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Customer service – a paradigm shift

12 February 2019 | Gary Smith, Past National President and NSW State President, Australian Association of Practice Management and Academic Director, UNE Partnerships

In a busy practice, keeping your patients happy and loyal can sometimes be a challenge, but a strong commitment to customer service can make all the difference.  

The concept of customer service in healthcare is not new. As early as the 1960s, The Healthcare Customer Service Revolution:the growing impact of managed care on patient satisfaction1, documented thousands of patients’ surveys across the US and found increasing levels of patient dissatisfaction with the service provided by the health system. So, while recognition of the issue of customer service is widespread, the key is to translate this into action in your practice.

What is good customer service?

The first step in the process is to look at what customer service is, why we use the term ‘customers’ and then to identify who the customers are.

No two people or businesses define customer service in exactly the same way, but there are some common elements:

  • It is characterised by the customers’ perception of the service you provide.
  • It is vital for every business and may increase business profitability and success.
  • It should create a positive first impression.
  • It should reflect the image of your practice.

Quality customer service embraces a range of factors that may influence the customers’ perception of the interaction with your practice. Overton2 (2002, p3) lists a number of aspects that create a good customer service experience:

  • reliability
  • personal responsiveness
  • competence
  • access
  • courtesy
  • communication
  • credibility
  • security
  • understanding
  • tangibles
  • focus
  • quality.

Your ‘customers’

Customers are people or businesses who interact with your practice in a particular way.

It is important that the team recognises customers are not only defined as patients and may come from within your practice or outside your practice. While your practice provides a service to a specific cohort of customers known as patients, it also provides services to other groups of people such as referrers, pathology personnel, x-ray, pharmaceutical and waste disposal companies, suppliers, specialists and allied health professionals etc.

Customers can also be divided into internal and external groups. Your external customers may include patients, family and friends, third party payers, contractors that help you run your business and other healthcare professionals. Each of these customer groups has different expectations and needs. Your internal customers are your support staff – everyone from the practice manager to the newest casual employee. It is critical in good leadership for your practice to fully support the ‘internal customer’ as they will increase productivity and efficiency.

Organisational culture plays a key role in the delivery of service to all your customers, internal and external. This concept enshrines a set of underlying expectations and values which provide a framework to guide the way members of an organisation act, or as the saying goes, “it’s the way we do things around here.” There are a number of ways you can improve organisational culture in your practice. Some of the key components are:

  • Ensuring there is effective communication.
  • Ensuring you listen to your employees.
  • Being open and transparent.
  • Making sure all staff are involved in the decision-making process.
  • Being conscious that leadership begins at the top.

Customer service standards

Many practices have defined customer service standards and train their team in line with these expectations. Customer service standards are commonly determined by the practices’:

  1. customer needs and expectations
  2. resources and ability to deliver
  3. desired business outcomes, for example, return of investment etc.

Customer service standards are integral to a practice’s success.They are characterised as levels of customer service that exceed expectations – embodying the notion of always going one step further. Customer service standards are set as policy and procedures within the practice. They also communicate a level of managerial commitment to the whole process of customer service. For example, you may have a customer service standard for answering the telephone or making post-operative phone calls to patients, or simply the way you greet someone.

Understanding your customers, their needs and expectations, should help your practice to identify  ways to improve customer perception and instil an organisational culture to exceed patients’ expectations. Remember, customers are an investment – so maximise your return. The important elements are:

  • understand the role of verbal and non-verbal communication
  • learn the difference between positive and negative language
  • never pass judgement
  • Identify special needs of patients

Provide internal customers (staff) with good task instructions, tools and resources to do their job and for external customers set standards for the service you deliver.

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Find out how PracticeHub, an integrated online practice management program, can streamline your business’s operations. Guide your practice staff and operations with customisable, best practice policies and procedures, including customer service checklists. Book a free demo today.

Zimmerman et al (1996). The healthcare customer service revolution: The growing impact of managed care on patient satisfaction. Chicago, Irwin Professional.

Overton R. (2002). Customer Service Delivering service to your customers. Martin Management, Sydney Australia.

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