Yes Know-how

November 20, 2007

I recently visited an upscale practice that takes pride in its customer service.

I recently visited an upscale practice that takes pride in its customer service. The physicians are very approachable; indeed, everyone is friendly. Staff members take time to introduce themselves to new patients, management conducts regular patient satisfaction surveys, and the practice as a whole strives to honor the mission statement that commits to the best service. Great spirit. Admirable goals. But in practice? All around me, all day long, I heard this word: No.

No, Dr. Good can't see you at that time. ...No, Miss Wilson, I need a check today; that's our financial policy. ...No, the doctor's nurse can't take your call....

In short, Us vs. Them.

Sure, it's hard to handle patient requests, and staffers shouldn't be patsies -- ya gotta follow the rules. No one's arguing that. Still, if your staff automatically responds with "no" when a patient asks for something, it makes the practice appear uncooperative. So how do you hold your ground while minimizing the negativity?

Just say yes.

How? By probing into what the patient really needs and offering alternatives. In most instances, you can avoid saying no to a patient, even if you can't meet his request. By offering choices, patients will feel you are striving to meet their needs and genuinely care about what they want. For example:

  • If a patient asks for a five o' clock appointment and the doctor's last appointment is 4:30, say, "We can get you in here at 4:30 -- would that work? Or would first thing in the morning be better for you?"

  • If Mrs. Wilson asks for an exception to your standard policy requiring a $300 deposit on surgical cases, hear her out. Perhaps she has a valid reason. How about she gives you a check for $150, and then puts the remaining deposit on her Visa card the day of surgery?

  • If a nurse isn't available, why say no? Say yes, by taking a message and assuring the patient that the nurse will call her back. Or, if you have such capability, ask the patient if she'd like to leave a message on the nurse's voice mail.

Do an occasional audit of the signals your practice is sending patients, simply by tuning in to what staffers are saying. If you hear the word "no" more than just occasionally, take action. Try preparing alternative scripts by going through a typical dialogue and role-playing. Physicians should participate in the program as well. This will show their dedication to customer service, and they are likely to pick up some valuable tips on patient communication. The main goal is to send the message that your practice is working with your patients -- not against them.

Judy Capko is a healthcare consultant with more than 20 years experience, and the founder of Capko & Company (www.capko.com). Her emphasis is improving practice performance by valuing staff, building patient-centered strategies and making the most of resources. She is the author of the top-selling book "Secrets of the Best-Run Practices," Greenbranch Publishing. Judy has received national recognition in her field, working with both small and large practices, as well as major academic faculty practices from coast-to-coast. She is a popular speaker for major healthcare conferences and healthcare executive summits. She can be reached at judy@capko.com or 805-499-9203.