Service Recovery: Healthcare’s Customer Experience ‘Antidote’

June 25, 2019

Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula may hold the key to attracting and retaining customers in today’s fast-changing healthcare environment.

By Cheryl J. VanKuren June 19, 2019

Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula may hold the key to attracting and retaining customers in today’s fast-changing healthcare environment. 

Nearly three decades ago, Harvard Business Review published a detailed account of a Club Med vacation gone horribly wrong. In it, the authors recounted a nightmarish journey from New York to Cancúnthat started with a six-hour flight delay; followed by two unplanned stopovers; extended holding patterns in the air; and, finally, a harrowing middle-of-the-night landing complete with discharged oxygen masks and suitcases tumbling from the luggage racks.

By the time the plane finally landed, a lawyer onboard was already gathering signatures to file a class-action lawsuit against the resort. But all was soon forgiven, the HBR piece recounted, when the plane pulled up to the gate in the early morning hours: Passengers were greeted by the resort’s general manager, Silvio de Bortoli, who had gotten “word of the horrendous flight and immediately created an antidote.”

“He took half the staff to the airport, where they laid out a table of snacks and drinks and set up a stereo system to play lively music,” the authors wrote in “The Profitable Art of Service Recovery.” “As the guests filed through the gate, they received personal greetings, help with their bags, a sympathetic ear and a chauffeured ride to the resort.”

That’s all it took. And almost 30 years later, the dramatic events early that morning still speak to the power of service recovery, especially in stressful situations like airline travel and hospital visits: Countless patients across the United States every day experience similarly bumpy, unpleasant rides when they walk into hospitals and physician offices. But they’re rarely offered an antidote — despite all of the research suggesting otherwise. 

Unlocking the lessons for healthcare

Advisory Board research shows patients prioritize a positive customer experience over almost all other factors, even in situations where the clinical information they’re receiving is less than desirable. Patient feedback can take many forms. Frequently, it’s informal information received from patients or their family members. There’s also formal feedback generated from traditional surveys or solutions like Quality Reviews®, a technology platform that makes it simple for patients to provide input in real-time — and easy for providers to respond. 

Regardless of how feedback is received, providers should have a plan of action. The following are service recovery best practices addressing common situations: 

  • Listen: If it’s happening in front of you, the first thing you should do is listen. In many situations, being heard is the only thing patients or family members want.
  • Offer a blameless apology: Saying “I understand that is really frustrating” or “I understand why you’re upset” emphasizes that you can relate to what they may be experiencing.
  • Offer to help: Find out what can be done to resolve the issue by asking the patient or a family member “What can I do to make this better?” Or “What can I do to change the situation?”
  • Follow through: All frontline associates should be trained to identify what problems they can solve themselves, as well as what’s beyond the scope of their duties and should be brought to a supervisor. If the situation remains unresolved, continue to escalate the issue up the chain of command until it is settled.  
  • Keep it professional: Associates should be trained in techniques so that they don’t take patient feedback personally. This requires a lot of practice, but it does get easier. 

If the feedback is gathered electronically, providers should develop a formal review process for triaging this information and determining whether or not follow up is necessary. When following up, associates should begin by trying to learn more about what happened. Again, patients often just want to be heard, but organizations also can learn a lot from this qualitative data — and put it into action. 

When ongoing feedback indicates that a process is broken, the best service recovery program will only go so far. Top organizations take this feedback and turn it into process improvement opportunities. This is an ongoing focus which raises the quality of the overall experience for all patients and family members.

A recent American College of Healthcare Executives survey ranked patient satisfaction No. 5 in a list of the “Top Issues Confronting Hospitals.” Instituting a service recovery process can help enhance a provider’s customer service culture, mission and values, as well as empower associates to do the right thing, building trust with colleagues and improving these patient satisfaction metrics. 

Unfortunately, though, bad news, unforced errors and clinical mishaps often are unavoidable for patients in healthcare, just like they were for those unfortunate Club Med vacation-goers decades ago. It’s how they’re dealt with, however, that matters in the end.  

“The fact is, in services, often performed in the customer’s presence, errors are inevitable. But dissatisfied customers are not,” the Harvard Business Review article’s authors wrote. “A good recovery can turn angry, frustrated customers into loyal ones. It can, in fact, create more goodwill than if things had gone smoothly in the first place.”

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Jill Yarberry

VP Patient Engagement

Jill has 20 years’ experience in healthcare business development and operations. Prior to joining Quality Reviews®, Jill worked in the healthcare industry where she has been responsible for developing and implementing the sales strategy, market research, and business development to meet and exceed sales growth projections.