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Elizabeth Monroe, COE, CPSS, PHR

Practice Operations
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Reinvesting in Your Customer Service Post-COVID

Reinvesting in Your Customer Service Post-COVID

Next to quality of care, outstanding customer service is one of the most significant aspects of a successful ophthalmology practice. In fact, patients often associate the quality of their medical care with their customer service experience. Since the pandemic has inevitably affected how your team approaches patients, it has also likely influenced your patient’s perceptions of their care. Fortunately, staff leaders like you can improve patient relations by reestablishing an organized, patient-focused approach to customer care with the steps below. 

Step One: Communicate Your Purpose  

Engaging your team in a unified purpose is the foundation of customer service. Employees must fully understand their role and purpose to truly connect with patients and build meaningful, quality care. 

  1. Define your purpose and strategy. The first step in ensuring your practice’s customer service is up to par is clearly articulating your organization’s purpose. Answering the questions below will help you articulate your “why” and gain staff buy-in.

    - Why does your organization exist? 
    - Why do you, as a leader in your practice, come to work every day? 
    - Why do you offer specific treatment options? 

    When answering these questions, try to relate your answers specifically to your practice. For example, your organization may start out with the motto: “We restore the gift of sight.” But could your “why” be more specific? Does your group address curable blindness through cataract surgery? Do you help resolve vision issues through your optical? Does your glaucoma doctor help slow the progression of irreversible vision loss? 

    For most practices, your customer service strategy — or how you want every patient to feel when they leave your office — develops organically from your purpose. Tying organizational purpose to a defined strategy ensures that your employees understand their responsibility in the patient experience and lays the foundation for excellent customer service. 

  2. Involve your team. When discussing your purpose and strategy, involve staff. Once team members are engaged, schedule regular meetings to discuss customer service — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Hold meaningful conversations that define what good customer service looks like in your practice. Discuss which parts of the patient process need improvement and what’s working well. By seeking to understand staff stressors and their impact on customer service, you are showing staff you care. In addition to building trust in leadership, this will encourage staff to continuously look for ways to improve the patient experience. 

Step Two: Uncover Customer Service Issues 

According to a paper in the Journal of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery, patient satisfaction affects clinical outcomes, patient retention, and medical malpractice claims. Detecting and addressing customer service problems early on can help your practice avoid the pitfalls of a bad patient experience. 

  1. Discuss challenges openly. Every single medical practice will experience customer service challenges at some point in time. But before you write off a negative encounter as “just another difficult patient,” have your team discuss the scenario during your customer service meetings. Some questions you may want to ask about unpleasant patient encounters include: 

    - What is making patients upset or angry? 
    - What would you do differently or better to serve the patient?  
    - What can the practice do to support the employee better? 

    If the team identifies an issue that is frustrating to patients, have the group brainstorm solutions. Encourage staff to make every effort to manage, fix, and support what they can control, and apologize and move on from what they cannot. Seeking to understand your team’s perspective and challenging them to find solutions shows staff you care about their opinions and experiences. In addition to building trust in leadership, this encourages staff to continuously look for ways to improve the practice. 

  2. Identify problem employees.  As your team works together to identify snafus in the patient experience, you may discover that certain staff members are disengaged. If your patient complaints are related to a few select employees, you must address their behavior(s). The following questions can help expose problematic employees:

    - Is someone consistently arguing with patients? 
    - Is a team with low morale bringing everyone down? 
    - Is there a doctor who has a gruff bedside manner with staff or patients? 

    Coaching and mentoring these team members can help alleviate customer complaints and assuage staff who have been shouldering the burden of their colleague’s unprofessionalism. When employees are collectively inspired and motivated to engage with patients, it creates a harmonious work environment and a better patient experience. 

  3. Consider patient wait times. One of the most common customer service challenges in ophthalmic practice is patient wait times. In addition to inconveniencing patients, long wait times directly affect staff’s ability to offer excellent customer service. A retina study conducted by BSM Consulting in 2015 found that, on average, patients spent 82% of their time waiting during some stage of their treatment process, while they only spent 18% of their time interacting with physicians or staff. If your clinic suffers from long wait times, it’s time to review your protocols and develop more streamlined processes for a better patient experience. 

Step Three: Proactively Implement Solutions

Once you’ve taken the time to review your practice’s customer service protocols and implement solutions, you must maintain these high standards moving forward. Fortunately, there are a few ways you can continue to engage your team and provide outstanding customer service. 

  1. Hire for customer service. When hiring new employees, consider their customer service background. An increasing number of ophthalmology new hires are coming from industries outside of health care, with some of the best staff starting as coffee baristas, retail or hotel associates, servers, or other positions that require excellent customer service skills. Whoever you are interviewing, consider using questions that help you identify if an employee will fit your strong customer service culture: 

    - Tell me about a time when you went out of your way to give excellent service to a patient or customer. How were you able to exceed that patient/customer’s expectations? 
    - Describe a difficult time you had dealing with a patient or customer. Why was it difficult? How did you handle it? What was the outcome? 
    - Tell me about a situation where you “lost it” or did not do your best with a customer. What did you do about this? 
    - Tell me about when you asked for feedback on your customer service skills from your manager or co-worker and then used that response to improve your work.

    Consciously hiring staff who are well trained in customer service (or are willing to learn) will further elevate the patient experience in your practice.

  2. Focus on training and certification. Once you hire a new employee, the long-term investment in this individual begins. Consider creating an onboarding plan, training program, and/or curriculum that incorporates customer service. Encourage ongoing education and certification by allowing employees to take online courses about ophthalmology basics or conflict resolution. In addition to prestigious technician certifications, staff can become certified in customer service via the Certified Patient Service Specialist (CPSS) program offered by BSM. The credentials “CPSS” indicate that the staff member has the necessary knowledge to offer outstanding customer service. 

    Regardless of how you choose to continue your employee education, have a manager follow up to ensure the staff understands, retains, and applies the new concepts. Incentivize staff to partake in continuing education or certification by offering a bonus or salary increase for achieving a professional milestone. Publicly celebrate staff who achieve certification status to encourage others to follow in their footsteps. By investing in ongoing training, you reaffirm that customer service is a priority and incentivize employees to continually provide outstanding customer service. 
  3. Celebrate your victories. As your customer service improves in the back half of 2021, celebrate with your team! Look for ways to make work fun again and help your team mitigate stress by recognizing employees who make a difference. If a patient mentions an employee in a positive online review, show your appreciation! Please give them a shout-out on social media, share a gift card, and encourage cheers from their peers. If you are unsure how your employees would like you to celebrate, ask them. Rewarding your staff in meaningful ways shows that their hard work is recognized and appreciated while simultaneously setting the standard for your practice’s customer service expectations.

Putting it all Together 

Good customer service has many benefits, and your practice can achieve outstanding results and reviews from patients by reinvesting in your team. Defining your purpose and strategy, working as a group to mitigate challenges, and continually prioritizing customer service training will bring dividends back to your organization. By following the tips above, you will be well-positioned to deliver the very best in patient care. 

LOOKING FOR ADDITIONAL CUSTOMER SERVICE RESOURCES? Explore our Certified Patient Service Specialist (CPSS) program for your front office staff. Sign up before August 31 and receive 50% off the initial registration fee (enter code ASOA2021 at checkout). 

Additionally, Elizabeth Monroe pens an ongoing customer service column for Ophthalmic Professional magazine. Sign up for a free subscription here


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