Customer service can make or break a practice

Patients who receive friendly, competent information are more likely to trust their clinicians, and customer service begins with the management and the physicians setting an expectation for professional behavior among all staff and clinicians.

First impressions matter. Patients who receive friendly, competent information beginning with the first human contact with your practice are more likely to trust the clinicians as well. As a patient myself, as a parent of teens with different chronic conditions, and as a practice administrator of many years, I have seen a lot of medical offices. Some have been fantastic, and some have not. Practices with the most professional and empathic front desk and clinical staff affect (and reflect) the overall quality of care provided.

I can remember a couple of practices that had grumpy phone and front desk staff. It made me wonder why. Was it that the physicians in charge didn't know, didn't care, or didn't set expectations for good customer service? Or was it that the physicians in charge themselves didn't provide good customer service? From my time working in the marketing department of an academic medical center, I learned that it is the people on the front lines who make the most difference in whether patients perceive that they received good care. Yes, physicians who communicate and relate well to patients—and parking availability—matter a lot, but the statistical analysis consistently revealed that it was the staff who had the most influence on the patients' overall perceptions of their care.

This is not to minimize the importance of the clinician providing top-quality, evidence-based, patient-centered care. I have put up with grumpy staff for a great physician. But why not have great, friendly, competent staff working for you? Think about how much more satisfied your patients would be and therefore how that might affect outcomes.

The Medical Group Management Association recently conducted a poll asking what type of training was most needed by staff. The results revealed that customer service training was the winner by far, with 47%, compared to revenue cycle management (20%), government regulations (13%), leadership development (12%), and other (8%). So how does a practice provide customer service training?

Customer service begins at the top, with the management and the physicians setting an expectation for professional behavior among all staff and clinicians. This should be included in job descriptions, new employee orientation, and performance evaluations. Ongoing training can be provided periodically by an outside professional or through in-house sessions.

One way to do this is to have a quarterly or semiannual customer service lunch. Seasoned staff could develop brief skits using their experiences of how to handle various situations, both routine and tricky, such as angry patients, rescheduled appointments, and uncomfortable billing questions.

Other simple tips to offer staff include to make eye contact, practice active listening, use the patient's preferred name (and pronounce it correctly), be aware of body language, and answer the phone politely and consistently. The adage that the customer is always right may or may not apply in medical practices, but if patients perceive that everyone at the practice cares for them, then that is good customer service.

When patients have positive encounters with your staff, they will be more likely to be in a good frame of mind when you see them. If clinicians and patients can have productive conversations about health and symptoms, then patients are more likely to be motivated to comply with clinicians' advice and be engaged in their own care. And that can only help outcomes.