It's only a matter of time. If you work as an administrator for a refractive surgery practice long enough, sooner or later you're bound to have one of these. No, I'm not referring to the dreaded patient lawsuit. I'm talking about one of those days when some unforeseen circumstance pushes your customer service to the limit. Some situation occurs that simply drives patients over the edge and right up to your front desk, or to the nearest doctor or staff person. Tempers flare; common courtesy goes out the window. How will you and your staff react?
THE ULTIMATE CHALLENGE
Even on the best days, it's challenging to provide patients a superior level of customer service, because of the repetitiveness of the work. The delivery of this service is a vital part of the practice, however, because patients remember it, and patient referrals drive the business. To patients, good customer service is just as important as a good outcome. They spend more time with a practice's staff than they do undergoing the actual procedure, and they remember how they are treated. And when paying for an elective refractive procedure, patients are even more attuned to their interactions with staff members.
As is often the case in life, the true test of your customer service occurs when the wheels fall off, and how you and your staff handle the situation is critical. A recent encounter beautifully illustrated this point for me, and I think the lesson is highly applicable to the refractive surgery arena.
THE 2005 MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL WORLD SERIES
As someone who takes nearly 100 business trips per year, I am away from my family almost every week. So, when the Houston Astros were about to clinch the National League Champion Series (NLCS) from the mighty St. Louis Cardinals, I did what any guilt-ridden father would do: I decided to take my three sons to the NLCS game.
Little did I know that even the cheapest tickets for Game 5 of the NLCS in Houston were going for about $400 each! Luckily, some further investigation led me to an online company called StubHub.com, which offers tickets to any and all sporting events. Sure enough, it had tickets for my sons and me for the right price.
The way StubHub works is quite simple. You purchase tickets that StubHub secures from another entity, then pick them up at a specified time and place before the event. Until the point of pick-up, all transactions are done electronically, and there is not one iota of customer service involved.
Our pick-up arrangement was 5 PM on the day of the game at a hotel three blocks from the baseball park. In an effort to avoid the lines and get good parking, the boys and I arrived at 2 PM and attempted to pick up our tickets. The StubHub agents told us to please come back at 5 PM. This was my first signal that this whole ticket-exchange-over-the-internet idea might not be all it's cracked up to be.
We returned to the makeshift StubHub office at 4 PM, and a line of somewhat disgruntled baseball fans had already begun to form. We learned that “there's a problem with some of the tickets.” After our first hour in line, panic set in among the fans who wanted their high-priced tickets. The panic turned to sheer anger at about 6 PM, when approximately 50 of us learned that our actual tickets were never delivered to StubHub by the owner. Instead, the owner had decided to double dip and resell them on the street.
It wasn't really StubHub's fault that its source didn't deliver the tickets. But, the now-hysterical crowd didn't care whose fault it was. They wanted their overpriced tickets, and they wanted them now. About this time, my 8-year-old son, Will, got scared and wanted to leave. He's not quite the Astros fan that his 10- and 12-year-old brothers, Cole and Reid, are, and he'd never heard some of the words that were coming out of people's mouths.
For some reason, instead of getting angry, I started to feel sorry for the StubHub guys behind the desk. Despite being threatened with bodily harm and called names that I obviously can't repeat here, they kept their cool. The more people screamed at them, the more they said they understood and would do everything possible to rectify this unfortunate situation. In a strange sort of way, it allowed me to discuss topics such as supply-and-demand economics, customer service, and patience with my kids. They wanted to know who was at fault and why I wasn't up there screaming at the StubHub people and joining in the near-riotous conditions.
The StubHub agents quietly went about trying to rectify the situation. Somehow, they were able to buy tickets from other resellers to give to everyone waiting in line … except for us. After nearly 4 hours in line—with the game already in progress—our Mastercard moment was about to go down in flames. And that's when it happened.
A StubHub agent said he was going to make one last phone call in an effort to get us tickets. My sons and I were certain our hopes would be crushed. But then, the guy turned to us and said, “We've got your tickets.” Amidst my boys' euphoric yells, the agent pulled me aside and said, “Mr. Malley, because you were unbelievably patient with us during these past few hours, I'm giving you these tickets for free, and I'm going to refund your $1,600 American Express charge.” I said my thanks and was already running for the baseball park with my boys when this man caught up with us. “Mr. Malley, if the Astros win, I'm also going to send you and your boys to the World Series for free. StubHub will pick up the entire tab.”
Again, I yelled back thanks and ran off. I never got the guy's name, e-mail address, or telephone number, because honestly, I didn't care at the moment. All I wanted to do was get to the game with my kids.
As it turned out, a few days later, the Astros did indeed clinch their first World Series appearance ever! Then it hit me—didn't that agent say he was going to give us free World Series tickets if the Astros won? But, without his information, what was I going to do? How stupid I felt not to have gotten him to put his offer in writing or at least get his number.
To my surprise, an e-mail from StubHub's corporate office arrived the next day, again thanking me for my patience and understanding. It said that, as a way of trying to win me back as a customer, the company would like to send my sons and me to the World Series. Sure, I said.
As promised, and to the chagrin of all my full-price–paying neighbors, my free World Series tickets arrived Friday via Fedex , the day before game one. By this time, the street value of these tickets was soaring to $1,500 apiece. My wife and I quickly did the math and thought, should we sell these tickets and put the money in the kids' college fund … or take them to the game? If you're a baseball fan, you know what we decided. And, even though the Astros lost, it was indeed a Mastercard moment when Will (our 8-year-old) caught a fly ball in left field (no kidding)!
As we were driving home after the game, I had another opportunity to talk to my sons about keeping your word when you make a promise. We also talked about what would have happened had I jumped into the fray during the ticket fiasco instead of understanding StubHub's predicament.
This is the best lesson I can share with you regarding custumer service in the absolute worst of times. Isn't that when your service needs to excel the most? Although I can't promise you World Series tickets, I can tell you tell you how important it is to train for that special day when the wheels come off, and what world-class customer service can do for your practice. For this reason, it may be worth holding a staff meeting to preemptively discuss office protocol for handling challenging situations or difficult patients.
Finally, it wouldn't hurt the reputation of your practice to show some appreciation toward those patients who don't read you the riot act for a legitimate mistake or an unavoidable disappointment. A small token of thanks may be all it takes to turn them into your best customers.
Michael W. Malley is President and Founder of the Centre for Refractive Marketing (CRM Group), an ophthalmic consulting/advertising agency established in 1988. Mr. Malley may be reached at (713) 839-0202; firstname.lastname@example.org.