(US) 1.800.388.4264 | (CANADA) 1.866.771.8231

Five critical steps for effective service recovery

Service failures are inevitable. Even the best-run organizations will sometimes let their customers down.

Customers understand this—even in healthcare. They know that clinicians, front-line staff, and other healthcare workers are only human. We all make mistakes.

However, while they may accept an occasional small lapse in service, what they will not forgive is failure to make the mistake right.

To prevent a bad experience from reflecting poorly on your organization, service recovery efforts must show patients and their families a sincere commitment to their satisfaction—and to correcting the source of the problem so it doesn’t happen again.

Here are five ways to do that in your organization.

1. Understand patient expectations

Every brand makes a promise to its customers—McDonald’s promises convenience, Volvo promises safety—and healthcare organizations promise a lot.

Your organization’s brand messaging signals what patients and their families can expect. Grasp the implied promise that your brand makes, and you’ll better understand how and why your organization doesn’t live up to expectations.

So do you know what your organization promises patients?

The answer won’t come from your marketing department. Patients are the only people who can tell you what they expect from you, and how they’re interpreting what you’re trying to communicate about your organization.

To understand your customers’ expectations, you have to understand how they make care decisions. You have to learn the thoughts they have, not only at every touch point and interaction with your organization, but also before they even seek care.

So talk to your customers. Find out what promises they perceive your brand as making to them. And when things go wrong, ask, How did we break that promise? How did we fail to live up to our customers’ expectations?

Once you can answer those questions, you can begin to recover patient loyalty.

2. Give patients an easy way to voice their concerns and provide feedback

Service recovery is time-sensitive. For it to work, your staff must act fast.

But they can’t act on problems they don’t know about. That’s why it’s so important for your organization to hear patient concerns promptly.

While still in your facility, patients may feel uncomfortable voicing candid feedback. And many patient-satisfaction surveys take four to six weeks to reach a patient’s mailbox. By then, it’s likely too late to solve whatever problem they may have had.

Fortunately, technology allows organizations to reach out to patients immediately after their care experience, and to gather their feedback with a simple text message or phone call. That’s a service recovery opportunity that healthcare organizations shouldn’t neglect. See how Sparrow Health is fulfilling its promise to patient care with an all-patient approach to gathering feedback: discharge calls.

Getting feedback from patients in real time enhances your understanding of service failures, and enables more timely responses to concerns. This way, issues and concerns have a higher likelihood of being corrected while they’re still relevant to patients and their families.

3. Embrace the process of empathy

Patients want empathy and validation of their feelings after a service mishap. That may come more naturally to some staff than others.

The good news is that empathy is a process that can be learned, practiced, and improved. One helpful acronym to follow in inculcating empathy is LEAD, which US Airways uses in its service recovery efforts.

L—Listen. This is the essential first step toward understanding. Attentive listening will show the patient that your concern is genuine. And once in a while, it can be the last step, too: sometimes a dissatisfied patient just needs to vent.

E—Empathize. It’s critical to verbally acknowledge patients’ feelings, and to validate them. Show them that you believe that their concerns are both reasonable and important.

A—Apologize. This may be the most important step. A good apology must be sincere and start with “I.” “We” apologies feel institutional, impersonal, and insincere. Remember that you’re not accepting blame; you’re expressing regret for the problem. Patients appreciate that.

D—Deliver. Make amends. Offer solutions relevant to the problem. If you personally can’t fix the problem, connect the patient with someone who can.

Although following these steps can’t undo a service failure, it can go a long way toward making things right.

4. Provide staff with the ability to act

Staff members want patients to feel good about their care experiences. It gives staff members pride to know they’re meeting patient expectations, and makes their workdays easier.

With the concern resolution process, healthcare leaders play a direct role in supporting staff by giving staff members the autonomy to resolve problems to which patients and families call attention. Leaders can and should give their staff the education training and resources they need to resolve issues at the front line.

Having greater autonomy to correct concerns at the points where they occur allows staff to engage with patients as human beings and create a more meaningful interaction with them. Genuine moments of connection happen when staff members reach past their task-based roles to these authentic personal interactions. Autonomy also allows staff members to exercise creative problem-solving and critical thinking, which helps them feel more invested in the service-recovery outcome.

5. Use patient feedback to improve

Marshall Field, the great department-store magnate, once said, “Those who complain, teach how I may please others so that more customers will come. Only those hurt me who are displeased, but do not complain. They refuse me permission to correct my errors and thus improve my service.”

That’s a critical attitude for healthcare leaders to emulate. Concerns are not a problem to wish away. They are opportunities for you to learn how to improve your service and win patients.

When you take feedback to heart, not only will you improve your business—you’ll also be showing your patients that their opinions matter. That will strengthen your patients’ relationship with your organization, and earn their loyalty and trust.