Customer Service in a Virtual Monopoly

Posted on May 13, 2010


Pick up any business magazine and it is easy to find an article about a company misstep in customer service (or as Clark Howard likes to say, “Customer No Service”). Customer relations is so important today because in most industries with normal competition, a customer can find a better option if they feel they had a bad experience. Healthcare is somewhat immune to this, which is why customer service has a long way to go to catch up to business outside the healthcare bubble. If insurance coverage was more comparable, the billing practices and fees more transparent, and in some cases more healthcare options, it would easier to shop around as a patient.

Customer service quality should not be directly proportional to the legitimacy of competition, but it is.

It is not hyperbole to say the crux of good customer service is based on the Golden Rule:  do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  The foundation behind this eternal guidepost is empathy:  take a moment and stand in the other person’s shoes. If what you are asking of a customer, or how you are treating her is inconsistent with your ultimate goal, or just does not seem reasonable, reexamine your policy.

For instance, is it reasonable to require a four-hour block of time (small community hospital) for an acknowledged 45-minute outpatient procedure? No.  Even with some built-in buffer, this time-table sounds more like the timeline from an appliance repairman or cable television technician (‘someone will be by between 10am and 4pm’)—notoriously customer unfriendly services. I think many healthcare providers wrongly assume people have unlimited flexibility in their day. If a procedure takes 45-minutes, I should not have to take an entire day off work for patient drop-off and pick-up duties.

In most sales situations, the company doing the selling is trying to impress the customer to win current and future business. To paraphrase Jeffrey Gitomer, a favorite sales author, they should try to engage with friendly customer-centered actions. In healthcare, like in the cable man comment above, there is no competition (in my case, the nearest competing facility is 30+ miles away), or like in the appliance repair situation, the person I was tending to was referred to a doctor at the facility, so we were already committed to the relationship.

In either case, the hospital controls the engagement. I wonder how many medical transactions occur where the patient felt they had 100% control of where they sought care, in other words, were at the facility of their choice with the doctor of their choice? Loss of choice is more difficult to stomach when the alternative is so distasteful.

If your facility has a virtual monopoly, your institution can use it for maximum leverage in patient interactions, cutting corners on service and juicing up fees. However, this is short-sighted thinking because patients will jump to your competitor at the next possible chance—and you have no idea when that will happen. Or your facility can ignore its virtual monopoly by functioning as if you want to win over every patient from the moment they even consider coming to your facility. This is long-term thinking because you will build up goodwill and patients will have no need to even explore a future competitor:  they will be too happy with your valuable service.