Hospitals Without Customer Service

Posted on December 2, 2011


Customer service is not a favorite topic of mine. However, when something particularly outlandish happens, especially in healthcare, I hope it may serve as a basis for improvement and regrounding of business practices.  Yesterday I experienced a customer service 911. Details will be purposefully vague to protect the guilty.

I was north of Fort Lauderdale yesterday traveling on business and was between meetings.  I decided to stop in to see a hospital without an appointment. In sales this is called a “cold call”.  I am an architect, so I call it natural curiosity. I like buildings, and I learn from seeing how things are done at each one. When I have some free time, I visit hospitals. Of course I would like to know if I could work with a hospital in the future, so I will leave a business card as well. That way, I learn and I market.

I walked into a large hospital owned by a large, publicly-traded, for-profit healthcare company and asked for directions to Administration. I was told I needed to provide ID for a photo ID sticker, and to have an appointment. 

She:  “I cannot let you in without an appointment.”  Me:  fine, I am ok leaving my business card and a personalized note with my card. 

“I would like the person in charge of capital projects,” I ask. The receptionist thought she knew who I needed to speak with but could not remember the name; she looked up and down her phone list in vain.

“I cannot take your card and information without a name for who it is going to.”  I asked, “I don’t know who that is yet.  Can you please call the Admin desk and find out?”

“I need to know the receptionist’s name in Administration to call her and I don’t.” Hmm:  a master list of names and phone extensions without departments or duties—how unlucky for me.

Then it got really weird.  She handed me a generic hospital business card with the main hospital number.  She told me to call the general number; ask for Administration; find out the name of the capital projects’ director and his or her assistant; then tell her the name so she could call them from her desk and ask if they would accept my business card and note for delivery.  I did not make that up.

I politely declined, thanked her, and left my card.  At this point, I needed to leave some remembrance of me behind as a sign of victory, even if it went in the trash the minute I walked out the door.

Some businesses, hospitals obviously included, get so caught up in procedure, they forget business is an exchange between people. Yes, I was an interloper in that case, and offered no value to her at that moment—even if I could save their hospital millions on their next project. Unfortunately this poor woman, who was not a volunteer by the way, could not hear how unprofessional she sounded, and how impersonal she made her hospital look.

I have been around the block on this before, but never so coldly, so irrationally. I know:  hospitals are sensitive places. I have taken photos of hospital exteriors (remember, I am an architect)—and no people in the photos by the way (to comply with patient privacy regulations)—and been accosted by Risk Management. I have dropped in unannounced to hospitals and been treated suspiciously at first, but I have also had successes from such visits.

Why?  It is worth any hassle, usually. If I want a picture of a building detail, it is better to take a photo, albeit legally achieved, and be told to stop, than to ask for permission and be told “no way” and have no photo in the end. If you don’t know one, this is just how obsessed designers act sometimes—it’s that important sometimes.

For businesses that have an administrative ‘necessary evil’ built into their customer experience, such as in retail, it is a common quality assurance tactic for a business to roll play a customer.  Some mystery shop, some call their own phone number and try to navigate their own phone tree to see if there are any hangups, head-scratchers, or ways to simplify and improve the experience.

I think a similar effort is needed in every hospital to confirm the visitor, and patient experience is as positive as it can be. It can only improve care, or at least the perception of the quality of care.