Customer Driven Quality Systems/Processes/Improvement

Taking a short break from our “Who Gave You That Idea” series to tackle a topic dear to my heart – customer service. In particular, customer service in the healthcare setting. Now, if you aren’t in healthcare, don’t shy away from this post. I intend there to be customer-related takeaways for you. But if healthcare is your forum, then this was written with you in mind.

Three questions for today’s post: What is customer service? How do you know if the customer service you are providing is “good”? And who exactly is your customer? On the surface these seem to be simple questions, with equally simple answers. Customer service is how I serve the customer, and it is good when the customer is happy. My customer is the person buying my good or service. Simple questions, simple answers, end of story.

Years of managing a health care system in a small town that saw many of my wife’s extended family as patients, changed my perspective on these questions. I would often ask, “how did it go at the hospital today?” Often the answer would be “I don’t know”.

So I began to dig a little deeper into these questions, because clearly the result we were producing wasn’t getting it.

Question 1: What is customer service?

The prevailing attitude on customer service has frequently been along the lines of “smile training” or attitude adjustment. Friendly voices, smiling faces were the ticket. Some phone-based customer service agents were even given mirrors to look into as they talked on the phone to remind them to smile.

But as the world grows smaller, technology continues to mushroom and competition intensifies, customer service must evolve as well. What is considered true customer service is defined not by those providing the service, but by the customer. What is the real product and/or experience the customer is looking for? I use the example in our client sessions of a rental car company. Their product is not a rental car, but rather affordable, reliable and convenient transportation when their customer is away from home.

patient and caregiver=

In health care, the product for your ultimate customer, the patient, is three-pronged. Your patient has his product when:

  • He understands what ails him, his diagnosis.
  • He understands the treatment given him with its expected impact/effects.
  • And finally, he knows what to do when he gets back home to treat his illness or prevent a similar situation from happening again.

Smiling won’t get you there. Quality patient care as well as thorough communication in understandable terms is critical to customer service in health care. Which brings us to question 2.

Question 2: How do I know if my customer service is “good”?

Health care providers are often guilty of thinking that what they do for a customer is the product instead of what the customer actually takes away. And therefore, if the health care provider completes his or her job very well, the patient is getting good customer service. It is true that the patient will be getting good health care, but not necessarily good customer service.

For example, from a lab technician’s perspective one of their “products” is drawing blood, and if they can do that as efficiently and painlessly as possible, they are providing good customer service. But this is not the product from the customer or patient’s point of view, and therefore is not their definition of good customer service.
Scientist Working on a Experiment in a Laboratory
The product from the customer’s point of view is “identification of what is wrong in my system so that I can be treated and get well”. Yes, a customer certainly cares how the blood is drawn, and hopes for efficient and painless. And for a lab technician or any medical service provider, striving to do the mechanics of their job well is very important, particularly in health care. But ultimately the real product the customer wants is an answer, a solution that will make them well and keep them well.

You may likely be thinking, “But a lab technician drawing blood cannot provide that answer to the patient, so that can’t be their product.” True. But the lab technician can say: “Mrs. Smith, I am drawing blood today so that test ‘x’ can be run. The results of the test will give your doctor information about what is causing your symptoms, and the doctor will be able to discuss the results with you.” Ultimately the customer is looking for answers, not tests, even if the tests are done impeccably well. Good customer service in health care revolves around communication equally as much as around the care given.

Question 3: Who exactly is my customer?

Our example with the lab technician and patient provides a perfect opportunity to answer the third of our initial questions. Who is the customer? In health care there is one obvious, ultimate customer: the patient. But alongside the patient is a string of customers who must not be forgotten if quality patient care is to be attained. First, the lab technician himself is a customer. Of who? The ordering physician. Then the role is reversed when the lab technician runs the test and provides the results back to the physician.

Flowchart out any system and you will see a line of supplier-customer relationships. From the moment the patient schedules an appointment through the moment when the patient leaves the facility, there are continuous hand-offs of paperwork, tests, information, etc. from one staff member to the next. Essential to the experience of your ultimate customer, the patient, is success at each of the supplier to customer hand-offs. Have you identified who each of your customers are, as well as their needed products from you? Quality customer service for your patient is easiest to attain when quality customer service is provided to the line of internal customers throughout the process.

How to put it all together

So how does all this fit together, and how can your facility improve its customer service? First, ask the questions that let you know how you are doing now. Getting baseline data on what your customers perceive as the quality of your current customer service is critical to being able to assess the success of any changes you make. Station an employee where your patients are discharged who can ask:

  • Do you understand your diagnosis?
  • Do you understand the treatment given today?
  • Do you understand what is next, i.e., what you must do to get better and stay better once you are back home?

Also important is to flowchart your processes. From the first point of scheduling or admissions through to discharge, what are the steps that move a patient through your system? Once flowed, you can begin to pick out problems and fix them. Keep talking to your customers, and not just the patients, but the internal customers along the system. Until each customer, both internal and external, is getting the product he or she needs to move forward, the system is not operating at its full potential.

Finally, help your staff implement good customer service by defining their jobs in two ways: first, define the tangible products they produce (lab tests, transcribed doctor’s notes, etc) and second define those products in terms of the needs and wants of their customer that each product satisfies. In other words, define both the what, or products, of a job, as well as the “why”.

Does it work?

Improving your processes to deliver high quality customer service is not difficult, but it does take concerted effort and a willingness to view your delivery system through the customer’s eyes. The effort provides high returns, though, in customer and employee satisfaction, positive impacts to the bottom line and increasing opportunities for your facility.

Questions or comments? I invite you to call (877) 276-4414 or e-mail us..

Bill Dann