Why doctors should say they’re sorry and other customer service tips

How physicians and staff can step-up their customer service game

When I was serving food for a living, I learned my greatest lessons in customer service. Up until that point, only one person judged my work performance, and outside opinions didn’t affect my salary. Enter the food and beverage industry, in which, everyone’s opinion matters (if you want a good tip). If a customer felt cold due to a draft, I found them a new seat. If someone requested more salad dressing with dinner, I’d give them two extra. If parents came in schlepping strollers and baby carriers, I was quick to grab them highchairs and kids menus.

I learned it’s the little things you do for customers that will earn you their trust and respect. The same can be said for hospitals. Customer satisfaction is not always high on a physician’s list of priorities, but their future may depend on it. Studies show that if doctors communicate well with their patients, they are less likely to get slammed with a malpractice claim. Additionally, retail clinics such as CVS’ Minute Clinics are gaining popularity because of their convenient locations and fast services. And these facilities are siphoning patients from primary care.

With customer satisfaction at its lowest in a decade, it’s time for physicians and staff to elevate their level of customer service to compete with alternative care models. Here are a few lessons in customer service from a girl whose job depended on it:

Lesson One: Customers aren’t always right.

The “customer is always right” mantra is outdated. With websites such as WebMd.com or Cleveland Clinic’s online encyclopedia, patients are more apt to self-diagnose. Even when patients are wrong about their ailment, try not to correct them without explanation.

My first job as a waitress was at a farm-to-table joint that prided itself on its organic food and beverages. So, when a customer asked for a diet soda, I educated them on why we didn’t carry it. And 99% of the time they appreciated the explanation. When a patient is wrong about their health, don’t dismiss the thought. Engage in a conversation about their current state of health, and provide resources to back it up. Check in with them a few days later to ensure they are feeling OK about the diagnosis. This small gesture could have a big impact on their relationship with you.

Lesson Two: Be transparent about your time.

In the restaurant industry, people expect to get seated as soon as they arrive. That doesn’t always happen. I learned that being upfront about the wait, instead of telling them a fabricated time, was more reputable and gained their respect. I’d also inform customers every ten minutes about when a table would open up. They always appreciated being kept in the loop and didn’t ditch the place for a different restaurant.

Doctor offices are on a tight schedule due to an influx of patients with health insurance and a limited amount of physicians. Time is restricted, and that’s understandable. However, making them sit in a waiting room or exam room an hour after their scheduled appointment, is not. If you have a busy day, make sure your patients know ahead of time. Better yet, add an online appointment scheduling tool to your website so patients can view your calendar and see how your day is panning out. Help them plan their day accordingly and make them less anxious while they’re waiting.

Lesson Three: Say you’re sorry.

No, I didn’t get it right all the time. I screwed up: I dropped plates, spilled drinks or flat out forget about an order. It happens, and I learned that apologies go a long way.  If a physician makes a mistake and it leads to injury or damages, a malpractice claim can ensue. A quick and honest apology could prevent a future claim or provide an opportunity for a settlement. In the service industry, we call that the rebound. And a successful rebound can turn what could have been a disappointed customer into one of your most emphatic fans.

Good manners and a positive attitude can stem issues before they grow into bigger problems. Make sure your physicians, nurses and staff are maintaining a high level of customer service and contributing to a positive reputation at their practice. And, while we’re on the topic, always try to be courteous to the wait staff. There’s more to serving tables than you think.