Computer Software Update

I have spent most of my life on the West Coast enjoying the crunch of snow under my skis or swimming in the Pacific. In either venue, the day involves little interaction with a vendor. You purchase a lift ticket or rent an umbrella. These businesses have little incentive, or need, to provide excellent customer service. Do you notice if the lift operator is friendly and outgoing or the cashier is smiling? Most likely you are too busy enjoying the snow or surf to notice or to care.

In the HME industry, we do not have this luxury. We are being squeezed by competition, reimbursement cuts, NCB and those who feel that Medicare is a "get it for free" ticket. These pressure points lower revenue and force us to look for ways to increase our profitability.

Streamlining processes and becoming more efficient do have a positive impact. However, there is an area which is often taken for granted: serving the customer.

This concept is more than making sure we have satisfied customers. It is about proactively serving the customer. By definition, customer service is reactive. Serving others forces me to be attuned to their needs and desires. It's not about me; it's about them.

The 1990s were called the Decade of Service, though what we really meant was customer satisfaction. Thinking outside the box regarding customer service will expand our understanding. Serving customers is a philosophy, not a department or group of employees.

Today, customer service must be proactive, not reactive. In doing so, we will experience higher customer retention.

Now that we have moved customer service to the forefront, we must further realize that it will involve all aspects of our business. Even those who do not typically deal directly with customers are responsible for serving customers. Does your staff recognize their part in customer service?

The Ritz Carlton's customer service program is a philosophy that permeates the entire organization. For example, when an employee overhears a guest complaining about his remote not working, it is their responsibility to have the remote replaced and follow-up with the guest. This follow-through, from problem identification to notification and eventual conclusion, is one component that sets the Ritz Carlton far above their competition. Do you have a program in place to follow up on complaints?

There are three additional components necessary to successfully serve customers pro-actively: empowered employees; training and corporate philosophy.

Empowered employees know their limits. Equally as important, they understand their role to serve. This does not mean caving to a customer's every whim. Employees must understand they have the responsibility and authority to resolve customer issues. I am not suggesting that drivers can discount prices or a biller write off customer balances at will. Employees must work through customer issue(s), rather than passing the buck.

The A&E television show Airline follows airline employees and passengers of Southwest Airlines at three airports. When problems arise, Southwest's employees work to find a solution that is amenable to all. They walk dogs during a long layover, locate passengers that would otherwise miss their flight, and even contact physicians for medical releases. Not all passengers are pleased with the results, even when the problem is of their own doing. In these instances, customers are regularly upset making the task more difficult.

Southwest and Ritz Carlton employees understand their roles within the organization and work tirelessly to serve their customers. True service seeks to understand other's needs and meet those needs if at all possible.

The training component consists of deliberate, intentional actions. Do you have a training process or a training manual? Do you use a mentor for training? Do your customers recognize you as an expert? Each piece is necessary for successful integration of new employees within your business.

When I was a consultant in this industry several years ago, a client was experiencing high DSO. With a little investigation we learned employees were becoming frustrated and quit. His high employee turnover rate caused his DSO to climb. Frustration, it turned out, was a direct result of the lack of formal training. Though the new hires had experience in the industry, they needed to be educated in their new employers' philosophy and methods.

Further, the individuals assigned the task of training were too busy. New employees would often sit around waiting for the next task to be assigned. Errors made were corrected by a more experienced employee short-circuiting a training opportunity. I developed a formal training process and wrote a detailed training manual. Employee retention increased and their DSO returned to an acceptable level.

The development of mentors to train new employees is indispensable. These mentors must certify the employee(s) in their charge. Knowing the expectation from the beginning gives each new employee a challenge to reach. Further, you can be assured all employees receive the same training and certification.

The time you invest in developing a comprehensive training process and manual will yield positive results across the entire company. Properly trained employees will project a more professional attitude. Customers will sense their professionalism and put them at ease. Moreover, it will instill trust in your staff. The development of this process and your manual will require thought. Nevertheless, do not procrastinate. You need to get started now.

Product knowledge is essential too. There is a difference between a "know-it-all" and someone who really has a mastery of the industry particulars. It is okay to say, "I don?t know," as long as it is followed by, "but I'll find out." The ability to convey the value of an item and the service your company provides is critical. Customers know they can purchase some items cheaper at the local Wal-Mart. It is your job to communicate the different levels of service between you and Wal-Mart. Surveys by Gallup and Inc. Magazine demonstrate that customers are willing to pay more for good service. Not mediocre service?good service.

Do your business and marketing plans include serving customers? Do your employees greet customers personally with a smile? Do they offer a Kleenex or say, "Bless you" when a customer sneezes? These are manners we teach our children but often forget when we become adults. Are you treating your customers in the same way you expect you or your parents to be treated? Spend a few minutes observing your staff. Your corporate philosophy is showing. What is it saying to your customers?

A question I often ask is "Am I striving for excellence or mediocrity?" I am interested in excellence and so are you.

Spring has finally arrived, and there is plenty of yard work to be completed. You have been outside working for a couple of hours and reach for a glass of water to quench your thirst. After the first swallow you realize the water has been sitting on the counter for two hours.

The water is providing the liquid replenishment you seek and quenches your thirst. Yet, a cold glass of water would have provided a better experience along with a sense of refreshment.

Serving customers is similar to providing a glass of water. Are you providing lukewarm or ice cold water?

Proactive customer service, empowered employees, training and a corporate philosophy are the required elements for serving customers with excellence. These components will set you apart from your competitors and the word will spread like wildfire. Are your customer referrals growing from month to month and year to year? Do your customers talk about you to their family and friends? They will be when you begin to serve your customers.

In closing the following story illustrates the benefits of serving customers with excellence.

Last year I was diagnosed with sleep apnea and my physician ordered a CPAP. Having been in health care since the 1980s, I had the opportunity to be a patient and observe the process from a different perspective.

Obtaining the CPAP was easy enough as were the instructions for its use and care. My provider followed up via phone and e-mail as would be expected. It took some time for me to find a mask and headgear that allowed me to sleeping comfortably. Throughout the entire process I never felt like I was burdening them though I tried four or five different masks. I was always greeted by name and with a friendly "Hello." As a result of their service, I had no reservations about referring friends and acquaintances to my provider based on this experience.

One day my ENT mentioned he would like to have an in-service for him and his staff. I said I would take care of it and promptly contacted my provider. Had I not been comfortable with my provider's service, I certainly would not have suggested an in-service.

When was the last time you received extra special customer service? Did you talk positively to others about it? Your customers will too.

This article originally appeared in the May 2005 issue of HME Business.

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