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Here’s a system for recognizing, handling problems
You can’t please everyone all the time. Nowhere is that adage more true than in health care. Despite all your customer service initiatives, staff training, and incentives, someone, somewhere, sometime will become displeased. And that unhappy customer will tell his or her story to at least nine others.
You can actually turn those dissatisfied customers into your best advertisers — if you have a sound service recovery program in place, says Terry Williams, MBA, senior consultant at LUMEN, a health care consulting firm in Atlanta.
A service recovery program, he explains, is a mechanism by which all levels of employees know what to do when to quickly "recover" the customer’s trust. For example, employees are empowered to send flowers or small gifts as an apology to show customers that their needs are important.
"A service recovery program not only helps you mitigate those unexpected occurrences when a patient or family member is dissatisfied, but it also helps employees discover where process improvements need to be made," Williams says.
In these days of aging baby boomers who expect and demand top-notch customer service, a recovery program can also be one of your facility’s biggest competitive advantages, he adds.
"As service rises to the forefront in the health care industry, such programs will become the tie breaker among competing systems," Williams predicts.
However, your service recovery initiative must be more than a "train them to smile program," he warns.
"If you don’t set a system in place that allows employees to determine a triage methodology for recognizing and handling dissatisfied customers, the program will turn into an indiscriminate — and ultimately ineffective — giving of gifts," he says. "When it comes to service recovery programs, one size does not fit all."
Kevin Moffitt, FACHE, MHA, agrees. "Not every situation calls for flowers," says the administrative coordinator of re-engineering at Blessing Hospital in Quincy, IL.
Moffitt uses a service recovery strategy developed at the Disney Institute in Orlando, FL, in which employees are trained how to make on-the-spot responses based on two factors: severity and fault.
The strategy includes the following points:
1. Empathize with the customer.
A situation fitting in the lower left-hand quadrant would be categorized as "low fault, low severity: the situation is not our fault and the complaint is not serious," Moffitt explains. (The assessment of seriousness is a judgment call of the complaint recipient.)
Suppose a patient approaches the emergency department (ED) registration counter and complains that he has been waiting for two hours even though the ED does not look busy.
"This is a case where you need to concentrate more on offering information and empathy, rather than sending flowers," explains Moffitt.
He suggests following the guidelines:
• Listen and acknowledge the customer concern.
• Empathize, but don’t get personally involved in the situation. "Do not take on the customer’s emotion," he explains. "Empathy is different from sympathy."
When dealing with an angry customer, for example, don’t show anger yourself.
"Acknowledge how they feel and start to build a relationship. Most angry customers must have their emotions dealt with first before you can jump to logic, explanations, etc.," he explains.
• Accept responsibility for taking action. "Reset your expectations," he says.
For example, in the case of the busy ED, most people may expect to wait no more than 20 to 30 minutes. "You may have to reset their expectations by explaining that the ED is very busy and the wait may be longer," Moffitt says.
In addition, use the approach of "underpromise and overdeliver," he stresses. "When resetting expectations, if the wait is 45 minutes, tell them it will be an hour," he says. "Then, when they are seen in 45 minutes, you have exceeded their new set of expectations."
• Communicate, communicate, communicate.
"Explain why, although it appears to be a slow period out front, you are really busy in the back. Perhaps there are several critical cases who arrived at once," he says.
Don’t just stop with the explanation. "Take the extra step by asking if there is anything you can get to make them comfortable, such as a drink of water or access to a phone," he recommends.
In this quadrant, he says, "The main thing the customer wants is to be heard."
2. Meet the customer’s needs.
A situation that falls under this quadrant — low severity, high fault — is "not serious, but it is your fault." For example, a family member complains because an ICU nurse spoke rudely to her or a patient has to wait because someone forgot to order a lab test.
"Whatever you do, don’t affix the blame to another department or person," Moffitt stresses. "Don’t say, Oh, that lab is always late’ or that ICU nurse is rude.’
Instead, take responsibility for action and serve as the contact person for the customer. Ask them: What can I do right now?
"Do what you can within the limits of your job description to meet the customer’s needs; if that’s not possible, get your supervisor or someone who can," Moffitt advises.
Not only should you respond quickly, but assure customers you will personally see that your supervisor gets back to them within a certain period of time.
Then, within 24 hours, do something extra. "Depending on the situation, this may range from writing off some of the bill, to assuring the customer that the situation will be dealt with," he says. "If a customer was treated rudely, most often he or she will be satisfied if they feel someone in authority will take the complaint to the [offending] person and deal with that incident."
Do what is most useful to the customer, not what is easiest, Moffitt adds. "For example, you may take off a portion of the bill relating to the incident, but the customer will still pay for the original visit."
Don’t forget to follow up, he advises. "Not every incident requires a follow-up, but for those that do, we explain what we are doing to correct the problem so it won’t happen again. Or we update them with the situation and what they can expect if they need to come back."
You should also tell them about any improvements that have been made as a result of their complaint, he adds. "Thank them again for bringing it to your attention."
3. Be a hero.
Situations of low fault and high severity are not your fault at all, but in the patient’s eyes, they are severe, Moffitt explains. For example, a patient is discharged and has no transportation home.
"Then it’s time to be a hero; you can meet their needs personally or you can connect them to resources who can," he says.
In this scenario, you might offer to take the patient home yourself if your shift is about to end or you might give him or her a voucher for a cab.
"Sometimes a situation in this quadrant needs follow-up action and sometimes it doesn’t," he says. "Use common sense."
4. Roll out the red carpet.
This quadrant is reserved for high-fault, high-severity situations. (Think incident reports.) Suppose a patient falls off the table during a radiological procedure and is injured.
"You don’t want to try and rectify the situation after the patient has left and get the incident report in inter-office mail," he stresses. "Deal with it on the spot."
At Blessing, employees call their supervisor immediately, who contacts the risk management department. "A representative is available 24 hours a day," he says.
In addition to assessing the injury, the risk management representative can instruct you in a service recovery action. For example, the facility may write off the bill or not charge for a return visit.
"Don’t make promises without running them by risk management first," Moffitt says.