On the front lines of patient care and customer service

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Dear Family Health Team colleagues,

Thank you so much for letting me escape from work for three weeks in a row this summer. That was the longest holiday I’ve had in the last twelve years. It was wonderful.

You won’t be surprised to know that I did think about you while I was away at the cottage. Please don’t take offence when you hear that it was the worst incident of my holiday that made me think of you the most. It’s not that the bad experience reminded me of you. Instead the upsetting event was a reminder of how important you are and how thankful I am for the service you provide each day on the front lines of patient care. My story is about some holiday shopping.

When you hear this tale, you’ll know that it falls into the category of #firstworldproblems. But this incident taught me a lot about customer service. It made me want to write down very clearly my hopes about the way we treat our patients. I would be so devastated if one of our patients walked out of our organization feeling as terrible as I felt when I walked out of a store in Ontario’s cottage country.

I had done a little shopping during my first week on vacation – picking up gifts at this local store for upcoming birthdays in the family. Unfortunately I didn’t choose the right size and style so I needed to exchange the two things I had bought for our daughter. When I went back to the store the next week (bringing three new shoppers with me) to make the exchange, I couldn’t remember where I had placed the original receipts. However I was biased by the outstanding customer service I had just experienced at two local Canadian Tires stores where I had easily exchanged items without receipts. (In one case, they did look up my recent purchase using my debit number and were able to confirm the original sale.) So it didn’t even occur to me that the store would not make a simple exchange of a brand new pair of shoes for a smaller size – despite the fact that I didn’t have my receipts. The shoes and dress I had purchased still had the tags attached.

Much to my shock, there was absolutely no way the clerk would discuss an exchange. It was contrary to store policy. There was no option to look up documentation of the original purchase on the basis of my debit card. I asked speak to the manager who showed no interest in helping me resolve my dilemma. No one wanted to listen to an explanation of what I hoped to do. I felt I was treated with complete disdain. My lovely and calm sister, who stood by my side through the whole interaction, later confirmed that the manager spoke to me in a way that was simply rude. I was shaken by the whole incident. What started out as a delightful shopping outing with my mother and two sisters ended up with the four of us walking out of the story in dismay. I felt humiliated, misunderstood and unsatisfied.

There is almost always a way to bring some good out of a bad situation. In this case, I learned several lessons. Most of all, I am more committed than ever to the key principles of customer service. I am determined to make sure that any organization with which I am affiliated will uphold the highest standards in service. Happily, I did eventually receive some satisfaction from the store. The day after the original incident I managed to exchange the shoes because I found the receipt in my car. (I never was able to exchange the dress.) Two days after the original incident the storeowner called me. She apologized. She listened very well. She expressed genuine concern over what had transpired. And she sent me a gift certificate in the hope that I will return as a customer. I am grateful for her intervention.

I know we’ve talked a lot about a “customer service” approach to patient care. (Remember “Give ‘em the pickle”?) Last week’s experience made me want to reiterate some key principles to make sure you know how much I hope that we will always put our patients first. Here are some of the things that I hope our team members will do:

1. Listen

One of the things that upset me was that the manager didn’t even listen to my story or try to get an understanding of what I hoped to do. I hope you will always listen to the full story from the patient or family member. Please try hard not to interrupt them. Even if you can’t fix things, it will help to learn more about their situation – their parking problem, the reason why they are late, the reason they need their form completed so urgently, etc.

I think it was Plato who said: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” The more we listen to one another, the more we can fathom the battles of others, the more likely they will walk away feeling understood.

2. Say: “I’m sorry”

In almost every situation, when a patient is upset, it is appropriate to say: “I’m sorry.” Period. Saying “I’m sorry” doesn’t necessarily mean that you or we have made an error. It means: I’m sorry that something has upset you. I’m sorry that things haven’t worked out the way you hoped. I’m sorry that you are disappointed – and our organization has let you down. I feel empathy. I am trying to put myself in your shoes and imagine your emotion. What concerns you concerns me.

3. Show respect

Our 23 weekend guests

In reflecting on my rotten retail experience, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would have been treated differently if I had shown up in the store in a business suit with high heels and all. Instead, I had come from the cottage. I may not have even showered that morning (since we were hosting 23 weekend guests in our cottage with one shower!) I think I was wearing a faded Run4Rett t-shirt, a comfy jean-skirt and well-worn sandals. Perhaps I literally did not appear to be well heeled. But you know that everyone deserves respect – however he or she is dressed and whoever he or she is. Our patients often show up in our clinic when they may not look their best or feel their best. As you know, they are often sick or tired or under extreme stress.  Let’s try to inspire one another to treat every person with the unconditional respect they deserve as a fellow human being – no matter how they are dressed; no matter how they speak; no matter who they are.

4. Investigate any possible avenue to bring satisfaction

I firmly believe there is almost always some way we can resolve our patients’ concerns. Thank you for every time that you go the extra mile to satisfy our patients. We may not be able to give them exactly what they want, but we can almost always offer some alternative – as a demonstration of our desire to help. If you can’t find a solution easily, please ask for support from a senior team member. It may seem like I’m always busy, but please don’t hesitate to ask me if I can help. Sometimes it only takes a minute of my time to help resolve a dilemma. If it prevents some grief for you or for our patients then that’s a good investment of my time.

5. Give a damn

I can’t presume to know what the store manager was actually thinking that day. But I know that the unspoken message I received was that she actually didn’t give a damn about what I wanted. Her only response was: “That’s our store policy.”

It may be tempting to think that the satisfaction of one individual doesn’t matter too much. For every patient that leaves dissatisfied, there are hundreds more new patients that we could care for instead. But every individual does matter. We have chosen to work in a service industry. That means we are expected to serve. Serving requires caring.

Not every patient will know how much you care. Not every patient will show his or her appreciation for your service. Not every patient can be satisfied. Nevertheless we have a professional obligation to care. When we actually do care – and we show it – we move ever closer to our collective aspiration… that is, health for all.

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Discussion - 3 Comments
  1. beverly mcdowell

    Aug 17, 2013  at 2:35 PM

    Thank you for sharing your story Jane


  2. Annette Reesor

    Sep 03, 2013  at 2:35 PM

    I really appreciate your commitment to excellent customer service in the health care setting. Inspiring post


    • Jane

      Sep 03, 2013  at 2:35 PM

      Thanks Annette. Thanks for making great service a reality every day.


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