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Up Front | Jan 2003

A Strand of Pearls

Providing excellent customer service requires patience and dedication, but it yields an enduring reward.

Just recently, I was inspired by the story of how a single grain of sand naturally transforms into a beautiful pearl. It's a fascinating process in which the tiny grain reaches an oyster and becomes an irritant to its bed. Slowly and with great patience, the oyster coats the irritation with a substance called nacre. Over time, what was once a troublesome speck of sand becomes a precious jewel. Unlike so many of the marketing “pearls of wisdom” that get thrown our way, the value of today's pearl lies in the process of its formation, rather than the end product. I liken this process, which requires time, patience, and a great deal of irritation to the oyster bed, to the topic of customer service within the refractive practice.

We've all experienced moments when we have received over-the-top and simply incredible customer service. We visit a place of business, conclude a transaction, and just feel great—about ourselves, about how we were treated, and about the person on the other end of the transaction. Great customer service is not limited to big names such as Nordstrom and Walt Disney World; it's performed by service providers of all sizes in every community. Although most of our service experiences are satisfactory, we recognize immediately when we are receiving truly wonderful (or, for that matter, truly awful) service.

In the consumer marketplace, exceptional customer service tends to be just that—an exception. In refractive surgery, I'm afraid the same holds true. Poor customer service abounds, a byproduct of doctors' never receiving training in the basic skills of customer service during medical school. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that refractive surgeons experience daily the collision of two different worlds: medical, where a doctor's knowledge and skill often compensate for a lack of customer-service ability, and retail, where a high level of service to the customer is expected regardless of the offering.

Part of good customer service is exceeding a customer's expectations and addressing his concerns—no matter how irritating they may seem—with appropriate solutions. The ability to smooth over these types of customer interactions is like the coating over the grain of sand, gradually becoming the real pearls that will bring success to your practice. Here are a few areas to examine.

The easiest place to begin is at the telephone. Let's pretend you're going to make a substantial purchase (an item that costs between $3,000 and $5,000). You may pick up the phone to do some research. You make some calls to find out about features, price, availability, etc. Right away, you can distinguish who is effective on the phone and who is terrible, and you tend to give your business to the person who is courteous, knowledgeable, and interested in helping you.

It's essential that you keep in mind your own experiences when the table is turned and yours is the business being called upon. Yet somehow, those calls you receive inquiring about refractive surgery are often thrown to your receptionist who is busy sorting through a thousand other things when the call arrives. The phone is answered, “Doctor's office …” (yes, this still happens in a lot of practices), and the caller is frequently put on hold, often for more than 17 seconds (which is a well-researched threshold of patience for most first-time callers). The inquirer becomes frustrated with the lack of courtesy he receives and hangs up (perhaps without even saying goodbye). Opportunity lost.

Serious inquiry into refractive surgery usually takes place by phone. If you don't have a well-trained and well-paid phone specialist who possesses great interpersonal skills for the telephone, then you are wasting every dollar you spend on marketing.

Another grain of sand (or potential pearl) that service providers encounter is the customer complaint. Oftentimes, our natural defense mechanisms kick in and shift our focus to the person complaining rather than the complaint itself. ?Oh, it must be her nature to complain,? we say to ourselves, and rationalize away what could be yet another grain of sand needing attention.

Every practice needs a formal process for handling complaints. This system includes how you document the complaint, who took the complaint, and how it was handled or resolved. Sound too bureaucratic? Well, that's certainly how the person complaining will perceive your practice if she feels as though no one listened to her.

Keep in mind that even a friendly suggestion is often a veiled complaint. Either way, it might just be that grain of sand looking for a home inside an oyster.

Feedback from customers is something you should seek rather than avoid. Actively gathering information can range from an informal ?How are we doing?? (which should be part of your daily interaction with patients) to formal customer surveys that ask specific questions about their experience with you. Conducting regular surveys allows you to uncover weaknesses in your operation that could be related to a specific policy, procedure, or staff member. In order to get accurate data, you need to move beyond the typical questions such as ?Are you happy with the procedure?? because just about every patient is.

Rather, the questions you need to ask are those with answers that cast light on the smaller issues. It's easy to overlook the minutiae, because LASIK has such a tremendous impact on most recipients. But pay attention to the finer details, and you will provide remarkable service and a better overall offering to your future customers and patients.

It's important not to hold a grudge when you become aware of yet another irritant in your practice. Whether the potential jewel comes from a patient, a staff member, or a vendor, you need to view it as a source of critical feedback that can help you improve your offering. Too often, we tend to “shoot the messenger” by reacting to the person when we should be responding to the issue. Again, this is part of our natural defensiveness, which must checked at the front door. If your staff is too afraid to give you some honest feedback about the issues within your four walls, then you're denying your practice the opportunity to improve how it serves the needs of your patients.

Sales representatives offer the same opportunity for improvement. Often that pesky and at times irritating representative calls on many other practices just like yours and consequently can offer the best feedback about how your practice (staff, environment, equipment) stacks up against others. Consider this the next time you tell the receptionist to send away the representative at your door because you're “too busy.”

One final clarification: Whether over the phone or in person, a potential patient inquiring about your practice wants and needs more than anything else to feel important, to feel that his words and questions matter to you. This isn't fluff; it truly is essential to every aspect of the patient-provider relationship. All too often, we drop the ball because of other pressing issues. This is a mistake that is exorcised out of the employees of companies with a reputation for superb customer service. You can't afford not to have the exorcist come and remove the demons of poor service out of your practice. Do so, and watch how your attitude toward those irritants changes. Each individual grain of sand will evolve from an annoyance to an addition to your growing strand of pearls.

Each month, industry veteran Shareef Mahdavi looks at a different topic relating to the business of refractive surgery and explores how mistakes from the past can be used by all providers for effective marketing. He was formerly the head of marketing for VISX, Inc., and is based in Pleasanton, California. Mr. Mahdavi may be reached at (925) 425-9963; shareef@sm2consulting.com.

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