Customer service when the customer isn’t always right

Customer service in healthcare and education is inherently different from commercial customer service situations for one reason in particular. The customer isn’t always right.  

Now, you may protest, the customer isn’t always right anywhere, and you’re correct. But for commercial endeavors my famous rule of thumb applies quite well across the board: in a commercial setting, although the customer isn’t always right, it pays to make them feel like they areIn education and healthcare, however, this rule needs to be modified.

In education: you’re trying to raise scholars and future citizens.  So tough love is often needed:  not the pandering of an undeserved “yes,” but the necessity of saying “no” when customers (students) get things wrong, so that they can learn for next time what is required to succeed, whether that’s being on-time, being organized, or studying harder.

In healthcare, tough love is again often called for.  My friend, Dr. James Merlino, uses the example of encouraging post-surgical patient to get up and walk as soon as possible, in spite of the temporary misery (and resistance) it brings to and on the part of the customer/patient. And, of course, there’s the importance of refusing to coddle a patient who thinks pizza is a vegetable or the one who thinks half a pack a day is an appropriate example of moderation.

But here’s what I think. Even though the customer’s not always right in these situations, it doesn’t give us cause to jerk around the customers in other parts of their institutional customer experience. Not for profit institutions need to develop every bit as high a standard for how they serve customers as do commercial operations.  Because inefficiency, rudeness, and an attitude of “that’s how we do things around here, take it or leave it” isn’t going to help any patient heal, or any student excel.  It just gets in the way.

What will help is coupling a tough love approach with a commitment to courtesy, streamlining, and taking the patient’s, or student’s, point of view. Of figuring out ways to be more responsive, more available. Of making use of what private industry can teach us: not just benchmarking other schools or other hospitals, but great hotels and great retailers.  Not because healthcare and education will ever be precisely analogous to such operations, but because benchmarking outside your own industry is often the best way to improve by leaps and bounds.