Let’s just come right out and say it: customer service is as integral to your practice as your medical degree is. That’s right. Before you cry blasphemy, think about your office’s most vital assets (hint: you aren’t number one). It’s your patients – or your clients, customers or whatever you want to call them – that keep your office lights on, pay your salary and, ultimately, make your job possible. So how can you reach them better and keep them happy?

A dissatisfied customer will tell between nine and 15 people about their experience, with about 13 percent of dissatisfied customers telling more than 20 people, according to the White House Office of Consumer Affairs. That means a few unhappy patients can go a long way and do a lot of damage to your practice.

Perhaps even more startling of a statistic: 86 percent of consumers took their business elsewhere following a bad customer experience, up from 59 percent just four years ago according to Harris Interactive, Customer Experience Impact Report.

When developing an office culture for you and your staff, remember that above all else everyone should be paying the most attention to your customers – your patients. They don’t have to choose your office, but you have to make them glad they did.

Start at the Top

In this case, that’s you. No matter what’s going on in your personal or daily life, no matter how overbooked your schedule is – find time to interact and connect with the patients you’re seeing. Spend an extra minute or two with them to find out why they’re there and maybe even a personal fact or two about them to see if you share a common interest. Write it down in your notes, I won’t tell.

This is one of the easiest ways to ensure a positive experience for a patient – they’ll tell everyone willing to listen about the great doctor visit they had and how wonderful of a person you are. Take the time to identify customer needs and listen to what they’re saying – not just about what hurts, but about who they are.

But it doesn’t stop there. You’re just the beginning – step one for you is to set the “patient-focused” mentality. Step two is to make sure your office staff is following in line. On average, patients deal with at least two to three people from your staff, and each interaction should be a pleasant one. There is a trickle-down effect from you to your office manager to your front desk to your nurses and finally to the patients. It’s your job to set the tone and promote the energy throughout your office.

One of the biggest initiatives that may help is simply letting employees know that you’re putting an emphasis on customer satisfaction. Encourage them to be friendly, listen to patients and go out of their way to make sure patients are happy. One of the most successful strategies here is to lead by example. But remember, employees are a type of customer, too, and they need a regular dose of appreciation as well. Consider planning special promotions or contests that will encourage them to create a friendly atmosphere and reward them for succeeding. Thank them throughout the day and the trend will catch on; if they’re treated with respect, chances are they’ll have a higher regard for customers.

Putting Customers First

As silly as it may sound, changing just a few of the things you do can create a ripple effect that will positively alter the entire perception of your office. According to Lee Resource Inc., attracting a new customer costs five times as much as keeping an existing one, so wouldn’t you like to keep every patient and positive referral you can? I thought so. Here are a few tips on how to immediately improve customer service within your office:

Make customers feel appreciated. The biggest thing here is to treat them as individuals – use their name, connect with them and find ways to compliment them (as long as you’re sincere). Customers can tell whether or not you really care about them, so find ways to show that you do, like not rushing them or trying to do three different things while they’re speaking with you. It’s the small things that matter.

Harness the Power of “Yes.” You and your staff should always be looking for ways to help your customers – from a glass of water to explaining an insurance form – if they look like they need something, ask. When they have a request, make it happen (as long as it’s within reason. I don’t want to hear about any physicians doing dental work on the side because it’s more convenient for patients). Make doing business with you easy – from paperwork to consultations to payment – it should all be stress-free. If you need a better website or a complete office makeover for that to work – make it happen.

Give More than Expected. If the future of your practice lies in keeping your patients happy and gaining referrals – think of ways to elevate yourself above the competition. What makes you different from your competitor down the street? Find those elements and own them. Identify what you offer patients they cannot get elsewhere. Think about what you should do to follow up after a visit – maybe you send out Thank You Cards or even a quick phone call from the front desk to show the office is concerned with their wellbeing? What can you give them that’s totally unexpected? Find that answer and you’ll be well on your way to an unparalleled level of customer service.

No matter what, just remember the old saying: “The customer is always right.” It’s about time you start listening to them.