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Up Front | Jun 2003

The Art of Customer Service

It begins with “hello” and never really ends.

I had not walked 30 feet into the hotel before three different employees greeted me: the valet, the doorman, and the custodian. Each person looked up from the task at hand to say hello and smile. Was it because I was wearing a suit? No, it was because the hotel was the Four Seasons.

This greeting had a tremendous impact on my entire experience at that hotel. That initial encounter set a tone for the rest of my visit that magically rubbed off on everyone in the business meetings. Similar courtesy was extended by other hotel personnel, almost as if they knew we were coming. Was this experience a mere coincidence? Hardly. The Four Seasons earns its reputation for excellence in large part by offering incredible service to every individual who walks onto its property.

In the world of refractive surgery, there are many different marketing issues practitioners need to address. Providing outstanding customer service is at the top of the list; it takes priority over every other aspect of your marketing program. Customer service is both the least expensive investment for your practice (when compared with external marketing efforts such as advertising) and the hardest to cultivate (because it requires a mindset and philosophy foreign to most medical service providers).

I had the opportunity to interview Elaine Estacio, the training manager for the San Francisco Four Seasons Hotel. What I learned is worth sharing here.

Excellent customer service starts with selecting the right people to provide it. Although prior experience is beneficial, job-specific skills can be developed over time. What the San Francisco Four Seasons Hotel looks for when hiring staff is work ethic and attitude. Managers stress the importance of these attributes and ask key questions during candidate interviews to reveal past behaviors that may or may not suit the position. For example, Ms. Estacio doesn't ask a candidate, “Do you like working with people?” or “Do you believe in good customer service?” She reaches further in her interviews, instead asking, “When have you provided excellent customer service?” and “Can you tell me the last time you went the extra mile for one of your customers?” Consider asking these more revealing questions the next time you interview a candidate for employment in your practice.

Because it considers itself the “Nordstrom of the hospitality industry,” the Four Seasons Hotel looks for employees who are willing to go “one step further” in providing great customer service, and then it challenges them to do so. All Four Seasons employees undergo a 90-day training period when they first join the company. They attend multiple classes conducted by a training manager, whose full-time job is to educate all employees, from the entry-level clerk to the general manager. Note that the training manager is dedicated solely to this task, whereas, in the typical refractive practice, staff training often becomes another brick in the backpack of an already overworked key employee.

The mission of the training manager at the Four Seasons is to teach the hotel's philosophy to people who represent a range of salary, skills, and experience levels. This manager must convey the hotel's culture, its attitude, and the company's history to all the employees. In these training classes, the manager also teaches the employees about customers' expectations and how to exceed them, as well as what the Four Seasons Hotel values as an organization. Ms. Estacio summarized her efforts by saying, “If you're going to spend so much of your life at work, you should enjoy what you do. My goal is to identify future employees that agree, hire them, and help them cultivate this attitude.”

Four Seasons employees learn what it means to take care of their customers, as should your employees. What philosophy or practice culture do you want your employees to possess and exude to patients? The next time one of your employees suggests that you conduct customer service training, will you attend? If not, what message will that send to your staff? No matter what other priorities you face in your practice, this is the one that deserves your undivided attention.

Customer service is not an event; it is an attitude. Remember that the customer is never fooled more than once. When lip service is used in place of customer service, customers figure it out and often will take their business (and future referrals) elsewhere. This is the true cost of not concentrating on improving your level of customer service, and it is indeed a steep price to pay.

Next month, I'll follow up with an article that discusses what happens when you provide customer service the right way, which can cause patients considering refractive surgery to “tip” in your favor. I'll draw from The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, a fascinating, must-read book for understanding the science behind word-of-mouth marketing (see Shareef's Summer Reading List). Several Cataract & Refractive Surgery Today readers recommended this book to me, and I share that recommendation with you.

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 provides marketing counsel to medical manufacturers and is based in Pleasanton, California. Mr. Mahdavi may be reached at (925) 425-9963; shareef@sm2consulting.com.

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