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Listen to yourself talk! Part 1

January 1, 2007
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Eight common expressions that reflect your commitment to customer service excellence

Although customer service is often given lip service in healthcare settings, long-term care (LTC) has shown more interest in resident and family satisfaction of late. LTC organizations are realizing that customer satisfaction has an impact on a number of operational areas. For example, unsatisfied customers are eight times more likely than satisfied customers to tell others about their experiences.1 Families are six times more likely to contact a lawyer because of rude or indifferent behavior than because of an underlying care problem.2 Referral sources hesitate to refer patients to facilities when they receive reports or complaints from families about poor service. Finally, employees want to be a part of a winning team, and a lack of skills in dealing with difficult families and residents leads direct-ly to employee turnover.

The release of the first-ever national report about customer satisfaction, “2005 National Survey of Resident and Family Satisfaction in Nursing Facili-ties,” published by My InnerView, has created an even greater interest in customer satisfaction. Although 83% of the respondents rated their satisfaction as “excellent” or “good,” only 30% rated satisfaction as excellent.3 A few individual items were rated even lower, with the excellent rating only at 17% for dining experience, 18% for adequate staff, and 20% for laundry. The bottom line is that while nursing facilities do a good job, they have a lot of opportunity for improvement.

So where do you stand on this issue—do you pay lip service to customer service? Do you set your standard at “good” customer service, or are you truly interested in excellence? One way to find out is to listen to yourself talk. The sidebar (“Eight Expressions Reflecting on Customer Service,” p. 54) lists eight expressions that you may have used (or may have heard someone else use) in the “heat of battle.” What do these expressions reveal about your attitudes toward excellence in customer service? If you are a regional manager or regional consultant, when you walk through a nursing facility, can you sense just from listening whether this is a well-functioning facility? Have you spoken with the administrator or some of the staff and quickly formulated some judgments? Can you tell whether staff and management are focused on customers? Can you spot the warning flags that the center is not focusing on customers?

Part 1 of this article will focus on the first four of these telltale expressions and offer a perspective for dealing with them. Part 2 in a subsequent issue will deal with the remaining four.

1. “There are some families you will never be able to please.”This statement is a huge tip-off that you have divided your customers into two classes—those who are easy to please and therefore receive good service, and others who are more challenging and become second-class customers. Staff may believe that it is OK to treat these customers differently. They may avoid the challenging customers. In some instances, they may even have their favorite negative label for them—“complainers,” “whiners,” perhaps some terms that cannot be printed here. They rationalize this under the premise that they treat most of the other customers pretty well.

The reality is that this attitude lowers the standard of customer service. Staff will become complacent regarding good customer service and provide it only when it is easy or convenient to do so. Remember, customers—even in a nursing facility—do talk with each other and do observe interaction with other customers. And even mildly upset customers become more angry as they are responded to inappropriately.

This whole chain of events can be headed off with this standard for excellence in customer service: Display a positive attitude toward all customers. A few suggestions: First, realize that some of the very customers that you label as “difficult to please” are customers that you have created. When there is a service failure, you have the opportunity to create a more loyal customer or a more angry customer by how you respond. Second, when you are discussing customers with staff, picture the customer being in the same room and hearing everything (the “fly on the wall” concept). Would that cause you to be more objective in your remarks, to present both sides of the story, and to be more mission-oriented? Third, banish the use of all labels other than “customer.” Even innocent sounding labels, such as “hypervigilant” or “white knight,” quickly become code words for difficult customers, have negative connotations, and lead to inappropriate responses by staff.

2.“I don't know if our aides have the knowledge or skills to handle a difficult family.”That may be very true. However, what have you done this week to change this? What have you done this month? This quarter? It is, after all, your responsibility as a manager to ensure that staff has the knowledge and skills to perform the job. Do you have a structured program that prepares your frontline staff to handle customer situations? If you do not, you are putting your staff at a disadvantage, and your customers are experiencing something less than excellent customer service.

So, in what areas should you have standards? I would suggest that a good starting point is to have standards for how customers are greeted and addressed, for how concerns and complaints are handled, and for how basic services, such as answering call lights or serving meals, should be delivered. Try replacing the above phrase with the following: Have clear standards for excellence in customer service.