Last January, I went to a cosmetic dermatologist to have him look at a spot on my forehead. I’d been putting this off for years, but I eventually went because it looked like the spot had changed color.

Just before I left the physician’s office, the staff asked me to fill out a “recall” card, one of those nondescript postcards that they have you fill out, then mail in 6 months to try to get you back in the office.

It worked. Two days after receiving the postcard that I wrote to myself (which increases response, by the way), I called the office in an attempt to schedule my follow-up appointment. Here’s the conversation I had with Acme Skin Care (not the real practice name):

Acme: Hello, Acme Skin Care. Can I help you?

Me: Hi. I got a checkup postcard in the mail, and I’d like to schedule an appointment.

Acme: Oh, I’m sorry, but our appointment computer is down, and it’s expected to be down all day. Can you call back tomorrow?

Me: Well, I could. But I won’t. Goodbye.

Now, before you decide that I’m an unsympathetic ghoul, you should know that I am militant about customer service. I expect to be treated with respect, and I expect any business with which I am dealing, including a plastic surgery practice, to make me feel like there is nothing more important for it to do that day than to take care of me.

Here’s how the conversation with Acme Skin Care should have gone:

Acme: Hello, Acme Skin Care. This is Jane. How may I help you?

Me: Hi. I got a checkup postcard in the mail, and I’d like to schedule an appointment.

Acme: OK, I can help you with that. What is your name?

Me: Steve Smith.

Acme: Mr Smith, I must tell you that the computer that stores our schedule is down for the day, but I can write down your choices and call you back tomorrow to confirm. Would that be all right?

Me: Yes.

Acme: What day and time would you like to come in?

Me: Next Tuesday at 4 pm.

Acme: OK, and is there a second choice of day and time?

Me: Yes, Wednesday at 3 pm.

Acme: All right, so your first choice is Tuesday at 4 pm, and your second choice is Wednesday at 3 pm. Is that correct?

Me: Yes.

Acme: OK, Mr Smith. Again, my name is Jane, and I will call you back tomorrow morning to confirm either of these appointments or help you schedule a new one. Is that OK?

Me: Yes.

Acme: Thank you for calling Acme Skin Care, Mr Smith, and I look forward to talking to you tomorrow.

Me: Thank you.

The difference in the two conversations is easy to spot. In the first one, the receptionist defaulted to the old “computer is down” line and refused to offer any alternative to my request. In the second conversation, every effort was made not only to take care of my needs but also, more importantly, to make sure that the office did not lose this appointment. And that’s the bottom line.

Lead By Example

Over the past 9 years, I have consulted with more than 1,000 health care practices, many of them plastic surgery practices. Early on, I asked the owners or partners to rate their staff on the level of care they give their patients. In almost every instance, they replied that they give exceptional care. In fact, the belief that their staff was exceptional was so common, I no longer bother to ask.

Some of you may see the faulty logic in these responses: If every plastic surgery practice has an exceptional staff, there are no exceptional staffs.

“Exceptional” becomes the standard, and everyone has to strive to become “superb” or whatever the next level happens to be. What is truly eye-opening is the ease with which almost any practice can improve its service and the tremendous resistance that accompanies such a transition.

The first step for practice owners and partners is to walk the walk. Staff must see you treating patients the way you want your staff to treat them. That means:

  • taking time with them and not rushing through appointments;
  • using their names frequently;
  • addressing them as “Ms,” “Mr,” or “Mrs” unless you have a personal relationship with them;
  • calling them at home after an outpatient procedure to check on their status; and
  • thanking them for coming in.

Thanking a patient for coming in may be a foreign concept to many readers. But you will be surprised at how this simple sentence can make a patient’s visit memorable.

This short list is easy to accomplish because it is simply a reflection of how we would all like to be treated. Also, as you may have noticed, it does not cost a cent to implement. That’s the beauty of this type of internal staff alignment. Not only does everyone work on the same page and usually feel better about what they are doing, there is no expense involved.

Unfortunately, these simple steps to staff improvement get overlooked by bigger, flashier, and costlier forms of marketing. After all, what practice has not spent thousands of dollars on a Web site? Or perhaps as much on a splashy ad in a newspaper, magazine, or the yellow pages?

The first step to strategic practice growth is internal staff alignment. To maximize the return on the rest of your practice marketing, invest time in staff training.

Steve Smith is vice president of marketing for Practice Builders, Santa Ana, Calif.