How to Teach Doctors Customer Service

How to Teach Doctors Customer Service

By now, if you have anything to do with taking care of patients, you have been bombarded with posts, blogs, white papers and seminars on customer service. The customer experience is not just about the patient, but also includes anyone who interacts or touches the patient in their care journey, including clinical, administrative, clerical and support staff.

More and more, doctors and other medical staff are being measured, held accountable for and compensated, in part, on their customer service skills, and, for good reason.

A study of nearly 35,000 online reviews of physicians nationwide has found that customer service is patients' chief frustration, not physicians' medical expertise and clinical skill.

The study, published in the current issue of the Journal of Medical Practice Management, reveals that 96 percent of patient complaints are related to customer service, while only 4 percent are about the quality of clinical care or misdiagnoses.

In summary, the study found that fewer than 1 in 20 online complaints cite diagnosis, treatments and outcomes in healthcare as unsatisfactory, whereas more than 19 of 20 unhappy patients said inadequate communications and disorganized operations drove them to post harsh reviews.

Despite assertions to the contrary, digital health interventions aren't helping.

The problem, like so many other other demands placed on the clinical staff, like being expected to innovate, is that they are not taught how to do it. The result is frustration, push back and burnout. Here's how to piss off your patients.

If you are like most, you probably hate customer service and companies seem to be doing little or nothing to make it better.

A recent article explains why and stresses that the experience should derive from your brand identity, the defining values and attributes that distinguish a brand.

Like building a house, the author suggests that you need to build a blueprint and a customer experience architecture in 7 steps:

To develop a customer experience architecture, follow these steps:

1. The brand platform — First, define or reaffirm the overarching ideas that represent the brand. REI’s brand platform is the excitement and adventure of the outdoors; Chick-fil-A’s is exceeding customers’ expectations with a servant’s spirit.

2. Customer experience strategy — Then describe the desired customer feelings and perceptions of the brand across all interactions with the organization. An electronics website might want to create a “place” for customers to discover and be delighted by innovations. A hotelier might want customers to feel pampered by legendary service. Most patients simply want to feel like caregivers care and that they are safe.

3. Business segmentation — The next step is to break down the business into discrete units. For a new brand, segmenting the business by traffic vs. trial vs. transition might be an illuminating approach; a restaurant company might segment by service mode, e.g., eat-in vs. drive-thru vs. carry-out; and a product-line segmentation might be appropriate for a manufacturer. The objective is to identify the different experiences the organization delivers and to articulate the requirements and objectives of each.

4. Customer segmentation — Different target segments have different needs — some customers may value convenience over price, others may be looking for an entertaining experience — so their desired experiences vary. Describe each segment with a profile and a needs inventory, including key drivers of purchase decisions and brand perceptions.

5. Prioritization — Create a grid with the business segments as columns and customer segments as rows. Each business/customer intersection represents a discrete experience to design and deliver. They should be prioritized in order to focus design and management. Prioritization criteria include profit potential, fit with long-term strategy, competitive advantage and differentiation, resource requirements, and how the experience affects and/or reinforces brand values and brand position.

6. Experience design — Determine how to meet the segment-specific needs in each business segment, either by improving existing approaches based on new insights from the architecture or by developing entirely new ones. All the levers of customer experience — product, service, content, channels, touchpoints, pricing, facilities, sensory engagement, etc. — should be considered and described in the design.

7. Assessment and integration — Now the architecture is ready to be inspected for integrity and coherence. Is the brand platform expressed throughout every experience? Do the discrete experiences contribute to the overall customer experience strategy? Do experiences complement and enhance each other, or do they conflict or detract from each other?

Some argue that the hospitality industry is not the appropriate model for the sick care systems business and that we need to fix how we do care coordination and communication and teach pathetic doctors how to be more empathic.

Here's a test on patient experience at your place:

1. Was it easy to find a place to park?

2. How many times were you handed a clipboard?

3. How long did you have to wait to get an appointment?

4. How long did you sit in the reception area/waiting room?

5. Was there free WIFI in the reception area ?

6. How long did it take for you to get your test results? Did someone send them to you or was it your responsibility to get them?

