Customer service: Getting to the heart of patients’ needs

There has been a trend in the healthcare field for the past few years to think of patients like customers in retail or in restaurants. While this response to the new market isn’t totally off the mark, rural healthcare facilities often end up putting the emphasis in the wrong place, assuming they need to buy fancy equipment or provide amenities like those you might find in an upscale hotel or restaurant. These are nice and easy gestures, but they don’t go to the heart of the patient experience.

Healthcare is different. Though there are similarities to customer service in a more-traditional business environment, the patient experience is unique, and hospitals need to understand how to respond to the basic needs of those they serve.

I think it is fair to say that most people do not enter hospitals because they enjoy being there. Health issues can create a huge amount of anxiety, which is amplified by the confusion of seeking treatment from strangers in a place that most of us do not want to visit. The most important thing that healthcare professionals can do to ease frustration and anxiety is to treat patients with respect, understanding and compassion.

Customer service is a behavior, not a room full of amenities

The patient experience is largely dictated by the interactions patients have with a hospital’s staff. This is especially true in rural hospitals, where there is an even greater expectation that the staff members—who also live in the community—are interested in providing the best care possible to their neighbors.

Team members need to think seriously about how the way they act influences the patient’s perception of his or her care. I’ve heard too many stories of patients who were needlessly made to wait for an extended period of time or whose appointments were cancelled without any explanation or even an apology. There are few things more distressing to patients than the unknown. After all, they are seeking care for something related to their own health—something they cannot do alone. Being open and straightforward and answering questions are among the most important behaviors that healthcare staff need to master.

Knowing what the patient experience feels like

Compassion means putting oneself in the patient’s shoes. Understanding how the people who seek treatment in your facility feel, anticipating their concerns and acting on them are important in improving satisfaction. These skills aren’t always easy. It requires taking a step back and remembering how patients view their interactions with hospital staff during their visits.

This is where there is a critical difference from a more-traditional business relationship. In the healthcare experience, patients often feel powerless. After all, they usually are seeking help because they have an issue that they cannot solve without the help of an expert. The traditional power dynamic between a salesperson and a potential customer is turned on its head. Whereas a sales clerk can try to entice a potential buyer with a special deal or fancy advertising for a product and the customer can try to bargain or walk away from the deal, the patient is seeking care and an experience that he or she cannot simply buy online and receive in the mail.

Healthcare professionals (and guests), benefit most when they understand that they have a responsibility to address concerns and to provide a welcoming, comfortable environment in the hospital every time. From the lobby to the operating room, every member of the hospital staff needs to be able to think about what it means to be a patient and to act with compassion to provide a smooth personalized experience.

Steven R. Jolly has spent more than two decades working with rural hospitals to help them develop better approaches to customer service. By coaching hospital staff in understanding the patient experience, he has helped struggling hospitals improve patient satisfaction. To learn more about customer-service training for healthcare professionals, contact SRJ at 214-528-5775.