The insincerity of customer service without the personal relationships: Lessons for Healthcare

Customer service is all the rage these days in most facets of our lives. America leads the world in this area (however much the public here may 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 ungenuine, insincere and somewhat annoying?

This is particularly something to be on the guard about in healthcare, where administrators all across the country are banging their heads together trying to “improve the hospital experience” and “raise patient satisfaction”, without realizing that healthcare 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 ask for. No creative handout, iPhone app or bumper sticker solution can change this— and healthcare 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 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, unfortunately 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 answerphone from the dealership. It was someone from the customer service department. The message was one of the most cheesiest and insincere messages I’ve ever heard and 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 outstaaanding service!” (the outstanding was duly exaggerated in a strong salesman-like tone).

This type of message summarizes exactly 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 which emphasizes strong personal relationships. I see the same phenomenon in healthcare now, especially with the rush towards consolidation and mergers. There’s no room for personal relationships any more, 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 had got lost in my car and fallen deep 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 a physician, author, speaker and healthcare consultant. He has experience in a number of different healthcare environments, having worked up and down the East coast and also internationally. His specialty areas include hospital QI, optimizing healthcare IT, and improving the patient experience. He is the author of 3 books, including most recently “The Ultimate Patient Advocate in Your Pocket”, designed to help hospitalized patients. He is also the founder of HealthITImprove, an organization dedicated to improving and optimizing information technology at the frontlines of healthcare.

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