Urgent message: While conventional customer service training emphasizes the need to listen to patient concerns, the best response typically isn’t an apology, but rather corrective action to either solve or prevent the underlying shortcoming.

Alan A. Ayers, MBA, MAcc is Chief Executive Officer of Velocity Urgent Care and is Practice Management Editor of The Journal of Urgent Care Medicine.

Customer service is at the heart of any business. Whether it’s a retail outlet or an urgent care clinic, customers won’t return if they have a negative experience. Even worse, if previous customers leave negative reviews and tell their friends about their dissatisfaction, a clinic may lose patients before they ever step through the door.

Unfortunately, the focus on customer service has left companies with a flawed view of what paying customers actually want. In many cases, managers default to a sympathetic point of view and offer apologies to the patient. While briefly, genuinely apologizing for the inconvenience is never a bad thing, customers ultimately don’t want an apology—they want a solution. In the urgent care setting, this depends on what the complaint pertains to. Most often, patients experience problems with billing, bedside manner, or wait times, but not the medical treatment itself.

When owner/operators of urgent care facilities learn how to manage these customer service situations with action and train their staff to do the same, patient satisfaction can be greatly increased.

Learning by Example

Airlines may have the most customer service-related issues of any industry. After all, with tight scheduling of equipment and crews, complex equipment subject to maintenance, and unpredictable weather, the potential for service failure is high. So, taking a page from the book of how airlines manage complaints can be a useful strategy.

A recent study discussed by the Harvard Business Review analyzed responses to complaints in an airline call center as “relational” (empathy, apologizing, personal connections) and “problem solving” (finding solutions to the problem at hand). The study concluded that employees who focused on the problem-solving facet (ie, getting the passenger to their destination or locating lost baggage, vs apologizing for the situation) greatly improved customers’ satisfaction scores—even over those who were highly empathetic and cheerful.

Billing Trouble

Health insurance is a complicated tangle of coverage, copays, and deductibles that most patients don’t fully understand. In fact, even those with specialized training often don’t understand all the nuances of insurance. Deciding how much to collect at time of service, understanding case rate and exclusions when administering care, or complying with referral and pre-authorization requirements throw both patients and urgent care staff for a loop.

Most often, problems arise when patients do not understand their insurance. Another issue occurs when the patient has their expectations higher than the reality of their insurance plan (ie, the patient thinks he has “full coverage” and thus doesn’t understand why he’s responsible for a balance due to the “deductible”). In their eyes, the billing department collecting on an out-of-pocket charge, months after the visit, seems suspicious or unreasonable.

To combat this, urgent care front desk and billing operations should focus on enhancing the patient’s understanding of insurance. Just like education plays a large part in the rest of healthcare, it should here too. For example, if a patient is angry about having a larger copay than expected, the billing staff could contact the insurance company and figure out why. Then, this information from the insurance company can be relayed to the patient rather than simply telling them you’re sorry and they will have to take it up with the insurance company. The front desk may say something like, “We agree that a higher copay for urgent care than primary care is unfair! You should contact your insurance company and HR department to let them know your opinion!”

Better Bedside Manner

Urgent care’s fast-paced nature can often leave patients less than impressed with the bedside manner of physicians and nurses. Frequently, patients invoke the “r” word (rude) to describe the behavior of providers and staff. Unfortunately, most facilities don’t learn about this until after the encounter is long over and the patient has submitted a survey. And rarely are providers and staff gratuitously disrespectful to patients—what may be interpreted as “rude” may actually be a provider acting in haste to maintain a pace of clinic flow.

The best way to fix this problem is to avoid it in the first place. Urgent care centers should provide training in proper bedside manner for healthcare workers who directly encounter patients. However, if a customer directly calls in and complains, staff should keep in mind that apologizing isn’t always the best answer. It may entail providing the patient context, acknowledging the failure in patient perceptions, and providing a plan of corrective action. These situations must be handled on a case-by-case basis by providing a solution or answer that will satisfy the patient.

Wait Time

It can be all too easy to apologize for a patient’s wait time. However, excessive waits are often cited as the reason for a negative experience with urgent care. Therefore, it is important to handle these situations appropriately and avoid giving the patient a poor experience.

Instead of offering sympathy or an apology, staff can take measures to decrease wait time. As a facility, centers can utilize online check-in or even shift some visit types (ie, physicals and rechecks) to appointments to make waiting more convenient. On a smaller scale, having a well-organized check-in system can cut back on lines. Finally, individuals can provide a better customer experience by personally updating patients on their status and expected remaining wait times.

Even if there is no way to speed up a patient’s wait time, the simple act of staff offering to check is more meaningful and more satisfactory than an apology. And if complaints about wait come in after the visit, verify the actual wait in the system. When one employer recently complained of a “3-hour wait” for a drug screen, consultation of the system revealed the patient had only waited 60 minutes—and there was 2 hours of unaccounted time which the employee was away from work.

Urgent care visits begin the moment a patient starts waiting and don’t end until they are out the door. Along the way, they will encounter multiple staff members who can positively or negatively affect the experience.

There is opportunity for continual improvement, especially in terms of communication throughout a patient’s visit. By utilizing problem-solving work and avoiding default apologizes, urgent care centers can greatly improve customer satisfaction.

Urgent Care Patients Want Action, Not Apologies

Alan A. Ayers, MBA, MAcc

President of Experity Networks and is Practice Management Editor of The Journal of Urgent Care Medicine
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