"Your call is important to us" and other lies
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I pick up the phone to call Cablevision and question a mysterious charge on my monthly bill.
"Thank you for calling Cablevision. Your call may be monitored to ensure the quality of our service. To continue in English, press 1."
I dutifully press 1. Then: "For Cable TV, press 1."
I dutifully press 1 again, but instead of getting a friendly customer service representative, I get this automated drivel: "Are you ready for some new blood? The new warriors of WCW [World Championship Wrestling] ignite in WCW's 'New Blood Rising.' Sunday, Aug. 13, live at 8 pm. If you would like to order 'New Blood Rising' for $29.95, press 1 now."
There's new blood rising, all right, but it's my own.
Phone rage is building everywhere, and not all of it is aimed at telemarketers and obnoxious cell phone users. Some of this anger may also be heading your way. As our practice re-engineering story points out, patients are tired of hearing the all-too-familiar refrain, "Doctor's office, can you hold?" Frankly, no, they can'tor won't.
Feeding this frustration is the realization that what we want from a phonethe ability to talk with another human beingso often isn't what we get. Instead, we get to listen to an artificial, unresponsive voice.
The mechanical voice tells us that our call is important, but in the meantime, it banishes us to Muzak Purgatory or Sales Pitch Hell. Some machines now tell us how long we must wait to talk to a live person. (My colleague, Jeff Burger, once waited patiently for 20 minutes, only to be told by the machine that the offices had just closed for the day.) And the ever-so-helpful machines prod us when we don't enter the needed information fast enough.
We've come such a long way since the very first phone call (1876): "Mr. Watson, come here, I want you." Isn't it ironic that the first words uttered over the telephonea device designed to facilitate communication over distanceswere a request to drop the phone and meet face to face?
We're moving stealthily away from face to face and into a world in which Bell invariably reaches Watson's voice mail. And Watson replies by e-mail. As my daughter Hilary asks "Don't people talk to each other anymore?"
Call me quaint, but nothing will ever quite replace a real person with a real voice on the other end of the line, someone with a real brain and a real heart, who deals effectively and pleasantly with people who need information or help.
"We place a strong emphasis on customer service," says Alan J. Beason, CEO and administrator of a cardiology group in Shreveport, LA. "We spend a lot of time trying to find genuinely nice, service-oriented people who have a strong work ethic. We want people whose concern and compassion for patients and co-workers are sincere." Beason sums up his staff's mission in nine words: "Serve the patients, serve the doctors, help one another."
I think he's onto something.1 A recent commentary in JAMA says that a patient's perception of the service he gets in a doctor's office will help shape his perception of the quality of care. "Just as all patients share a clinical diagnosis requiring technical expertise," the authors wrote, "they also have a customer service diagnosis requiring caring, competence, compassion, and service excellence skills. To treat one aspect while ignoring the other understandably results either in poor clinical outcomes or less than optimal patient satisfaction."2 That's a message worth heeding. And this is not a recording.
1See "The Way I See It: We need to get better at customer service," April 12, 1999.
2 Mayer T, Cates RJ: Service excellence in health care (commentary). JAMA 1999; 282:1281-1282.
We're happy to add two new experts to our masthead, though they are by no means new to these pages. They've been working with our staff for many years and sharing with you their unique insights and experiences in practice management and personal finance.
Gary W. Thompson is President of Rocky Mountain Professional Consultants, Inc. in Lakewood, CO. He's been with the firm for more than 20 years and its president since 1997. His dual designations of CHBC and CPCM stand for two widely respected credentials: Certified Healthcare Business Consultant and Certified Professional Consultant to Management. Gary is a founding member of the National Association of Healthcare Consultants.
Gary H. Schatsky, JD, has his own fee-only financial advisory firm, IFC Personal Money Managers, with offices in Albany, NY, and New York City. He's on the Medical Economics list of "The 150 best financial advisers for doctors" (see our Aug. 7 cover story) and lectures nationally on such topics as personal finance, investment strategy, tax planning, and estate planning. Gary is Chairman of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors. And he has a nifty Web site called www.objectiveadvice.com.
Talia Krohn, a junior at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, spent a whirlwind summer at Medical Economics Company, working as an intern for this magazine and our clinical counterpart, Patient Care. She wrote articles, edited articles, pitched in on Reader Service requests, helped staff writers do research, and appeared in my door regularly with the announcement that she had finished the task at hand and was ready for another.
We were fortunate to have Talia among us, and I predict she will go farthe safest prediction I've made in some time.
Jeff Forster. Memo From the Editor: "Your call is important to us" and other lies. Medical Economics 2000;18:8.