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If at First You Don't Succeed

If at First You Don't Succeed

A few weeks ago my wife Lue and I were flying from Roanoke, Virginia, to Midland, Texas, via Dallas. Thunderstorms erupted over Dallas, and our flight was diverted to Houston so we could take on additional fuel. We missed our connecting flight to Midland by just a few minutes and had to wait several hours for another flight.

Thankfully, this doesn't happen often when we travel, but when it does it's a nuisance. Airlines that are serious about their service do everything possible to minimize the inconvenience--in our case, the ticket agent upgraded us to first class and apologized for our trouble. We hadn't complained about missing our plane or made any noises about wanting preferential treatment. But the American Airlines employee had obviously been trained to spot potential problems and mitigate them as quickly as possible.

What this employee was doing has become known in management parlance as service recovery, a well-thought-out, planned process for returning aggrieved customers to a state of satisfaction after a service or product has failed to live up to expectations. As competition heats up, service recovery becomes an essential part of companies' overall business strategies.

The purpose of any business is to serve its clients; no entrepreneur with any sense goes about purposely alienating customers. But most of the customer alienation in the business world results from sins of omission rather than sins of commission. Of course, it doesn't make sense to drive off customers by any means, since it costs five times more to replace a customer than to retain one.

Rather than dreading customer complaints, astute companies consider them opportunities to prove their commitment to high-quality service--even when they aren't to blame. People are particularly impressed when a business goes out of its way to soften the consequences of their own mistakes. No one likes to appear at fault, so people will go out of their way to lay blame on circumstances outside their control. You may feel a moral duty to point out patients' culpabilities, but I guarantee you it will not endear you to them--even when you successfully resolve a problem.

Orthodontists are somewhat limited in their possibilities for service recovery. We can't upgrade someone to a higher class of service or provide a suite of rooms for the price of a single. It therefore becomes even more important that we prevent problems before they occur. But once a problem does occur, we need to have a plan, understood by everyone in the office, to offer amends and resolve the difficulty with dispatch and courtesy.

Dr. Leonard L. Berry, professor of retailing and marketing at Texas A&M, says "the acid test of a service delivery system is how you solve customers' problems". He consistently finds in his studies that " the best satisfaction scores come from customers who have experienced no problems, the second best from those who have had problems resolved satisfactorily, and the worst from customers whose problems go unsolved. The message from our research is pretty clear: Do it right the first time. If you don't, you'd better be darned sure you do it right the second time. If you fail to meet the customer's expectations twice, that's about all the room he'll give you."

What Berry's message means to me is that if at first you don't succeed, try another method--fast. Alternative methods will be easily discovered if the entire office is committed to a culture that prides itself on satisfying patients. Obviously, that requires training personnel to be sensitive to patients' needs, and it also requires that the frontline troops have the power and the authority to resolve problems.

Most orthodontists have a tendency to be authoritative, and this style makes for an efficient, quality-controlled delivery system, because it focuses on the procedures and techniques of our service. But self-satisfaction with technical prowess can blind orthodontists to the goal of patient satisfaction and to the cultivation of the skills necessary for service recovery. Professionals who have no talent for service recovery need to have people working for them who do.

I have a friend who is one of the best orthodontists I've ever known, but he usually treats only one child in a family because of his lack of skill in human relations. He thinks his superior professional ability is all he owes to his patients. In less competitive times that may have been true, but it certainly isn't true now.

Orthodontists shouldn't be satisfied if there aren't many squeaky wheels in their practices. They need to be active problem finders. Complainers are only about 4 percent of our dissatisfied clients; 96 percent of our unhappy patients won't complain to us, but they will badmouth our service to many of their friends. A General Electric study found that recommendations from acquaintances carry twice the impact of paid advertising when consumers make buying decisions. And such referrals probably have even more impact on orthodontic purchasers.

There are several ways to find problems. Patient suggestion boxes and questionnaires are proven devices. Another effective, less formal method is to conduct exit interviews as patients finish treatment. The Maine Savings Bank in Portland offers its customers $1 for every letter suggesting ways to improve service. An 800 telephone number permits easy access for out-of-town patients to report problems. Sometimes simply listening to patient conversation reveals areas that need attention.

But however we find out what is troubling our patients about our services, we must take action immediately. To know and not act sends a strong message that we really don't care and are satisfied with play-acting.

Service recovery is a philosophy that makes customer satisfaction the primary goal of a business. It shifts the emphasis from the cost of pleasing a customer to the value of doing so. Practically every orthodontist I know pays lip service to this concept, but few are completely committed to it. Service recovery is more than just a strategem or a bag of tricks. It is a way of life in the practices that do it well.


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