A post about my GP surgery, Patient Choice & Customer Service.

This morning I had the unfortunate task of having to visit my local GP surgery to drop-off a request for a repeat prescription.  Whilst this may seem like a seemingly normal event, I always dread it….and as my story unfolds you will understand.

9.15am I walk into the GP surgery and wait patiently in line for a receptionist.  Apparently, their partial booking system isn’t working, again. After 3-4 minutes I reach the front of the queue.

Me:  Hi, I just want hand in my repeat prescription request

Stony-Faced Receptionist:  Can you put it in that box over there (pointing towards a box by the entrance).

Me:  I’m sorry, but I’d rather give it to you personally, to ensure that the repeat prescription doesn’t get lost.

Stony-Faced Receptionist:  Our repeat prescriptions NEVER get lost

Me:  I’m afraid that it’s happened to me on a number of occaisions over the last two years, but it never happens when I hand it in personally to a receptionist. Thanks.

I leave the prescription on the reception table and move towards the exit.

Stony-Faced Receptionist mutters under her breath: But the box has only been there for a couple of months.  

The thing is, before I even entered the surgery this morning I knew I was going to be greeted by Stony-Faced Receptionist and her attitude.  I also knew that it wouldn’t matter how appropriately (or inappropriately) I phrased my request I would be at the receiving end of poor customer service.

This has been going on for 3 years, and over the years Stony-Faced Receptionist‘s attitude has not improved.  And frankly, I find this unacceptable.

Without doubt, the influence of twitter friends such as @robjones_tring and @dougshaw1 has been rubbing off.  These guys care passionately about customer service.  Through their blogs they are making me think about what exactly is going on in my local GP surgery.

Without doubt, there are plenty of different and more appropriate ways my Stony-Faced  Receptionist could have handled the situation.   But where is the performance or conduct management?     At the very least,  it appears that my  Stony-Faced  Receptionist‘s behaviour is tolerated by her managers and colleagues.  I could go as far as saying that her behaviour is seen as acceptable.   Our interaction this morning is therefore a reflection of how management treat their staff and is an indicator of the (low) level of staff engagement in that surgery.

I did think – at 9.20am this morning –  about changing to a different GP surgery.  However, this surgery is only a 3 minute walk from my house.  And when I’ve been ill I’ve been grateful for the fact that I can easily reach the GP for any emergency appointment.  It would be too much hassle and inconvenient to change my GP surgery.  And I can’t guarantee that the new one would be any better.

And that’s where the problem lies.  Although patient choice is one of the main driving principles of the NHS at the moment, the question remains how much choice do we really have?   In reality, very little.  (Actually, in reality many people don’t understand the full potential of patient choice and don’t take advantage of it).

And that’s where we (as staff) get lazy.  We know that the patient can’t or won’t go elsewhere, so there’s no need to make an effort with our customer service skills.

Many years ago I led an HR Department who also provided an HR Advisory service to the 50+ GP practices within our patch.  It was an innovation at the time.  No other PCT was offering such a service.   We started with one HR Manager.  The team quickly grew to two because the demand was so great.

My good friend Anne (and frequent commentator on my posts) was the HR Manager of this GP – HR advisory team.   I’m sure she’ll agree with me about how difficult it was to provide a comprehensive service to such a disparate set of small businesses.   Many didn’t want our advice.  It was hard enough work just trying to get these surgeries to implement basic HR practice.   The concept of developing these surgeries in the art of customer service, at that time, was light years away.

I’d like to think that in 2011 it’s very different – that GP staff are more customer focussed.  But I know that’s not the case. Raising customer / patient service is an incredibly difficult challenge due to the logistics of the management of GP surgeries.  And as far as I can tell, there’s no appetite for it.

The real irony – and I promise, these are my last words on this topic – is that if my surgery implemented e-repeat prescriptions (which many other surgeries operate) then we wouldn’t have needed the interaction at all.   And then perhaps we would all have been happy at 9.15am this morning.

Is Good Customer Service Essential or Desirable?

I was quite distressed by an event that happened earlier this week. An event that could have been avoided by good customer service. My husband and I subsequently started to debate about whether it is appropriate to expect front-line member of staff to have basic customer service skills.

My view, having recruited a huge number of customer service reps for mobile phone companies along with having commissioned a significant number of skills development courses is that everybody is capable of demonstrating good customer service.  It doesn’t matter what you’re paid or your capabilities.  If it doesn’t come naturally, you can be taught how to provide good customer service.

My husband took the opposite view.  He felt my expectations of a member of staff involved in the incident this week were too high, as they are “only” a junior member of staff. Sensing that I was taking this argument personally, he let me win (this time), but I still feel passionately about this subject and hence this post.

In essence, when a member of staff encounters an angry customer  their approach should be:

1) Identify why the customer is angry;

2) Apologise (irrespective);

3) Determine what the customer would like to see as an outcome;

4) Establish next steps to either resolve the issue or alleviate the concern / worry / anxiety of the customer.

For me, this isn’t hard sums. What I do question is why some people think it’s acceptable that staff working in the NHS or the education sector can be excused from having the same level of customer service skills than those you find  in more commercial sectors?  I don’t believe that it’s desirable.  I think it’s essential that all our front-line staff have this essential skill.