Customer Service

Overcome communication challenges

Post COVID-19, personal protective equipment and location may require a customer service assessment.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, ophthalmology practices have likely experienced significant changes. As a consultant, I have seen clinics completely re-write the playbook on practice operations. These operational changes mostly relate to safety protocols and patient flow; however, I am also seeing revisions to customer service and patient care. Each step of the patient’s journey needs to be accompanied by actions related to improving the patient experience.


Communicate through the mask

As patients and ophthalmic professionals must wear masks in the clinic, I am finding that we are losing communication with each other. We know from extensive research that about 93% of our communication is through body language (non-verbal). In comparison, the additional 7% is through the actual words we use. Patients will take in your customer service mostly through non-verbal clues, including eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, and postures, according to Encyclopedia of Communication Theory.

When you wear a mask, patients cannot see your face and are likely missing critical social cues in how you welcome and care about them. If you work in a clinical position and must wear a face shield, your communication with patients may be further limited.

To improve: Focus on the areas of communication you can control. For example, your eyes can be seen by the patient. You might let the patient know that, even though they cannot see you smile, you are smiling and happy to see them again. You might also need to increase your hand gestures to help patients know you are friendly. As many ophthalmic patients are elderly and have difficulty hearing, you may need to increase your speaking volume. Consider asking patients if they can hear you, to ensure you are using a suitable volume level. Note that as you get louder that your tone remains warm and friendly.

Realize also that your patients likely have difficulty expressing their feelings through a mask. If you get the impression that your patients are frustrated, consider that they may not be able to communicate well with their masks. The best way to combat miscommunication is through eye contact.

Remote communication

Remote staff members should also consider customer service in their patient interactions. To improve customer service when you must talk on the phone, focus on your tone, volume, and inflection. Your tone should be positive and friendly. If you are unsure how you come across on the phone, record yourself. Most people dislike listening to their own voices, but hearing how you come across to others can be a powerful tool. Stay focused on the patient, and practice active listening, absorbing what they are saying without interrupting. Active listening also includes the ability to ask questions and then listen to the answer without trying to think of a response while the other person is still talking.

Remote exams

Relatedly, some practices have implemented telemedicine or virtual patient check-ins. Though the patient is not physically with you and the doctor, they can see your unmasked face. One of the highest customer service challenges for patients using this mode of communication is working the technology.

To improve telemedicine customer service, consider walking through the virtual visit as the patient, with the goal of better understanding the patient’s technology challenges. Designate a technology champion in the clinic, someone available to help patients connect to the doctor.

Social distancing

Another area affecting patient communication is social distancing. Except when performing some aspects of an ophthalmic exam, staff and physicians remain 6-feet apart from patients and may also communicate through a barrier, such as plexiglass.

To improve your social distancing customer service, consider how your posture or hand gestures can convey friendliness. For example, try to avoid slouching or crossing your arms. Instead, keep your body in a relaxed, open stance. You might also work to match patients’ body position, staying parallel with their movements. If patients are seated and use hand gestures, consider doing the same. If patients are standing or have a more reserved demeanor, mirror their body energy.

Refine protocols

I recommend meeting as a team each morning to discuss what is working well and what is difficult for the patient. The goal is to reduce patient frustration and anxiety by staying mindful of the patients’ needs.

As our nation continues to recover, we will likely never be the same again. We have been forced to analyze nearly every aspect of our clinics. Similar to office protocols, we now must re-imagine customer service, working to re-establish our connection with patients and each other. OP