7. Was the coffee in the lobby overpriced or free?

8. Were you charged to get a copy of your records and was it more than what it would cost at Staples?

9. Were you able to find your doctor's office easily or did you have to ask someone for directions?

10. Do you remember the names of the people who took care of you?

11. Does everybody really care or, are they too burned out to do so?

So, if doctors are expected to improve their customer service skills, how should we do it?

Here are some guidelines that should inform how we teach and measure doctor customer service:

  1. Changing behavior is hard and involves identifying the undesired behavior, targeting triggers, measuring the response and creating carrots or sticks to eliminate or reinforce the behavior.

  2. Unless the changed behavior becomes a habit through repetition, education and training, there is a high rate of recidivism.

  3. Many doctors are simply unwilling or unable to change and they need to be "rehabilitated" or fired accordingly. Instead, many just get promoted to the C suite.

  4. Delegating the responsibility to managers or department heads to create customer service improvement does not work without following a delegation process.

  5. The process of gathering feedback and using it to guide improvement likewise must be done correctly to make a difference.

  6. There is little or no correlation with patient experience and the quality of medical inputs and outcomes.

  7. Improving experience is but one step towards engagement and enabling changes into value added modifications of patient and medical team behavior.

  8. The cost, time and effort of using sophisticated customer experience vendor solutions can be prohibitive and, instead, require some bootstrapped solutions to solve targeted problems eminating from targeted people in certain departments, who, most likely, are the 20% creating 80% of the problems.

  9. Often times, because managers themselves are not trained or proficient in customer service, the blind are leading the blind.

  10. It is an unrealistic expectation for a doctor to have the diagnostic skills of Osler, the technical genius of Leonardo, the compassion and empathy of Mother Theresa and the customer service skills of the bartender at the Ritz Carlton. We need to be realistic about setting acceptable standards that recognize individual strengths and weaknesses and how we recruit for them.

  11. Establish guidelines and pathways for dealing with difficult patients and chronic complainers. When and how should you inform a patient that they should get care somewhere else if they are so dissatisfied with the service or experience.

  12. Manage online complaints and create a reputation management protocol and platform.

We used to tell substance abusers to just say no and that didn't work out so well.. Unfortunately, just telling sickcare workers to follow the golden rule has not worked either.

Arlen Meyers,MD, MBA is the President and CEO of the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs on Twitter@ArlenMD.

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  • Kelly Bates

    Hospitals need a way to keep admissions flowing.

  • Dylan McCrae

    Doctors and the whole world of healthcare would greatly benefit from sales skills.

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Arlen Meyers, MD, MBA

Former Contributor

Arlen Meyers, MD, MBA is a professor emeritus of otolaryngology, dentistry, and engineering at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and the Colorado School of Public Health and President and CEO of the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs at He has created several medical device and digital health companies. His primary research centers around biomedical and health innovation and entrepreneurship and life science technology commercialization. He consults for and speaks to companies, governments, colleges and universities around the world who need his expertise and contacts in the areas of bio entrepreneurship, bioscience, healthcare, healthcare IT, medical tourism -- nationally and internationally, new product development, product design, and financing new ventures. He is a former Harvard-Macy fellow and In 2010, he completed a Fulbright at Kings Business, the commercialization office of technology transfer at Kings College in London. He recently published "Building the Case for Biotechnology." "Optical Detection of Cancer", and " The Life Science Innovation Roadmap". He is also an associate editor of the Journal of Commercial Biotechnology and Technology Transfer and Entrepreneurship and Editor-in-Chief of Medscape. In addition, He is a faculty member at the University of Colorado Denver Graduate School where he teaches Biomedical Entrepreneurship and is an iCorps participant, trainer and industry mentor. He is the Chief Medical Officer at and and Chairman of the Board at GlobalMindED at, a non-profit at risk student success network. He is honored to be named by Modern Healthcare as one of the 50 Most Influential Physician Executives of 2011 and nominated in 2012 and Best Doctors 2013.

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