Testing the patient’s patience – customer care lessons from a brush with the NHS

NHStressI was recently referred by my GP to a big, fairly-local hospital for an ‘urgent appointment’ defined as one within two weeks.

The Health Centre’s referral letter included information about why I’d been referred urgently to the hospital. The explanation included ‘The two week appointment system was introduced so that any patient with symptoms that might indicate cancer, or a serious condition, could be seen be seen by a specialist as quickly as possible.’ It reassured me that it didn’t mean I had cancer but that ‘early diagnosis and early access to treatment is shown to improve health outcomes’.

Customer care lesson 1 – Giving clear information in unemotional language is generally a good policy but, just as you can’t help think about blue elephants if someone tells you not to think about blue elephants, it does get the customer/ patient thinking…

Customer care lesson 2 – If you flag something up as ‘fast-track’ and ‘urgent’ and say that having an appointment within two weeks is ‘very important’ – your subsequent customer service should reflect that sense of urgency (without panic of course) for reassurance if nothing else.

When it comes to health, people, particular men, are as likely to be panicked into inaction as action!

10 calls on 6 different numbers…

So the day after receiving my referral letter, I phoned the number given to make my ‘urgent appointment’. I’m told I can only call between 2pm and 4.30pm, and when I do phone – and on four occasions after that – I get a recorded message asking me to leave my details and they will get back to me.

I leave my details on three separate dates over the next 10 days without response and call the Health Centre (the number on the referral letter having referred  me to a second Health Centre number) to ask for advice.

I’m given the main switchboard at the hospital and the switchboard gives me two new numbers to try (note: they don’t transfer me). I call the first of the two numbers to be told that the number the Health Centre gave me is not recognised by the overworked-sounding-voice I talk to and he eventually establishes that I’m even then on the wrong number because I’m a new patient.

Customer care lesson 3 – If you build up goodwill by having human beings on the end of a telephone line you need to make sure those people give the impression they’re bothered about you, and are enabled to give accurate information. Otherwise that customer/ patients goodwill goes up in a puff of smoke – and it takes a lot of effort to claw it back.

And finally…

I’m given another new number (the sixth) and finally speak to someone who cannot locate my referral details but takes my number to call me back. I get a voicemail about an hour later telling me ‘we cannot give you a date, we’ll call you when we have additional dates for the clinic.’

Customer care lesson 4 – It’s the old marketing adage ‘under-promise and over-provide’. Try to make it as easy as possible for your customer to get an average service, then surprise and delight them by exceeding their expectations.

I’ve always suspected the NHS is in crisis (no fault of the majority of health professionals who work in it – my wife is one of them!) but my recent experience is in danger of confirming that conclusion.

In a day, the ‘two week timeframe for an appointment’ (and I think this is two weeks for being seen, rather than getting a date to be seen) will be up. I hope what it fast turning into a health scare story has a happy ending.

For a blog with further lessons in customer care, go to https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2014/02/17/im-just-putting-you-on-hold

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One thought on “Testing the patient’s patience – customer care lessons from a brush with the NHS

  1. Pingback: The stiff upper lip re-visited | Enterprise Essentials

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