Letters from Maine

Bein' L.L.-Like (or Bein' Like L.L. Bean)


What do you call the children and parents that you spend most of your days and some of your nights with? I usually refer to them as patients and their families. This shouldn't surprise you since I am old enough that no one seems embarrassed to ask me if I would like a senior citizen discount. But you may refer to the people you serve as clients, particularly if you consider yourself a provider.

Whether you call them patients or clients, the bottom line is that they are our customers and as such deserve good customer service. Unfortunately, I fear that as a group we physicians don't have a great reputation for providing customer-friendly service. I know of – and have endured myself – waiting room experiences on a par with the tarmac imprisonments for which airlines now must pay hefty fines. Some of us work with receptionists and billing office personnel, who as preschoolers must have bonded with Oscar the Grouch instead of Grover or Bert and Ernie.

The ingredients of bad customer service are obvious to anyone who is on the receiving end. However, while you know when you have gotten good customer service, it might be difficult to dissect out exactly what it was that created that impression. Often, it's simply because the person you were dealing is blessed with a pleasant demeanor inherited from a parent. But good customer service can be learned by those of us who are genetically less fortunate.

For example, L.L. Bean perennially receives several awards for good customer service. This past year they were ranked No. 1 by Bloomberg Businessweek. Good customer service has been built into the culture of their business since it was founded by Leon Bean. The company's willingness to accept and/or replace returned items with little question has spawned amusing and amazing suburban legends (hiking boots with bloody gunshot holes, etc.). The people on the phones are knowledgeable, courteous, and eager to help.

Many of my patients' parents work for the company (as does our son) and so, from time to time, I get a glimpse inside the culture that has created this customer-friendly aura. It isn't rocket science. It is a commitment from the top down that they are not only going to offer a quality product, but they will treat you as they'd like to be treated themselves. Now, no person or system is perfect, but I'll bet you have been the beneficiary of good customer service from L.L. Bean.

Can you say that about the patients who come to your office? Do you really know? Do you ever go into your waiting room? Do you hear what your receptionists and billing people tell your patients? As groups get larger and new offices are built, we are often insulated from the ugliness or just plain callousness that goes on over the phone or when the sliding glass window gets rolled back (I hate those).

Let's assume for the moment that none of us physicians is the cause of bad customer service. But are we enabling or permitting it to persist? Parents and patients might not feel comfortable sharing their bad experiences and complaints with us. They may be intimidated by us as authority figures or they may assume that we don't care and/or can't do anything about a rude receptionist.

As more physicians become employees, it is rare that a practice can claim that β€œthe owner is in the store.” However, abandoning ownership doesn't mean that our patients are no longer our customers. They deserve to be treated as we would like to be treated ourselves, and we must take the lead role in making customer service a top priority.

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