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A practitioner ponders

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I've been thinking lately about customer service.

I'll give a couple of examples. There is a very small Italian restaurant in London that I go to three or four times a year. The food is perfectly good though nothing outstanding, but the patron always recognises me and greets me like a long-lost cousin. Nearby, in a London club, a young maître d’ used to insult his guests with such cheerfulness as to charm them and never troubled them for their room number for the bill; instead, he memorised their faces and kept print outs showing who was staying in which room. In both instances, the chef might think that customers are buying his food, but we are actually buying customer service – the atmosphere created by the front-of-house people. What can we learn from this and apply in our surgeries?

Complaint handling is another area that we all know is important, and it can be educating to experience it from the complainant's viewpoint. I used to regularly patronise a large chain of budget hotels, and had always been very impressed by the quality of their customer service, with friendly smiling people offering help before it was asked for. However, when I had a complaint my image of the company fell apart. A fault in their new iPhone booking ‘app’ left me out of pocket, and my previous experiences had led me to expect a prompt and helpful response to a complaint. My letter was not answered for nearly a fortnight and a lengthy e-mail correspondence followed. The money was only refunded one month later. A long, convenient (for me) and profitable (for them) relationship came to an abrupt end, not because of the quality of their product, but as a result of poor customer service.

How many of us trained to be veterinary surgeons rather than doctors because we didn't want to work with people? I know I did, and I see a lot of hands going up out there in reader land! Guess what? We ended up in a profession where working with people is of primary importance to business success, probably more so than in human medicine. My conclusion is something that some of us seem to know instinctively, but which others learn by slow and painful experience: what our clients are buying is not necessarily what we are selling.

I find it depressing that our clients are more likely to base their decision on which practice to use on the receptionist's smile than on faultless orthopaedic surgery or skill in managing their diabetic cat, but that is the way of the world. I bet you spent far more last year on clinical CPD than you did on improving the people skills of your front-of-house staff. I wonder if our CPD budgets are well targeted. Perhaps they are more focused on the job satisfaction of veterinary staff than on the commercial success of the business.

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