, very often, not everyone in the exam room is a patient. However, if we do not take care of the people who enter our practice, and if we do not take care of the people who call us on the phone or enter our exam room, we will predictably see fewer and fewer patients.
When a person interacts with our front desk staff, that person will compare the interaction with other recent experiences: the bank teller they spoke with before coming to our office, the salesperson at the local mall, or the cashier at the supermarket. We must understand, and teach everyone in our practice, that we are always “on stage.” Our interactions with everyone (including co-workers!) matter.
Serving Mrs. Smith
Often, the initial contact our clinics have is with the primary caregiver: a patient’s spouse, parent, or adult child. In fact, up to 80% of the time, the primary caregiver and healthcare decision maker is the female head of household—a figure we often refer to as “Mrs. Smith.” Serving Mrs. Smith’s needs, wants, and priorities (or NWPs) is the most effective method for growing and maintaining a successful practice. Mrs. Smith expects both good care and good caring.
Practices, clinics, and organizations that succeed in meeting Mrs. Smith’s NWPs may not have many things in common, but what they do have in common is the essence of good, quality care. These providers and practice managers:
• Recognize the importance of caring for everyone who interacts with their practice;
• Focus the entire staff on the many aspects of customer service; and
• Act as positive and effective examples for the staff.
Becoming the Provider of Choice
Even with the additional emphasis on quality care and patient satisfaction scores, some organizations continue to struggle with providing quality customer service. Harried staff, intrusive exam-room technology, and seemingly endless phone calls all contribute to this struggle, but in order to meet and exceed customer expectations, physicians and staff must learn to navigate these challenges while still providing effective medical and customer care.
Identifying customer service opportunities is a vital part of successfully managing any organization. Ideas for improving our services come from many sources; often the best ideas come from employees. Patients and caregivers are more likely to express their opinions to staff rather than the physician. A wise practice manager will regularly poll staff members for problems or for opportunities to meet the needs, wants, and priorities of their customers.
Other ideas for improving our practices come from patient surveys and referring practice surveys. An observant manager will also find ideas from other businesses in the community that can be applied to medical practices.
Identifying Opportunities for Customer Care
We have developed two tools to help medical practices and physician networks identify “best practice” customer care opportunities. These self-evaluations are important tools for improving customer service.
The first tool is the Primary Care Provider of Choice Evaluation, which focuses on actions, policies, and processes that you can adopt to improve customer satisfaction.
The second is the Specialist of Choice Evaluation. Specialty practices—that is, practices that rely mainly on referrals from other physicians—must be especially aware that they have an additional customer to satisfy. In order to continue receiving referrals, specialty practices must adequately meet the needs, wants, and priorities of referring providers. The Specialist of Choice Evaluation will help you determine where your practice’s strengths lie and where you may be falling short when it comes to meeting those NWPs.
We recommend that you administer these evaluations at least quarterly and that, as a group, you set two or three 90-day goals based on deficits noted in the evaluation. Focusing on a few items each quarter can provide a systematic and steady emphasis that helps remind everyone in the organization that customer care and caring matters.
Ultimately, the most successfully managed practices will always be motivated to look for ways to provide exceptional care and caring. Poorly managed practices motivate their customers to seek care elsewhere.
Click here to access the printable Primary Care Provider of Choice Evaluation and Specialist of Choice Evaluation: