Early in my consulting and inspecting career, I became fascinated by the concept of customer service. Why are some organizations more customer service-oriented than others? How do organizations promote a culture that encourages excellent customer service? What can staff and management do to make customers happy with their experience? I noticed that some of the medical equipment companies I visited had excellent customer service, others had mediocre customer service, and still others (not many, thankfully!) had horrible customer service. I set out to understand the art of customer service and tried to answer the above questions by gathering fact patterns and collecting observations about the customer service I witnessed on my visits.
One thing that became readily apparent in my observations was that the organizations that had excellent customer service seemed to be more successful. And on the other side of the equation, the places where customer service was not so good, the level of success was usually correspondingly low. USUALLY. There were some exceptions of course, but by and large, good customer service seemed to go hand in hand with success. The age-old question was whether the dog was wagging the tail or the tail was wagging the dog: were these companies successful because of the excellent customer service or was the staff more service oriented because the organization was successful?
Whether consulting with an organization to help them prepare for survey, or actually surveying them for accreditation, I made it a point to ask leadership about customer service. What it meant to them. How they promoted it within their organization. Was it important and how did it translate to bottom line and financial success. These discussions were interesting and helpful and gave me insight into effective management. I learned more from these discussions than in several college level classes on business administration! I’ve synthesized these observations and bits of advice into this handy list below. Think of it as advice from some very successful peers in the DME industry.
- Be a good listener. The customer isn’t always right, but they always deserve to have their feelings made known. Listen actively and be engaged. Body language gives away people who are only feigning listening.
- Encourage feedback from your customers. Set up processes to receive back customer satisfaction surveys and complaints. Make those processes seamless and easy for the customer.
- When you (or your company) make a mistake, don’t be afraid to admit it. Customers appreciate it. Employees, colleagues, friends, and family all appreciate, too! An apology can go a long way toward mending any relationship including our business relationships with customers.
- Respond to your customers as directly as possible. A phone call is better than a text or email, but “live” in person contact is better than a phone call. People appreciate the direct format. The most successful customer service seemed to be done in person or at least with personal contact such as a phone call. The most successful also would send a follow up note.
- Respond to your customers timely. In your mind, picture someone who complains as sitting on pins and needles anxiously waiting for your response and follow up. Time spent waiting is time where resentment can increase and deepen. Have you ever heard someone complain that a company responded to some issue too quickly?
- Empower your employees to resolve issues on the spot. Front line employees are the face of your business. Particularly if you have a retail business, these clerks, sales folks, and customer service people that wait on customers convey the first and lasting impressions on your customers. “Let me get you my manager” can appear contrived and can also slow the process down. Let the staff self-correct issues quickly and efficiently with customers.
- Track complaints and customer service issues and analyze them thoroughly. No matter how small your organization, it is possible to lose information and for messages to get crossed, miscommunicated, or forgotten. Beyond the obvious accreditation standards that address this as a requirement, the complaint log becomes the tool by which your organization learns from its mistakes and improves. This is the very essence of quality improvement and tracking complaints can give you an insight into your company that otherwise might be missed. Track the complaint and how it was resolved, along with the timeframe for follow up and resolution.
- Track GOOD customer service outcomes as well. Note examples where customers praised good service. Share the nice, positive notes you get from customers with all staff alongside with complaints. Present the information from the perspective of the customer. This isn’t about which employee logged the most complaints or the most praise. It’s about all staff improving their own processes based on feedback from your customers.
- Finally, follow the golden rule: Treat customers the way you’d want to be treated. One DME owner once told me that in every interaction with customers who had complaints, he would role play in his mind as if he were the person complaining. Thinking about how you would want an organization to address your complaint can go a long way to helping you frame your response. Would it be fair if you were on the other end? That’s called “empathy” and it’s a human affectation that is sometimes missing in the business world.
In our industry, and in much of healthcare in the United States, businesses compete primarily on service. How much we charge for our equipment, supplies, and service is largely controlled by third party payers. What kind of customer service we provide is under our control and that is where we compete. We can and should strive to excel and provide the best quality customer service possible. That empathy for customers can translate into business goodwill and ultimately, an improved bottom line.