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Customer Service: Take a Page From the Hospitality Industry

Elizabeth Holloway, COE, PHR, CPSS

To meet patient expectations, particularly those of cash-paying consumers, many practices have started incorporating customer service ideas from the hospitality industry.

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in Ophthalmic Professional.

It was a crazy Friday night at the popular Italian restaurant in Los Angeles where I worked. I was cross-trained for many positions, and that night I was assigned to the role and responsibilities of hostess. I had a line of people waiting to dine at my podium, because patrons were willing to wait more than an hour for a seat at one of our tables. In general, the restaurant was noisy and hectic for every member of our staff.

A gentleman approached the podium and gave his name for a 7:30 reservation. I looked at our reservation book, but his name was not listed. My first thought was that we had accidentally booked his reservation on the wrong night, but I could not find any record of his reservation. At that point, I had two choices. I could accommodate his reservation, or I could put him in the queue for standby seating.

Working in an unexpected guest on a busy night was going to be challenging. I could see the chefs, servers, food runners, busboys, and bartenders all working extremely hard to keep up with the pace. To accommodate this guest, I would be asking our team to work even harder. I knew almost immediately what I had to do, and it wasn't going to be easy.

Same Opportunities

I think we experience the same type of opportunities in our practices. On any given day, patients can arrive on the wrong day, or we may not have their appointments on file. Patients can also have unusual requests that surprise us or throw us off guard. These requests can be challenging for the team, impacting everyone in the practice.

While we perform medical services, patients expect us to display the same customer service and professional- ism that they experience in other consumer industries. Patients demand even greater customer service of practices offering cash options such as LASIK, deluxe IOLs, dry eye treatments, or other cosmetic services. To meet patient expectations, many practices have started incorporating customer service ideas from the hospitality industry.

As I transitioned from the hospitality environment into a medical practice, I found that the basic principles of working in a restaurant translated directly into ophthalmology. Here are a few lessons that I learned:

Patient Experience

In my restaurant, we worked hard to create great guest experiences. Our theme was simple: “To have every guest leave happy.” That was it. For every customer service issue we had and for every guest we served, our goal simply was to have that guest leave happy. Whether you work in a small or large practice, it is important to know your goal for your patients’ experience. What do you want every patient, regardless of age or diagnosis, to feel when they leave your office? How do you want every patient to be treated?

Steps of Service

Our restaurant had “Steps of Service” protocols. These steps included greeting the guest, wine presentation, daily specials, and details that would make our customers feel like they had a special, all-encompassing dining experience. What “Steps of Service” would work best for your practice? How should you greet patients? What are special services you can provide so every patient feels the care and compassion from your team?

Flexibility

In hospitality, one of the most important areas of customer service is flexibility. At my restaurant, if we saw a way to improve the guest experience, we were encouraged to do it. We did not always have to ask for a manager’s approval. When considering opportunities to add value to the patient experience, you can ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is it the right thing for the patient?
  • Is it the right thing for the practice?
  • Does the request comply with all payer and compliance regulations?
  • Will this increase the patient’s faith in our office and our physicians?

Take Care of People

On that night many years ago, I looked at our guest and said, “Sir, I am so sorry. I cannot find your name on our reservation list. Please let me make this right. Let me put your name down now, and I will have a table ready in about 10 minutes. Is that OK?” When he left later that evening, he stopped and thanked me for making his family’s dinner so special.

In my practice, I frequently had patients approach me and tell me how well our doctors and staff treated them. These experiences, in both hospitality and medicine, have formed my single most important principle of great customer service: Take care of people.

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