Customer service is all the rage these days in most facets of our lives. America leads the world in this area (however much of the public here take it for granted). I’ve traveled all over the world, and the concept of customer service in many other parts of the globe, including highly advanced and prosperous other Western nations, still leaves a lot to be desired. It’s always reassuring to know in the United States that if you have genuine concerns or complaints, these will be taken very seriously by the appropriate authorities. Consumer protection laws and regulations also exist and are enforced to protect the public from unscrupulous and unethical business folk.
But as great as “good” customer service always feels, is there a time when we go too far to the point of becoming insincere and somewhat annoying?
This is particularly something to be on guard about in health care, where administrators all across the country are banging their heads together trying to “improve the hospital experience” and “raise patient satisfaction,” without realizing that health care is very different from all other industry sectors. That’s because medicine is all about personal relationships and trust. It’s a uniquely emotional arena, where compassion, empathy and a caring ear are all that most people want. No creative handout, iPhone app or bumper sticker solution can change this. And health care administrators need to understand this.
Recently, my car had an unexpected problem and wouldn’t start. It ended up being towed to the nearest dealership, to fix quite an electrical ignition issue. I usually avoid dealerships if I can at all help it. In addition to always being more expensive, I don’t like the “corporate” and “herd feeling” that I get from them, as opposed to “Sam’s Auto Shop” around the corner. However, on this occasion, I had no choice but for my car to be taken straight to the dealership. Over the next few days, I received telephone calls from the dealership, trying to keep me updated with what was happening. As earnest as these calls were, they appeared mixed up sometimes with what the problem was, and I wasn’t entirely convinced of their thoroughness. Anyway, a couple of days and an expensive rental car charge later, I picked up my car again — fixed and ready to go. The following day, I received another message on my answering machine from the dealership. It was someone from the customer service department. The message was one of the cheesiest and most insincere messages I’ve ever heard. It went something like this: “Hello Suneel Dhand … thanks for getting your car fixed by us. And we just want to call and make sure we gave you outstaaaaanding service!” (Note: The “outstanding” was exaggerated in a strong salesman-like tone.)
This type of message summarizes what customer service gets wrong. It was from someone I’ve never talked to before and who likely had no idea of what was wrong with my car. It typifies the corporate way of speaking and addressing customers, rather than the good old-fashioned way of providing one-on-one service that emphasizes strong personal relationships. I see the same phenomenon in health care now, especially with the rush towards consolidation and mergers. There’s no room for personal relationships anymore, which is exactly what our patients (or indeed anyone) desire the most.
In previous places I’ve lived, including in Baltimore during my medical residency, I found great local mechanics, who I trusted and always gave me good service. They were sincere and genuine. I could call them at any time, and they would always follow up with me. I remember towards the end of my medical residency when I thought a piece of jewelry got lost in my car and fallen under the seat. My mechanic spent a good couple of hours trying to locate it, removing the seat and searching diligently. After he was done, I wanted to pay him, but he insisted he wouldn’t charge me for it because I’d been such a loyal customer over the years. I was touched. Here was someone who had worked in baking hot Baltimore summer weather for a significant amount of time and taken the inside of my car apart, but refused to charge me. These are exactly the types of acts of personal goodwill that don’t exist in corporations, who will be sure to nickel and dime you for every little thing.
While corporations may work very well in lots of parts of our economy, such as with technology (Apple) and other mass-consumer goods — there’s just something that doesn’t quite work with the service industry and immediately takes on an impersonal feel. Whether it’s Sam’s Auto Shop around the corner, your hairdresser, school teacher, and yes — even your physician — customer service is all about that personal relationship and how close and trusting you feel towards that person.
Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician and author of three books, including Thomas Jefferson: Lessons from a Secret Buddha. He is the founder and director, HealthITImprove, and blogs at his self-titled site, Suneel Dhand.
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