By Don Sadler

Most businesses today understand the importance of delivering great customer service and how it impacts their bottom line. Hundreds of books have been written about customer service and companies like Amazon, FedEx, Chick-fil-A and Ritz-Carlton have made delivering outstanding customer service a key part of their brand identity.

But what about health care organizations – and ambulatory surgery centers (ASCs), in particular? How can they adopt some of the customer service practices used by these businesses to improve patient satisfaction and boost the bottom line?

Adopting a Customer Service Mindset

Vangie Dennis, MSN, RN, CNOR, CMLOS, executive director, WellStar AMC, is on a mission to help health care organizations and ASCs adopt more of a customer service mindset.

“Health care is a customer service industry,” says Dennis. “Great health care service starts with adopting a patient-centered perspective and viewing patients as real people, not just a means to generating revenue.”

Ann Shimek, MSN, BSN, RN, CASC, an independent consultant and Ambulatory Surgery Center Association (ASCA) board member, agrees. “When you treat the patient as a customer, you provide a higher level of care that is patient-centric,” she says.

ASCs are especially well-suited for this. “In the ASC space, we have the unique ability to customize care based on the patient’s needs,” says Shimek. “It’s more of a family-based approach where everyone knows each other.”

“Successful retail companies know how valuable happy customers are and spend huge amounts of money training employees on how to provide great service,” adds Brenda C. Ulmer, MN, RN, CNOR, perioperative nurse educator.

“The same concepts are true in a health care facility,” Ulmer adds. “Providing good customer service is just good business – and health care is a business.”

Toxic and Dysfunctional Environments

In her job as a clinical educator, Ulmer says she has visited many health care facilities of all types. “It’s easy to quickly pick up on whether I’m in a place where I’d want to have surgery or not,” she says. “Unfortunately, there are environments that seem so toxic and dysfunctional, I’m happy to leave. If I feel that way, I know patients probably do as well.”

Shimek points out that patients today are becoming more involved in choosing the setting for surgical procedures.

“Historically, surgeons would direct the site of service for procedures, but we’re starting to see a shift toward more patient input,” she says. “We expect this shift to become more pronounced as CMS sets pricing transparency across all organizations.”

“Patients today have a choice and surgeons are credentialed in multiple facilities,” adds Dennis. “Offering a concierge service approach creates a better customer experience and provides a focal point around which ASCs can shift their thinking to a more progressive population health mindset.”

Set the Right Tone at the Top

Dennis stresses that adopting a customer-service mindset in a health care setting starts at the top of the organization. “Chief executives must make it their mission to structure the organization around the goal of providing outstanding service,” she says.

ASCs should also broaden their scope of who a “customer” is. “Patients aren’t the only ‘customers’ in the facility,” says Dennis. “Surgeons, physicians, anesthesiologists and anyone who works in the facility should also be considered a customer.”

The next step is to figure out exactly what it is that your customers value so you can make these things a priority. This can be done by conducting patient, staff and physician/surgeon satisfaction surveys.

“Employees at the facility are the best people to ask what can be done to improve the patient experience,” says Ulmer.

“Look at the data to determine the things you do well and the areas where you need improvement,” says Dennis. “Also, study what successful businesses in other industries have done to deliver great customer service and use these in your facility where appropriate.”

Amazon is well-known for its great customer service. Part of their mission statement is “to be Earth’s most customer-centric company.” Dennis lists several ways that Amazon’s customer service practices can be adapted to a patient care model.

“For example, ASCs can adopt a culture of listening to their patients’ needs and making these a driver of innovation,” she says. “They can also strive to make personal interactions easy and follow up promptly with any continuation of care recommendations. This demonstrates that the staff cares about the patient and his or her experience at the facility.”

Ulmer echoes Dennis’ recommendation that ASCs study the practices used by Amazon and other customer service leaders. “Browse their websites and see what they’re doing to provide great customer service,” she says.

“For example, buying things on Amazon is so easy I don’t hesitate to make purchases,” says Ulmer. “I get items quickly, I don’t pay for shipping and my money is refunded quickly if I return an item. The process couldn’t be easier or more efficient.”

A Customer Service Success Story

Ulmer tells the story of her recent positive experience at an ASC where her husband had surgery performed.

“Every person who came into the room was friendly and seemed genuinely interested in my husband and his procedure,” she says. “And I was included every step along the way. It was a very positive experience from beginning to end.”

After she and her husband returned home, Ulmer discovered a thank-you card among the discharge instructions that had been signed by every person they came in contact with. “That’s great customer service!” she says.

“I smiled when I read the card because it was a visual reminder of everything I had observed throughout the day,” Ulmer adds. “I was impressed.”

Shimek suggests using technology to identify customer service issues as they are occurring and offering service recovery if there are any problems.

“For example, if a patient is delayed or their procedure is running late, a nice way to provide service recovery would be to give them a gift card to a local restaurant so that they can stop on the way home and get something to eat,” she suggests.

Getting Staff On Board

One of the challenges ASCs may face in improving customer service is training staff to adopt a customer service mindset and acclimating them to a different approach to patient care and interactions.

Dennis acknowledges that this can be difficult, especially at first. “However, once staff sees improvements in patient satisfaction results, this helps validate the need for changing the approach.”

Shimek suggests discussing your facility’s commitment to customer service during interviews with potential new employees. “This lets them know what your expectations are when it comes to customer service so there aren’t any surprises later,” she says.

“We also stress the importance of providing great customer service to physicians and surgeons so they continue to bring their cases to our facility,” Shimek adds.

Ulmer again stresses the importance of top leadership setting the tone for adopting a customer service mindset in the ASC. “This requires a culture change, which can be really hard sometimes,” she says.

“I’ve seen facilities where it seemed like the culture would never change and facilities where culture change was done successfully,” “Ulmer adds. “Ultimately, the staff has to be all in on the change – it takes a commitment from everyone.”