Q: Customer service isn't just for retail businesses anymore, is it?
Ms. Dennis — Not just because their satisfaction scores will potentially affect our reimbursements, but also because it's the right thing to do. We're service providers. We're in the people business. They're choosing to come to us. We shouldn't just be about efficiency and scheduling.
We call our physicians "providers." We should see and treat patients as "our customers."
Q: How important is customer service in the business of surgery?
Ms. Dennis — Probably just as important as infection prevention. It's true that health care depends on compliance with clinical practices and a consistently high standard of quality patient care. But those aren't enough. Patient satisfaction goes beyond preventing infections, for instance. If you're a patient and the best thing you can say about your surgical experience is, "I didn't get an SSI after my operation," that's not much of an endorsement. A patient-and-family-centered focus is necessary to keep your customers and attract new ones.
Q: What are some of the companies that provide good examples for surgery to follow?
Ms. Dennis — Why do people like to order from Amazon? It's a website, after all, there's no human interaction. But it's easy and convenient, there are no-hassle returns and you can shop whenever you want. We should be able to emulate that in our patient portals, to make the pre-admission process go as smoothly as possible. The Ritz Carlton is a Marriott property. But if I'm staying there, they address me as Ms. Dennis, they'll say, "How can I help you today?" or "It's my pleasure to assist you." We could do that when we're rounding with patients, or their families in the waiting room. We shouldn't just point the way, but walk them down the hall. What makes high-performance companies like Amazon or the Ritz different is that they take customer service to another level. It sounds like a cliché, but it makes the customer feel special. We should, too. Just recently, we even had a body language expert come in to observe our interactions with our patients, our families and each other, to see what kind of non-verbal cues we were giving off.
Q: Are patients a surgical facility's only customers?
Make surgical patients feel more like honored guests.
Ms. Dennis — Your patients are your customers, but your surgeons are too, of course. That's who brings in your business. Customer-focused strategies can enrich patients' and surgeons' experiences. Your staff's a customer, too. A happy staff is just as much a part of successful shared governance as policies and committees. And who's your first customer? You are the first customer. Everything's not always going to go perfectly in surgery, but the most important thing is to be able to take care of each other. Here's an example: one morning I was moving through the facility, delivering the day's orders, all business. I saw a surgeon who'd be operating that morning and asked him, "Did you get the H&P signed?" He turned to me and said, "Good morning to you, too, Vangie." I learned my lesson: courtesy doesn't take much more than a few extra seconds.
Q: Is it challenging to implement a culture of customer service in surgery?
Ms. Dennis — It requires buy-in, for sure, and I've seen resistance to it when I've started at new facilities. In healthcare, people are hard-wired to standards, to a certain way of treating patients. But if you're aiming to be a customer-focused organization, it's something you have to expect of all your employees. It has to be ingrained all the way down through your staff. You can have the best nurse ever, who maybe has poor social skills or difficulty interacting with your surgeons or the rest of your staff. And if you say, "She's a great nurse, but …", as soon as you say "but" you've just cancelled out everything before it. Everyone has baggage, we're all going to bring some of our personal issues to work, it's understandable. Just don't bring the whole set. And make sure everyone remembers that the patient isn't just about the treatment, but about the person.