Mastering Customer Service: When the Patient Is Your Customer

Mastering Customer Service: When the Patient Is Your Customer

Customer service can be more challenging in healthcare than in any other field, yet it remains a critical component of the care you provide every day. When you really think about it, your customers are harder to please than almost any other customer in the world; they are already in physical or emotional distress when they arrive, you’re about to grill them and examine them in a highly intimate manner, and they come bearing family members who are ready to advocate on their behalf.

So how can you balance providing top notch healthcare and first class customer service without compromising on either? Keep reading!

1. Put Yourself in Their Shoes

You’ve just clocked in, and before you even have your name badge on, a patient’s mother is at the nurse’s station fuming and ranting. “My son has been waiting over 45 minutes,” she says. “They drew blood and not so much as an update since then! I don’t even know what they were screening him for! I sure hope you plan on getting in there and giving him better service than they did.”

Your first reaction is often frustration and irritation. Your blood pressure rises and you begin to feel threatened and unappreciated. By shifting your focus from you to her, however, you can transform the situation in moments.

This mother brought her young son to the emergency room. Because she loves her child and wants to protect him, she was distraught when they arrived. Blood was drawn, but no explanation was given, only increasing her fear and anxiety in the moment. Because she wasn’t told how long the lab tests would take to process, she now wonders if her son has been forgotten.

Can you relate to her fear and anxiety? Can you understand why she feels the need to advocate so fiercely for her son? Patients come to you in a vulnerable state. They might be wondering how they’re going to pay for the care provided or who is going to feed their pets and pick their kids up from school. They might be in pain or wondering if they’re even going to make it. They may fear placement in a long-term care facility, or perhaps you work in a long-term care facility, and they are grieving the loss of their privacy, independence, and familiar surroundings.

The moment you choose to identify the real emotions behind your patients’ difficult behaviors, the entire situation will change. Comfort the patient and tend to all of their needs, emotional and physical. Apologize willingly and earnestly. Offer your most compassionate response and choose to believe the best about each every patient you encounter. Not only will this change your patient’s experience, but your own throughout the course of your day, week, year, and career.

2. Never Say No

You’re no stranger to patients requesting things that you can’t give them, whether it’s more medication, a cigarette, or discharge orders. While the simplest answer to these requests is often “no,” and you have no power to change it to a “sure,” you do have power to change the way you present your answer.

According to Lewis P. Carbone, author of Clued In: How to Keep Customers Coming Back Again and Again, telling a customer (or patient, in your case) that the answer is no results in one of a number of potential reactions:

  • The customer responds emotionally — arguing, swearing, or becoming angry
  • The customer hangs up and calls back in an effort to get another rep and the call ends the same way
  • The customer escalates the situation to a supervisor and demands write-offs, discounts, or gift cards
  • The customer threatens to stop doing business with the company

The fallout from the simple two-letter word “no” is significant and easily avoidable. Simply never say it. The mind is a powerful thing, and these substitutes for “no” often result in a more satisfactory experience for both you and your patient:

  • When the patient requests pain medication but he has already taken the highest dose possible, try saying something like, “The soonest I can bring another dose is 2:00, but until then, I can bring you a couple of Tylenol and a warm blanket. How does that sound?”
  • When a resident requests to use the bathroom from somebody who is not qualified to provide assistance, try saying something like, “I would love to find somebody who can help you. I’ll be right back!”
  • When the patient requests assistance with getting outside for a cigarette and your policy doesn’t allow it, try saying something like, “I’m sure you’d kill for a cigarette right now. If I smuggled in a pop, do you think that would take the edge off?”

By simply rephrasing your responses, you can begin to connect with the patients you treat and transform the environment in your department.

3. Always Validate Their Feelings

As previously discussed, patients often come to healthcare providers already distraught and emotional. The moment a nurse tells them to calm down or a doctor tells them they’re being unreasonable, they explode. They feel as if they’re being judged and as if the healthcare professionals they trust are not taking their situation seriously.

The simple fix? Take a moment to validate their feelings. According to Tim Hartnett, PhD, Licensed Therapist, validation can “dismantle power struggles, resolve arguments, and build deeply trusting relationships.” What does validation look like?

When validating your young patient’s upset mother, you would respond by letting her know that her feelings of frustration and anxiety are appropriate. You can convey this simply by using any of the following phrases:

  • “I can see why you’re frustrated.”
  • “I would be frustrated, too, if I were you.”
  • “Wow, you must be feeling so worried.”

The message you send through validation is, “You’re not crazy for feeling this way.” Patients begin to trust you, not only to understand them, but to take appropriate care of them.

In conclusion, providing excellent customer service to patients is no easy feat. By displaying compassion and empathy through every shift and every encounter, you can master customer service in the healthcare setting and transform the environment in your department.


Rynae has over twelve years of experience in the healthcare industry, starting in entry-level positions and direct patient care and advancing into healthcare administration. She holds her BS in Human Resources Management and specializes in business strategy, leadership development, and performance management. Rynae is passionate about senior living, life enrichment, and customer service in the healthcare setting.

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