Customer Service Through a New Lens

What is customer service? How do you know if the customer service you are providing is “good”? And who exactly is your customer? On the surface these seem to be simple questions, with equally simple answers. Customer service is how I serve the customer, and it is good when the customer is happy. My customer is the person buying my good or service. Simple questions, simple answers, end of story.

Years of managing a healthcare system in a small town that saw many of my wife’s extended family as patients, changed my perspective on these questions. I would ask, “how did it go at the hospital today?” Often the answer would be “I don’t know”.

So I began to dig a little deeper into these questions, because clearly the result we were producing wasn’t getting it. Below are the answers I found.  Since the genesis for my digging was healthcare, this article uses that perspective in its examples. However, you will see that they are applicable to any organization with customers, healthcare or otherwise, non-profit or for-profit, public or private-sector. (For more on the concept of customers in the non-profit arena see our post on “Disempowered Customers”.)

What is customer service?

The prevailing attitude on customer service has frequently been along the lines of “smile training” or attitude adjustment. For “old-school” customer service, friendly voices and smiling faces were the ticket. Some phone-based customer service agents were even given mirrors to look into as they talked on the phone to remind them to smile.

But as the world continues to grow smaller, technology mushroom and competition intensify, customer service must evolve as well. Most of us understand that what is considered true customer service is not defined by those providing the service, but by the customers themselves. But the question I found that needed answering? What is the real product and/or experience the customer is looking for? It is very often more than the surface definition we might give. I use the example in our client sessions of a rental car company. Their product is not simply a rental car, but rather affordable, convenient transportation when their customer is away from their own vehicle. (For more on this, view our blog post “What is your REAL product?”)

In my health care example, the product for the ultimate customer, the patient, is three-pronged. Your patient has his product when:

  • He understands what ails him, his diagnosis.
  • He understands the treatment given him in the clinic or hospital and the impact/effects of that treatment that he should expect
  • And finally, he knows what to do when he gets back home to treat his illness or prevent a similar situation from happening again.

Smiling won’t get you there. Quality patient care and thorough communication in understandable terms are critical to customer service in health care. What are the products your customers desire? What is their definition of impeccable customer service? Which brings us to question #2, is my customer service any good?

How to measure the quality of customer service?

Defining customer service in terms of the outcomes wanted by customers can completely alter the interaction between the customer and supplier. For example, years ago it was widely believed that customer service meant more service, i.e. more attentiveness, personified by the used car salesman or department store employee who is always asking if they can help you. Nowadays, it is equally likely that the customer would prefer to be completely on his or her own, i.e. receive no service, personified here by shopping on Amazon or at Costco in exchange for lower prices or more convenience. Do your customers want to be empowered or served? These days, this is an open question.

children-health-smallHealth care providers are often guilty of thinking that what they do for a customer is the product instead of what the customer actually takes away. And therefore, if the health care provider completes his or her tasks well, the patient is getting good customer service. It is true that the patient will be getting good health care, but not necessarily good customer service. The same is true for an many industries.

Let’s dig more deeply.  For example, from a lab technician’s perspective one of their “products” is drawing blood, and if they can do that as efficiently and painlessly as possible, they are providing good customer service. But this is not the product from the customer or patient’s point of view, and therefore is not their definition of good customer service.

The product from the customer’s point of view is “identification of what is wrong in my system so that I can be treated and get well”. Yes, a customer certainly cares how the blood is drawn, and hopes for efficient and painless. And for a lab technician or any medical service provider, striving to do the mechanics of their job well is very important, particularly in health care. But ultimately the real product the customer wants is an answer, a solution that will make them well and keep them well.

You may likely be thinking, “But a lab technician while drawing blood cannot provide that answer to the patient, so that can’t be their product”. True. But the lab technician can say: “Mrs. Smith, I am drawing blood today so that test ‘x’ can be run. The results of the test will give your doctor information about what is causing your symptoms, and the doctor will be able to discuss the results with you in approximately 30 minutes.” Ultimately the customer is looking for answers, not tests, even if the tests are done impeccably well. Good customer service in health care revolves around communication equally as much as around the care given.

Who exactly is my customer?

The obvious answer is your organization’s ultimate external customer. However, there are a host of internal supplier-customer relationships in every organization. Each time you produce something in your work, you have a customer. Likewise, you were a customer for whatever materials or information you needed to produce your product.

Our example with the lab technician and patient provides a perfect opportunity to answer the third of our initial questions. Who is the customer? In health care there is one obvious, ultimate customer: the patient. But alongside the patient is a string of customers who must not be forgotten if quality patient care is to be attained. First, the lab technician himself is a customer. Of who? The ordering physician. Then the role is reversed when the lab technician or technologist runs the test and provides the results back to the physician.

Flowchart any system and you will see a line of supplier-customer relationships. Essential to the experience of your ultimate customer is success at each of the supplier to customer hand-offs within your organization. Spend time to not only identify who your each of your internal customers are, but what their needed products are from you.  When you do, you begin to deliver higher customer service internally which inevitably leads to higher customer service to your end user.

How to put it all together

healthcare3smallSo how does all this fit together, and how can you improve your customer service regardless of the industry you are in? First, ask the questions that let you know how you are doing now. Getting baseline data on what your customers perceive as the quality of your current customer service is critical to being able to assess the success of any changes you make. To continue our healthcare example, gather data by stationing an employee where the patients are discharged who can ask:

  • Do you understand your diagnosis?
  • Do you understand the treatment given today?
  • Do you understand what is next, i.e., what you must do to get better and stay better once you are back home?

Also important is to flowchart your processes. How is a product created? How does a customer move through your system? All these processes are full of customer/supplier interactions – both internal and external.  Once the systems are flowcharted, you can begin to pick out problems and fix them. Keep talking to your customers, and not just external customers, but the internal customers along the system. Until each customer, both internal and external, is getting the product they need to move forward, the system is not operating at its full potential.

Another approach to help your staff implement good customer service is to define their jobs first in terms of the tangible products they produce and then to define those products in terms of the needs and wants of their customer that product satisfies. In their job descriptions, the product defined by the needs and wants of the customers can be spelled-out, and even measured by surveying the internal and external customers. For example, if the customer needs and wants served by the technician drawing blood include the ability to describe what the test will tell the provider and ultimately the patient regarding their diagnosis, then make that product clear in the job description and measure whether or not the employee is getting that product with the patients he or she serves.

Does it work?

We used this process of flowcharting, collecting data and defining products with a Native health center in South Central Alaska. The results were nothing short of remarkable. It is possible to improve customer service while reducing waste and costs.

Improving your processes to deliver high quality customer service is not difficult, but it does take concerted effort and a willingness to view your entire system through the customer’s eyes – the external customer and the internal. The effort provides high returns, though, in customer and employee satisfaction, positive impacts to the bottom line and increasing opportunities for your organization. If you have any questions on how to start improving customer service, we invite you to contact us at (877) 276-4414 or via e-mail.