A lesson in customer service for all professionals

Yesterday was the day for my annual physical exam. While I enjoy chatting with my internist, certain elements of the annual physical are less than enticing. Nevertheless, I arrived at 1:35 for my 1:45 appointment at an office that’s part of the South Bend Clinic practice. I checked in at the front desk, and then I took a seat in the waiting room.

An elderly couple came in and sat near me, and I heard them say “he’s running an hour behind.” They didn’t say which doctor in this multi-physician office they were seeing, but I began to wonder if it was mine.

As 2:00 rolled around and I was still sitting there, I began to figure that the late-running doctor was indeed mine. Okay, this isn’t great, but I have my iPad. I’ll make the best of it. The elderly couple and I both remained in the waiting area for some time.

It wasn’t long before 2:15 came and went. And then 2:30. Followed by 2:45. Shortly before 3:00 I saw a young man arrive at the check in desk and say he was there for his 3:00 appointment with the same doctor I was to see. I silently hoped for him that he brought a sandwich. The elderly couple was called in (wait a minute—I was there first!) for their appointment. I saw another patient who had been waiting for some time go to the front desk to ask, and he too was told the doctor was running behind.

At 3:05, the young man who had a 3:00 appointment with my doctor was called in. At that point I wondered what was up. So, I went to the front desk, where the following conversation took place:

“Can I help you?”

“Yes. I’m hoping you can help me understand something. I have a 1:45 appointment with Dr. S., and I’ve been sitting in the waiting area. I was seated where I could see a gentleman arrive a little before 3:00 for his appointment, and he was called back a few moments ago. I guess I’m trying to figure out why I haven’t been called back for my appointment.”

“I…don’t…know. Let me go find out.”

A few moments later she came back and explained that there had been a “mistake” and somehow my name hadn’t been crossed off some list or something. I should have a seat and they’d be with me soon. It’s now 3:15.

At this point I’m not a happy patient, but rescheduling isn’t going to do me any good. I’ve already lost half a day at the office. I might as well wait.

A few minutes later I was called back. The nurse was apologetic, as was the doctor (who admitted it was a little embarrassing to have me “lost” in the waiting room). By then I was content to be getting my physical underway, so I was no longer in the mood to bark at anyone. Besides—the nurse and the doctor weren’t the ones at fault. It was the person at the front desk who checked me in (not the same individual that I spoke with to find out what was going on) who was at fault. In the overall scheme of things, being lost in the waiting room was an inconvenience and frustration. It was not like I’d just lost a jury trial.

As I thought about this event, I couldn’t help but compare how this medical practice operates with how my law practice operates. Each day, I look at my schedule to see what’s on the calendar. Court appearances, appointments, or those blessed times when I  have nothing scheduled and I can work on projects. Like anyone else, I take note of when people are supposed to have appointments with me and keep those in mind.

When an appointment doesn’t show, I begin to wonder about it. Did I mis-calendar something? Have I been stood up?

The one thing I do—which is the one thing my doctor’s office didn’t do—after 10 or 15 minutes is check in the waiting room to see if my appointment is there waiting for me. It’s entirely possible that our receptionist could become swamped and forget to buzz me and let me know my appointment has arrived. It’s also possible I’m down the hall, in the restroom, on the phone, whatever. Word might not get to me that my client is waiting for me. So when someone hasn’t shown for their appointment, I check to see if they are there. If so, I immediately go see them. If not, then I figure they are not going to show.

At my doctor’s office, if it was the regular practice for the doctor’s assistants to keep tabs on whether people have shown up for their appointments, someone could have seen it was 2:00 or 2:05, observed that I was apparently not there, but nevertheless stuck her head into the waiting area to call my name. It’s not hard to do, it takes little time, and it helps avoid the possible grumpy patient—not to mention the embarrassment of “losing” a patient in the waiting room.

The lesson here is simple. Don’t assume that whatever system you have for notifying you of arrivals will work every single time. If someone appears to be 10 or 15 minutes late, go ask if that person is waiting for you. Or have your assistant do it. Check the waiting room. The person covering the reception desk while your regular receptionist is getting some water may not know who has arrived. Don’t assume your notification system has worked. Checking to see if an appointment is in your waiting room takes a couple of minutes. That small effort can go a long way toward keeping your client satisfied and not sending the potential client the wrong message.

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