One thing is for certain: Health care lives and dies by customer service. When it comes to addressing customer service and the patient experience, however, organizations resist change. Many employees ignore suggestions, believing they are directed at their co-workers, not them. They simply wait for the initiative to blow over.

While we, as leaders, can push for change and implement training, we must generate buy-in from those involved, produce measurable data and create a genuine will to improve as an organization. Customer service doesn't come naturally to many, but proper training can improve service and bring about monumental change.

Managing for Data-Driven Results

Truman Medical Centers in Kansas City, Mo., recognizing the importance of patient feedback, focused on revitalizing the patient experience to ensure it was providing high-quality services.
Unfortunately, low patient-response rates were inhibiting the collection of data necessary to determine Truman's strengths and weaknesses. In some cases, at year's end, physicians had received only one patient evaluation. The lack of meaningful data led many physicians to believe they did not need training on providing exceptional care. Also, consumers may have been avoiding the organization and physicians without Truman's knowing a problem existed.
After reviewing the options available and speaking with the patient population, Truman placed electronic survey stations throughout the hospital, encouraging patients to take surveys and help the organization improve customer service. Truman no longer used standardized patient surveys, but focused on the specialties; this focus ensured that questions were relevant and timely.

To further enhance the experience of the patient and to encourage participation, Truman put real-time service recovery into motion. It monitored results collected by the electronic survey system and, upon the receipt of a less-than-satisfactory patient evaluation, a staff member immediately headed to the evaluation station to discuss the patient's experience. After having the station in place for roughly three months, participation has spiked and patients feel they are being heard. Truman has created an environment where customers are served according to their wishes and staff members are seen as available and ready to assist.

Bringing Accountability into Play

When executing a new initiative within a large group such as the Truman staff, combating naysayers can present the most considerable challenge. To ensure that staff members pay attention, patient surveys at Truman include details down to the exact providers, nurses and caregivers with whom the patient interacted. Hospital leaders are able to directly pinpoint where customer service fell short and home in on individuals needing additional training. As a result, our employees feel a greater sense of responsibility and are held accountable for actions. The reality of these scores becomes apparent when they are directly related to merit pay, bonuses and additional perks.

To maintain constant evaluation, Truman leaders hold monthly manager meetings and weekly meetings for executives to review employee data and recognize staff members for their successes, while also finding areas of needed improvement. To enhance staff members' ability to provide exceptional patient experiences, Truman implemented a module training method known as the "Language of Care." Each month, live departmental training sessions carry out a module with a specific focus. During these sessions, hospital leaders introduce employees to new concepts of customer service and provide tips on meaningful implementation.

Throughout the month, departments display "daily checklists" from which team members are able to recognize those performing admirable actions tied to the monthly theme. This provides a greater sense of responsibility and holds everyone accountable for performing at higher levels. New hires are brought up to speed with the program and given individual training by a team focused specifically on new hire training, allowing everyone to remain focused on congruent goals throughout the organization.

Making a Difference and Striving for Betterment

"Status quo" is not part of Truman's vocabulary; a constant drive to improve keeps the organization at the forefront of providing meaningful patient experiences and quality care. With 70 percent of Truman patients facing major traumas, taking time to go above and beyond can speak volumes to patients. In one recent example, Charity, a dietary aid, learned that one of her patients was especially comforted by music and singing. So Charity took it upon herself to serenade the patient to enhance his time within the care of the center.

A responsibility to the community runs deep within the organization. Truman is in the fundraising and planning stages to build and open a full-service grocery store in a nearby distressed area, providing fresh foods and a variety of healthy options to the neighborhood in a Department of Agriculture-designated food desert. Also, patients within Truman's walls are able to dine on healthy options in the on-site cafeteria and partake in a weekly fresh product market. Overall, the organization hopes to provide a radically different approach to dietary offerings that will improve nutrition in the community.

In addition, Truman is promoting wellness for employees through weight loss support and education on healthy lifestyles. Improving the overall health and wellness of employees is found to directly correlate to job satisfaction; those with a healthier lifestyle find more satisfaction in their jobs and have a greater desire to succeed. Supporting employees' efforts to improve their health shows a commitment to their well-being and makes employees feel more a part of the team.

As Truman continues its quest to raise patient satisfaction and enhance the patient experience, it will focus on enhancing the patient discharge process. Truman will offer comprehensive education and one-on-one training to avoid readmission and answering questions already touched upon. And it is sending home recorded instructions and workbooks with patients to see if those instructions and workbooks help to reduce readmissions.

Lessons Learned

Customer service remains the backbone of health care. While a variety of factors keep the hospital or health network running smoothly, customer service and a memorable patient experience keep patients coming through the door and spreading the word about the care they received.

Leaders must continue to push for customer service training, as many are unaware of the impact it can have. Continuing to offer simply average patient experiences and failing to take the additional steps to improve care received by patients will lead to lost revenue and delayed progress for years to come.

As we have learned at Truman, we must always reach higher and push our employees out of their comfort zone. There is no substitute for creating accountability and ensuring that all employees possess the desire to provide unprecedented care.

Mark Steven McPhee, M.D., M.H.C.M., is the executive vice president for clinical coordination at Truman Medical Centers in Kansas City, Mo. Rachel Granatino, M.B.A., is the director of marketing at (e)Merge in Kansas City, Mo.