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Out of Our Minds
Wednesday, March 01, 2006 11:46 PM
Customer Service Where You Most Expect It
David Batstone on Business

Hospitals cannot afford to deliver patient care.

That statement sounds like an oxymoron, but it conveys the true struggle for health care providers today.

Let's be honest, the same goes for most any business. Customer service has become an endangered species on the expense line. I like the way that Carol Hymowitz phrased it in the title for her Wall Street Journal column this past week: 'Everyone Likes to Laud Serving the Customer; Doing It Is the Problem.'

My sister Linda works in the health care field and is passionate about finding better ways to provide quality health care. She raved to me about the work of Lolma Olson, a consultant that she brought in to assist her with patient care at her hospital in Minneapolis. Ms. Olson has the right pedigree. She was the director of patient relations and organizational development at a major medical center in San Francisco for 15 years. Today Ms. Olson runs her own firm, Sage Consulting, headquartered in Northern California. I called her up to pick her brain on practices to improve customer care without blowing the budget.

Ms. Olson focuses on a basic element of customer care: building connected relationships with your clients. At first blush that may seem obvious, but she found that it was the lack of consistency in relationships that dogs health care. Providers offer plenty of structure for deploying clinical tasks but it does not do so for building relationships.

So she developed a system she calls First Touch. The initial step is to train every health care provider - be it the doctor, nurse, physical therapist or orderly - to make a non-clinical connection with a patient. That means making medication trays and clipboards invisible, and to sit at eye level with the patient. When she first introduces this practice, many professionals offer resistance for a range of reasons. Some professionals worry that the patient will expect more from the relationship than the health care provider can give them and they will fall behind the demands of their schedule. Others hide behind the clinical task, and admit not knowing what to say to some patients once a conversation unfolds. \n\nMs. Olson discovered early on a certain fatalism among hospital managers. They assume that some individuals are gifted with social skills and others aren't. 'The best we can do,' grumble the managers, 'is give people a script to say the right thing and follow performance standards.' \n\nMs. Olson challenges that notion, and pinpoints the failure of customer service elsewhere: 'We haven't put the heart into customer service,' she notes. 'The script is not going to work if there is nothing motivating the employee to say it!'\n\nFirst Touch shows health care providers how to incorporate four principles into their daily practice: 1) Demonstrate that you are being present for the patient at that moment; 2) Offer the best of yourself to the best of the people you serve; 3) Become less judgmental of those you serve; 4) Begin the relationship with a personal greeting and close it with a good-bye (at the end of a session or a shift).\n\nMs. Olson stresses that professionals can set boundaries on the relationships. They can inform the patient of their busy schedule, yet make a connection for the time that they have with any given individual. Even the slightest human touch helps to minimize the fear of a patient.\n\nOnce these practices become a part of the culture, a number of tangible benefits emerge. Patient satisfaction surveys show a marked improvement; over a period of two years, patient satisfaction moves from the 40th percentile to the 90th percentile for most of Ms. Olson's health care provider clients. Call light use drops noticeably by both patients and their families. Note that both these factors have major financial implications on the revenue and cost side, respectively. The hospital faces less 'customer recovery' for disgruntled cases and more referrals for delivering excellent care.\n\nThe benefit of First Touch for employees also needs to be underscored. Although health care workers often report that they entered their career to make a difference, the trivialization of caring relationships depressed their motivation. Ms. Olson reports that professionals who practice First Touch feel more engaged and find meaning in their work. 'Last week a hospital manager in Albuquerque told me that First Touch is renewing her passion for her practice,' says Ms. Olson.\n\nThe lesson of First Touch demonstrates that excellent service may not be how much time you spend with customers, but how you spend your time.\n


Katherine Pittman - 3/16/2006 6:04:33 PM
I believe you are right on target. I do think we will ever get more time we can , however , make the most of the time we have. Do you have other information to share on how to implement this practice globally? Katherine
Maria Palma - 3/2/2006 9:09:34 PM
Of all industries, I believe the health care industry should really pay attention to how they treat their customers. Connecting with humans is a basic fundamental skill that everybody should have.

Thanks for the article. I've referenced it at my customer service blog:CustomersAreAlways

~Maria Palma


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