Even When Wrong, the Customer Is Always Right
As marketing assumes a more prominent role in the evolution of imaging centers, perhaps the most important part of the marketing mix is good, old-fashioned customer service. After all, the very nature of the specialty is such that it does not lend itself to radiologist-patient interaction, so these crucial human interactions are delegated to people who often have no direct connection to the survival of the business. Creating the positive patient experience is now more important than ever, not only to create the raving fan, but also to prevent the practice from becoming an afterthought—a place that is perceived as no better or worse than the facility down the street.
Reception area at East River Imaging .
For Richard Katz, MD, a partner in East River Medical Imaging in New York City, the customer-service decisions at the practice are easy. That’s because Katz has a family history of serving the public. Little did he know that, later on, his father’s occupation as a merchant would serve Katz well as a private-practice radiologist. “When I joined the practice in 1980, there was a single radiologist, George Stassa, who just had x-ray equipment, and he was looking to expand and bring in other modalities. I realized that since we were on the Upper East Side—there were no HMOs—everyone paid for his or her exam. If patients had insurance, they got paid by their insurance companies and then paid us. We could have charged whatever we wanted, but we always charged what was fair,” Katz says. He adds, “My father, who was in retail, always taught me, 'The customer is always right, the customer is always right, the customer is always right.’ My customers were the patient, the referring doctor, the nurse, and the doctor’s staff, and so I tried to instill in my staff that no matter what, the customer is always right and we can never say no. 'How can I help you? What can I do for you?' is the first response.” Service Plus Vision From the moment that he learned this fundamental customer-service principle to the time he teamed up with Stassa, Katz had a practice vision in mind; it was refined and renewed not while he was working, but often while he was on vacation. “As I worked in the practice, I would travel many places, some on vacation, and I always loved nice hotels. The things that nice hotels always have in common are that they are clean, they’re beautiful, and they have incredible service,” Katz says. “The best ones know your name. Once, I spoke to a concierge in the South of France and he said that the goal that is set by the owner of the hotel is that from the time you leave your room to the time you get to the pool, at least five people will say bonjour to you.” On these trips, Katz developed a clearer vision of the type of patient environment that was required to appeal to what is certainly one of the most discriminating groups of patients in the nation. The hotel environment is no different from radiology or from his practice, he explains. "It’s a service business—a retail type of business where we combine the hotel lobby concept with the waiting room. Our staff treats patients like a concierge treats guests in a hotel: We recognize who they are as people, not just as patients, and it results in a better experience for them.” Key to this philosophy is an understanding of the key difference between a hotel and a medical practice. Katz understands that in the practice, lives are often at stake, but that serves to create even more attention to care. “Patients come in scared. Sometimes they come in mad. They think they’re dying—or they are dying. They are hurt, or they think they’re hurt, and you have to be compassionate and tolerant. It’s all very easy, common-sense stuff, right out of other people’s playbooks,” he says. It's easy for some, perhaps, but Katz had a mentor, unlike many of his colleagues. “Whenever I made a decision, it was like my father was on my shoulder, whispering in my ear,” he says. Hands On The decisions that Katz made involved many details that other physicians delegate to staff. Because Katz knew what he wanted and understood that all of the elements of good service must work in perfect harmony, though, he wound up making many of the cosmetic decisions himself. “When I joined, the office was OK. In order to enlarge it, I hired an architect and an interior designer. I also spent a lot of money trying to make the waiting room look like a hotel lobby, so there are comfortable chairs, there are nice wall coverings, there is nice carpeting, and there are fresh flowers,” he says. At one point, Katz even did away with a waiting-room sacred cow. He says, “I’ve always thought that magazines became an eyesore after a while, so I got beautiful coffee-table books—large ones with beautiful photographs of the subject, whether it was art, places, or people. Later, we put questionnaires in the waiting room asking for feedback. The biggest complaint was that there were no magazines, so we started putting magazines back in, but I still hate them.” This kind of understanding—that patients are the customers, and that sometimes their wishes trump personal preference—is one key to the success of the practice. Another success factor is the ability to adapt to changing times. “Later on, when flat-panel televisions came around, we brought those in; we have the news on all day, unless there is a disturbing event. Then, we substitute a sporting event,” Katz says. At the end of the day, however, even the most current magazines and the biggest flat-screen televisions can’t replace the impression made by the people at East River Imaging. “At our front desk, there are really friendly receptionists who are trained to look up immediately and not be on the phone. There is no gum chewing allowed in the office, which is a real pet peeve. The staff says I can see people chewing gum from a mile away,” Katz says. Staff demeanor is supported by appearance. “Men all have to wear shirts, ties, and lab coats. Women have to be in business attire and lab coats, except for management; they have to be in business attire.” For Katz, the concept of superior service in a fabulous environment is more than just an extension of a personal philosophy; it is a sound business decision. “What I have tried to instill in our staff is that there are a lot of doctors who can do radiology. Hospitals do radiology. We have to set ourselves apart, and we have to make this a better experience for the patient,” he says. “People are blown away. They don’t expect to be treated this way, especially in this day and age, when they aren’t paying (their insurance companies are). I won’t give in to that. I don’t want to cut back on those niceties,” Katz says. A wise decision, his father would agree.