Teach staff, customers what customers really want

It’s not always what you think it is

One of the first things Karen Carney, president of Carney Communications in Andover, MA, tells home care employees about customer service is typically one of the last things they expect.

"The customer is not always right," Carney says. "The truth is the customers don’t always know what they want and what they need, particularly in home health care, with all the changes and reimbursement guidelines."

So home care’s goals are to make customers right. The answer to their request may not be "yes," but the home care employee perhaps could steer them to another resource.

"The challenge is how to reset people’s expectations so they’re realistic," she adds. "And that’s the managers’ job to teach staff how to do it, and then it’s the staff’s job to do it with every customer encounter."

Carney relates customer service to three dynamics or tiers that describe every interaction. The three-tier concept is described in the book Winning the Service Game (Benjamin Schneider and David Bowen, 1995, Harvard Business School Press, Boston). The tiers are:

Customer tier: Customers have a responsibility they bring to every service interaction. For example, grocery store customers are expected to pay before they leave with groceries. In home care, customers are expected to comply with their treatment and actively work with the physician and staff to do whatever needs to be done. If a home care nurse or aide makes an appointment to visit a patient’s home, then the patient is expected to be there when the nurse or aide arrives.

"The goal in home care is to make the patient as independent as possible and that focus is increasing," Carney adds.

Front line tier: These are the company employees who are working directly with the customer, whether it’s over the telephone, in person, via e-mail, or through correspondence. "These are the people who are directly responsible for the moment of truth," Carney says. "Their actions and their tone of voice have quite a level of impact on that situation, although they’re not totally in control of the situation."

Organization tier: The organization tier includes management because it’s their responsibility to put into place all the systems, processes, training, and other infrastructure that’s required for service. An obvious example, Carney says, is if the company’s computer system is down then that may impact the front line staff’s effectiveness.

"In an ideal world, all three of those dynamics would be in equilibrium but it doesn’t always work that way," she adds. "More often, we need to pull one or more of those tiers back in synch with the others.

How do customers define customer service?

"It doesn’t matter what we think we did," Carney says. "It only matters what customers think we did because they’re the scorekeepers."

It’s important that home care employees are in tune with customers and understand what they want and expect.

Carney gives an example of how a cable repair person found a way to do his job without making customers angry. Typically, the cable company service representatives would ask callers who reported that their cable was out, if they had it plugged in. People would answer "yes," and right away they’d be angry, thinking the cable representative was being condescending. Then customers would grow angrier as the representative asked a series of similar questions.

"One cable guy found out that it was driving people crazy, and he found a way to handle the calls differently," Carney says. Instead of asking them the power question, he’d say, "Go to the television set and turn it on, then turn to channel 6, turn to channel 3, and tell me what’s happening."

The caller would go to the television set and turn it on and if it didn’t turn on, the caller typically would check the plug. Then the person would turn it to channel 6 and then to channel 3. If the problem was that the television was unplugged or that the television was turned to the wrong channel, the person would have found that out on his or her own.

"Your words are important in dealing with people. It’s how you say it," Carney adds.

Customers also expect people who are serving them to take personal responsibility.

For instance, when people dine in a restaurant that is very busy, their dinner might be very late. Many people will react negatively to this situation if they have been sitting at their table for 20 minutes or more and the server has not come by with the food. But while the server may have no control over how slow or busy the restaurant’s kitchen is, the server does have control over how this problem is explained to the customer. So if the server ignores the table while they wait for their dinners, the customers are more likely to be angry than if the server repeatedly goes to the table and explains how the kitchen is behind but the restaurant is doing everything possible to bring them their dinners.

"Frequently things will happen, and the front line staff may think they don’t have the power to change it," Carney says, adding that the truth is everyone can make a difference.

Employees frequently complain, "We can’t do this because . . ." when it is they who are at fault, Carney says. "There’s always going to be an excuse, but really in almost every situation there’s some way from a personal point of view that they can find a way to make it better or to let go of it."

If the situation is truly so difficult that an employee cannot find any way to cope, then the person should decide whether to continue to work in that environment.

Make lemonade from service lemons

Carney demonstrates how there usually are many different ways to handle bad situations by asking employees to brainstorm for solutions to a case study problem. She uses an example of another health care setting, such as a physician’s office:

Suppose a mother and daughter have an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon in his office, and they arrive 10 minutes early. They wait 45 minutes to be called. Then the employee who leads them into the examining room does not make eye contact and speaks rather coldly when they begin to turn down the wrong hall. They wait another 45 minutes in the examining room.

Finally the physician arrives and is very friendly. Their visit with him is positive, and when they leave, the people checking them out are friendly. Still, the mother and daughter did not have an overall positive experience with that physician’s service.

What could the employees in that physician’s office do to make the situation more positive?

Carney says people might come up with a variety of suggestions, including these:

• They could inform the physician when he’s behind schedule.
• They could apologize to the people who are waiting a long time.
• They could be friendlier when taking patients to examining rooms.

Similarly, managers need to listen to employees suggestions about changes that may benefit the home care agency. If they have already tried some of these suggestions, they should tell employees that they have tried that approach and, "Here’s what happened."

Also, if a rabble rouser confronts management about problems, managers should ask the person what he or she would suggest they do to change the situation. "If they can’t come up with a solution, then they may realize that you can’t come up with one either," Carney says.

Lastly, managers should let staff know that the agency has certain priorities that must be met. For example, if the staff complain about the green color of the office bathroom, then perhaps the managers should explain that while no one likes the bathroom’s color, the company cannot make a new paint job its top priority right now.

Carney says managers should talk to staff as one human being to another, saying, "If you can come up with a way we can do it simply maybe we can address it sooner, but we need to focus our attention here."