Turn complaints into ‘gifts’: 5 steps for improving online reviews

December 3, 2018

You don’t need to change your brand. Change how you interpret feedback.

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, president of Suter Consulting Group. The views expressed in these blogs are those of their respective contributors and do not represent the views of Ophthalmology Times or UBM Medica.

As a business coach I walk a fine line. On one hand, I am paid to shine the harsh light of reality on practice performance; on the other, I reshape the things patients are afraid to say in a way that doesn’t make you cringe.

Delivering criticism can be uncomfortable, intimidating, and hard to share. Hardest is being the recipient and fighting past the emotion of rejection to get to understanding, acceptance and change. Separating process improvement from the emotion of failure leads to long-term success.

Acknowledge and redress your shortcomings for a successful 2019. While it is true that patients can act just like disloyal consumers looking for a Black Friday deal, professional practices still find it helpful to ask themselves two important questions:

  • Have we made patients less loyal through our emphasis on our participation in vision plans and discounting goods and services?

  • Are we giving our patients enough value to keep them loyal?

Motivation without tears

The dynamic of disappointing patients is closely tied to understanding what the patient values. In a competitive environment, patients who do not feel they are being heard will take their business elsewhere. Do you, in fact, know how your patients define value?

Typically, patients value convenient exam times, a doctor who listens, and products that solve problems. Instead of waiting to see if the patient you saw today comes back, ask for feedback.

Complaints (or feedback from patients) are one of the most direct and effective ways for patients to tell practices that there is room for improvement.
What do you do if a new hire is struggling in their role, and dragging your team down? You offer feedback. As a practice, we cannot exceed expectations if we do not know exactly how we are failing. Only with feedback can we make the necessary changes.Give the practice a clear plan to improve

Receiving feedback from patients is all about accepting their ratings (and comments) and fighting through strong emotions to the truth that will lead your practice into greater success.

The father of modern attribution theory, Fritz Heider, notes that most of us attribute blame to individuals, rather than the circumstances surrounding product or service failure. Because no one really likes to hear about his or her failures, we tend to dismiss the surface complaint and not listen to its deeper message. Complaining patients are giving us an opportunity to find out what their problems are so we can help them. It is everyone’s job to encourage the upset patient to follow their plan of care and enjoy clear vision by purchasing premium optical products.

Unfortunately, I see more and more practices opting to ‘fire’ the patient because the doctor and/or employees feel verbally abused. I am quite sure that you are often verbally attacked when receiving face-to-face complaints. Some patients lack gracious social skills and may use inappropriate language when they complain.

The more nervous they get, the harsher, angrier and even stupid he or she may appear. We must train ourselves to look past the delivery to content.The service provider must learn to focus on the content of the complaint and not on the way the complaint is delivered. This is asking a lot of employees who have never been taught conflict resolution.

One solution that works with tech-savvy patients is making collecting customer satisfaction part of your digital outreach. The rare patient that complains is giving us a gift. We must develop the emotional discipline to look past how this gift is wrapped to its content. It is as if they are gifting us with a ‘book’ entitled, "A Chance to Survive: Listen to Me and Stay in Private Practice."

The more patients value what you do, the more loyal they will be. We all know that it is easier to take our business elsewhere than to go through the hassle of complaining. What this means is patients who complain to the practice are showing a greater degree of loyalty than patients who leave because of mediocre performance.

There are four things your patients want to tell you:

  • I expect you to have mastered the basics of what you say you will do. If you haven’t, I will switch to another source. Even if you have, that alone is not enough to keep me loyal.

  • I expect you to go beyond the basics and provide me with that which I value. If you do, you will have a loyal patient. If not, my business is ‘up for grabs.’

  • Some things you do irritate me, but are not important enough to drive me away. Besides, your competitors do the same things.

  • Some things you do, I don’t care anything about.

I have discovered in helping more than 1,000 practices over the past 20 years that these four recurring themes circle the two things research confirms that the patient values.
Patients want to optimize two scarce resources-their time and money. Put simply, there are too many things to spend our time and money on today and, due to digital technology, the possibilities keep escalating.

This means that patients want a lot of things, but can only afford a few things; thus they have to prioritize. This explains why consumers say they are “interested in buying premium products” and then don’t. They weren’t kidding-they really were interested, but they didn’t see enough value to make it a priority.

In other words, people spend their time and money first on what they need and second on what they value. The same technology makes it easy to identify and work on performance issues or systems that are sticking points with your patients.

Five steps for improving patient satisfaction and online reviews.

Punish your processes and not your people. Staff members will be more likely to pass along complaints to you if they know this is the practice’s approach to performance improvement. In order for a complaint to truly be a gift, the root causes of that complaint must be identified. Once identified, it can be broken down into actionable steps that will help you retain existing patients and attract new ones.

  • Step 1:Form a partnership with the upset patient 
    Turn the hostility of upset patients into something positive. Offer a quick, painless way to complain. Each upset patient is identifying obstacles that are stopping other patients from being satisfied.
     

  • Step 2: Prepare for a direct, and uncomfortable, conversation 
    The department or office needs to know exactly how they're failing to meet expectations. Management’s job is to use feedback as a catalyst to make the necessary changes. Don’t point fingers. Factually share your concerns with employees and ask for their point of view about what’s been happening.
     

  • Step 3: Work on a solution with as many employees as necessary
    Start off by saying something like, ‘Bob, I have a problem. I want to talk about optical orders waiting for pick up. It appears patients are not being told when eyewear is ready. The department is on track in some ways, but we need to make some adjustments.' Then give clear, specific feedback on what patients are complaining about and how optical should improve. Once you’ve done this, watch how the lead person responds. If you don’t see significant effort almost immediately, and real improvement over the next three months, you may have to take more serious action.
     

  • Step 4: Promptness wins
    Acknowledge receiving online comments, texts and emails the same day. Very often people who want to be loyal patients give the practice an extra chance to improve things. When the complaint must be researched, thank the patient tell the individual lodging the complaint you will research the specifics and reach back out in five business days.

    What I mean by this is people who give you a bad review with comments want you to win them back. Customer surveys tabulated by TARP (Technical Assistance Research Programs, U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs) report that between 55 to 70 percent of people who complain in writing and receive a rapid reply will remain customers. If the reply they receive is both rapid and satisfactory, 90 percent will remain customers.
     

  • Step 5: Monitor your progress
    Encouraging feedback through an existing portal (emails or texting) increases your practice’s ability to reduce complaints about common problems.

Ask questions rather than offer solutions.

As leaders, we can get into the habit of wanting to smooth a patient’s ruffled feelings or solve problems for ourselves. It's only natural to want to rely on your own instincts and experience to address challenges. However, our ultimate job as leaders is to empower other leaders.

Immediately offering a solution doesn’t empower those working for you; rather, it creates a culture of dependence. Developing a complaint-friendly culture is hard work. I do recommend you ask your vendor-partners for ideas on how to boost positive online reviews and solve patient problems before a post goes viral. I recently researched some companies that provide practice help in getting positive online reviews by providing actionable feedback. Because of technology, digital add-ons created and managed by digital solutions companies are very affordable.

The real cost is losing your patients to a practice down the street. You have limited time and must use patient feedback to show you where to invest your training time and dollars and what areas of the practice need upgrades.

An online query will illustrate that there is no shortage of advanced thinking concerning patient satisfaction and value perception. The shortage appears to be going beyond asking the question to actionable steps that solve the underlying, broken processes. With your leadership, your employees have the capacity to generate great solutions. Trust them to implement their solutions and enjoy 2019.