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Donna Suter is president of Suter Consulting Group.
Tending to an angry ophthalmic customer is the golden opportunity to foster a better relationship with him or her-here's how.
Editor’s Note: Welcome to “Let's Chat,” a blog series featuring contributions from members of the ophthalmic community. These blogs are an opportunity for ophthalmic bloggers to engage with readers with about a topic that is top of mind, whether it is practice management, experiences with patients, the industry, medicine in general, or healthcare reform. The series continues with this blog by Donna Suter. The views expressed in these blogs are those of their respective contributors and do not represent the views of Ophthalmology Times or MultiMedia Healthcare, LLC.
Garden Musings: “Every man is a darn fool for at least five minutes out of every day. Wisdom consists of not exceeding the limit.” -Elliott Hubbard
In winter, I purchased perennials to showcase the purple flowers on my tree-like butterfly bush. And then it bloomed white. I decided I might be becoming like the patient who emphatically insists, “These are not the glasses I ordered! I distinctly remember they were…”
Unless my mischievous garden fairies have moved into your optical lab and changed spectacle lens design details or the model number or color of the frame, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt the patient is confused. What happens next either wins the practice a patient for life or opens the door for more nasty online reviews than I have blooms on my purple (oh yes, it is white) small flowering tree.
Sometimes, people take your ophthalmic practice's prescription and buy glasses online or at a discount outlet. They post that they are cheaper than your practice’s. Price is an issue when value has not been established. Rewarding confusion or complaints with fast, accurate and polite service is why the patient buys from you and not online. They want a living, breathing human who understands and forgives memory lapses.
Counter with kindness, empathy and solutions
One way to add value to irate patient encounters is to smoothly execute a VIP, hands-on way of treating the complaining patient. “Wait,” you say. “The upset patient isn’t my fault. They were wrong!”
I agree, the patient who forgets what he or she ordered is probably wrong. This is why it is a golden opportunity to do something a virtual selling site can never do!
Listen to how the confused patient feels. Not getting what is expected stirs up lots of emotions (surprise, frustration, anxiety) I want you to encourage him or her to be honest: “WOW, this is a surprise. Tell me what you remember about your order.”
Sometimes, in an effort to demonstrate no error was made by the practice, employees or doctors jump straight to the facts and empirical evidence. Stop and listen to understand. You are trying to form a relationship with the patient, not ace a test.
Letting the upset patient speak first demonstrates respect. It allows him or her to speak without feeling manipulated. Because you work in a service job, irate patients come with the territory. What the patient is upset about usually isn’t your fault. But they don’t care about that. They are just mad, and you represent the practice that is causing all the misery.
Whenever you encounter an angry or defensive patient you have a choice. Are you helpful or indifferent?
Really listening means not allowing your body language or tone of voice to suggest you think the patient is wrong. Quickly showing the patient your original order notes without listening might soothe his or her anger but he or she probably won’t be back. Why? People come back to buy when they feel good. The next time someone insists the product is wrong, keep the following ideas in mind and put them to work.
Take a yoâga-breath and listen
Acknowledge the emotion-upset people say all kind of irrational things. Listen for information and for areas of agreement. To stop yourself from jumping in with a rebuttal, take notes. Jot down notes on a piece of paper or in the patient notes section of your practice management software. I recommend using a notes screen that is not in exam notes. Be consistent as to where you record these types of encounters.
For example: “I’m sorry for this misunderstanding. To prevent further misunderstanding, I suggest we go over all the paperwork from the original sale together.”
Service recovery and continuous improvement
Treat upset patients as learning opportunities. Everyone gets confused, so encourage people to talk and grow as a problem solver. Build a culture that rewards employees for resolving encounters with upset patients successfully. Complaints give you a second change to provide service and satisfaction to an unhappy patient. Service industry tracking of complaints reveals that most complaints are caused by the consumer. Your job is to resolve the complaint that allows the patient to keep his or her dignity intact without making financial concessions on behalf of the practice. Do the best you can and jot down word patterns that worked and which ones didn’t.
A patient complaint is one of the most direct and effective ways for them to tell the practice that there is room for improvement.
If a large percentage of your patients appear to struggle with mental confusion or forgetting details, protect your employees from verbal assaults by adding structure, routine and predictability to the selection process.
It could be as simple as 1-2-3:
Complaints are a wonderful opportunity to strengthen patient loyalty.
Your pain is real, and I don’t want to trivialize the patience it takes to deal with a confused patient. I cannot imagine how you must feel sometimes. I suspect it feels like the patient is taking advantage of you and the practice. It is not pretty when the patient screams. Not only does it leave you shaken but the patient may be embarrassed and cover the embarrassment by becoming even angrier and more self-righteous.
Prepare for the worst, practice your communication techniques
It is essential that your entire team be trained to handle the volatile patient. Angry people do not typically get any angrier than they initially present if handled well. Also, while certain people are conditioned to ask for a full refund, it is possible to defuse the situation before those words are spoken.
An explosion must be acknowledged before a problem can be resolved. This is why listening is so important. They obviously feel they have something to say and listening without interrupting moves the patient toward resolution. In order to become an expert at listening (and asking questions) to angry customers, you need to memorize a technique and practice it in role-play situations. Develop alternative questions and demonstrate how something positive can happen.
Remember, you are trying to take the angry energy and turn it into such a positive feeling that this person becomes a #ravingfan of the practice. Please don’t expect to win them all. No matter how patient, helpful and understanding you are, there will be a small percentage of irate patients impossible to satisfy.
Unfortunately, some patients really do get their satisfaction from giving others a hard time. If a patient shows definite signs of becoming hostile or violent, don’t try to handle it alone. There should be a procedure in your policy manual about how to handle these folks. Dealing with upset patients takes a wealth of self-control and is a tough job. Reduce internal stress by practicing self-care, taking conflict resolution classes regularly, and don’t expect to be perfect in dealing with every patient every time. You are human too.