For years, marketers involved in the branding of healthcare organizations have been frustrated about their role in delivering on customer service. In essence, delivering on the brand promise. Unlike traditional consumer goods and services, where the customer transaction can be standardized – think hot burgers and personal shoppers – healthcare organizations have multiple layers of customer interactions which fall on the ability of individuals, not processes, to deliver. Additionally, healthcare consumers are not necessarily customers by choice. There are some exceptions to this, but for the most part it’s not where and how people want to spend their time.
As a result of this inability to control the delivery of customer service across the total enterprise, hospitals have looked for other brand platforms that can be more consistent. Technology, clinical breakthroughs, quality rankings, and national accreditations are examples of common hospital branding strategies that don’t necessarily demand the consistent delivery of exemplary customer service. However, as these platforms become less differentiating, there are some leading healthcare organizations that are making a go of service delivery as a powerful brand message or complement to an existing strategy.
Laura Harner, Director of Guest Services for Lehigh Valley Health Network in Allentown, Pennsylvania, describes it this way. “Instead of the term customer service, we refer to it as ‘compassionate’ service. This is most successful when it is ‘hard-wired’ into the operations of a healthcare organization. For example, valet parking is no longer about the safe and efficient retrieval of cars; it’s about decreasing patient and visitor anxiety over autos usados problems.”
Harner adds, “If a patient has made the choice to come to you, they assume clinical quality. And while they are likely to forgive you for long lines or waits, they are less likely to forgive you for lack of courtesy and compassion.”
The Difference Between Customer Service and “Human Service”
Jodi Levine, currently Vice President, Corporate Business Development for Stericycle, has been on all sides of the hospital-based customer service equation as an administrator, patient, and brand-builder. According to her experiences, “healthcare organizations must rise to a higher standard of customer service, they must deliver ‘human service’. Unlike the vast majority of other businesses, healthcare customers are most likely to be obtaining services they do not want and/or fear receiving. Healthcare brands, or more specifically, the people of healthcare organizations, must focus on recognizing and responding to how patients feel in order to even attempt to create a positive experience. The patient experience begins and ends with human contact – sometimes physical, always emotional.”
Levine recognizes that a platform of “human service” depends on an organization’s ability to recruit, train, and retain individuals who live the brand. She adds, “Without first investing in initiating and nurturing the internal actualization of the brand values, external branding is a mere facade.”
According to Harner, “compassionate care is a feeling that people remember long after they’ve left the hospital. We have so many opportunities in the course of a day to make the emotional connection that the best brands are made of. They are right in front of us, every day, and when every interaction is viewed through the lens of compassionate service your patients, and your brand, will benefit.”
Unlike heat lamps that keep food “hot and fresh,” sandwich shops that deliver “super fast,” or coffee stores that are built to be a “home away from home,” hospitals and healthcare organizations can’t really standardize the brand promise of customer service. But they can, as Lehigh Valley Health Network is doing, create a greater standard of compassionate care. Or, as Levine suggests, they can raise the stakes even higher toward the notion of “human service.” The problem with “human service,” however is it’s delivered by humans and somewhere along the chain, it’s going to breakdown.
Cleveland Clinic Gives “Human Service” a Shot
Cleveland Clinic, long known for medical excellence but less than compassionate care, is striving toward “human service.” The video, “Empathy. The Human Connection to Patient Care” is amazing but, can it be standardized across every location, department, and person that is associated with the brand? Probably not…but, that doesn’t mean that as an internal branding message it won’t resonate and create some new patient interactions.
Brand strategy must be delivered upon day in and day out within any organization. For hospitals brands, the more tried and true approaches will live on for a while. The idea of branding “customer service” is too difficult to achieve, but the standardization of customer service protocols is within reach. The idea of “human service”…what a great idea! But until it’s, as Harner states, “hard-wired” into each and every hire, it’s probably not a big branding idea, because it depends on humans, not robots, to deliver on the promise. And the former just can’t be hard-wired. All it takes is one bad day.