Some time ago, I was working for a health care organization that seemed to be having some difficulty in customer service. As a result, the higher-ups thought it would be really beneficial if the education department (of which I was a part) took up the task of teaching customer service to the front line employees, specifically the people who engage patients when they come to the hospital system. So, after a few meetings that consisted of management explaining how customer service needs to improve (in which I was reminded of the infamous pro dominant adage of “We will beat our slaves until moral improves” but I digress), we were then shown a motivational film that’s been making the circuit called “Give Them the Pickle.” In case you’re not familiar with this film, it features the creator of the ice cream parlor Farrell’s as he explains how a customer got really upset in one of his establishments because he asked for an extra pickle and was then told that pickles are extra, or something like that. This started a whole series of adventures where this owner decided to change the customer service model of his franchise forever. There may have been an “and they lived happily ever after” at the end of it as well. I’ll admit, it was motivational and it was a good presentation. But it seemed to miss a few things, specifically when dealing with the company where I just worked.
First, the problem inherent in our company has a lot more to do with service than just customer service. To begin with, customer service tends to be lacking WITHIN the organization, so that quite often it can be a bit difficult to deal with other parts of the company because of the silos that have been created and maintained. When you have that sort of atmosphere going on, telling those same employees that they now need to focus on customer service when they’re having enough trouble providing company service to each other, well, there’s a dysfunction already harming the larger issue.
One day last year, I was on the bus near the main hospital when I overheard a conversation between a bunch of the passengers. One said something about our hospital, as in he’s never been there and people always told him to avoid it. And then people chimed in about how the people that worked there were rude, the services were all overpriced, and not a single one of them failed to mention our competition as the better facility to go in case you ever need health care needs fulfilled. I brought this conversation back to my organization when I first heard it, and the immediate response I received from management was a reinterpretation of the message, that they were complaining because they couldn’t afford the good health care that was provided by our establishment, not that it was overpriced; when it came to the customer service part, they just continued talking about how because they were already miffed at the prices, they would interpret anything else as negative. Basically, they had solid information from people who were complaining, and the response was that obviously they were confused about what they were complaining about, so nothing needs to be changed.
This is the organization that now needs to “improve” customer service by teaching employees how to give free pickles as ice cream parlors. Keep in mind that we don’t give out free health care, free testing supplies (or tests), cut rates on surgery, an actual better product than any other health care facility (even though the argument keeps being made that they do, based on a sample size of none, as statistics don’t really make a lot of sense when you’re comparing to yourself (one divided by one still does manage to equal one).
So, how do you improve customer service when you actually don’t pay any attention to the public to whom you are now supposed to be providing better customer service? The simple answer is you don’t. The solution isn’t really a riddle, but an acknowledgement that perhaps we need to go out into the population and talk to them, find out what they would like from a large hospital system that claims to know what they need without actually asking them, and perhaps worrying less about pickles and more about why people might be there in the first place. I was in the hospital last year with a kidney problem, and I was scared during the time I was in there. One of the worst doctors I’ve ever experienced was one who was actually from the place where I worked. She didn’t care one iota about how her patients felt, and she was kind of a moron as well (which as a communications person, I attributed to the fact that she had zero listening skills, which made her diagnosis work absurdly bad).
Which brings me back to the whole communication aspect of this whole situation, which you probably should have guessed it would come in at some point or another. If you want to figure out what’s wrong with your customer service, talk to your customers and try to find out. It’s a good thing to look at comment cards and all that, but quite often a comment card is one of those things logged AFTER a bad experience, which means you don’t really have the opportunity to fix what was wrong, and like the place where I worked, they probably never will.
Some of these things should go without being said, but unfortunately I think that’s the problem. They haven’t been said, and thus, people are now convinced they have the answers after having watched some old entrepreneur talk about giving pickles to customers when they ask for them.