The reputation of your department within your facility is not based on technical prowess alone. Equally important are your communication skills

For many clinical staff, your clinical engineering department or company may be represented by a single service person. The impression others have of your entire department can be the direct result of one interaction with one person—possibly you. The fact is, the way that you resolve issues or answer questions can significantly influence the customers’ perception of you and your department or company. The key to having a positive impact is to understand and put into action the basic principles of customer service.

There is nothing new or revolutionary about customer service. Yet too many of us either lack training in it or fail to practice what we’ve learned. So let’s take a few moments to review the basic principles.

It all starts with communication. While we are in the business of repairing medical devices, we are all still agents of customer service. In the course of repairing the equipment we still need to treat the clinical staff like a customer, even if we work for an in-house biomed department. Therefore, in this article I will use the term customer to encompass the wide range of staff that you work with in your facility.

Think about the following type of interaction you may have had with clinical staff: If you are dealing with a frustrating holdup in getting parts, how do you tell the clinician that the repair will be delayed? If you think primarily about the words you would choose, you’re missing the most important elements of such communication. Research has shown that during face-to-face communication, 55% of the message is conveyed by body language, 38% by tone of voice, and only 7% by the words used. During phone conversations, 82% of the message is conveyed through tone of voice, and only 18% by the words used. The implication is clear: what matters most is rarely what you say, but how you say it.

Communication Styles

One important key to effective communication is an understanding that different people have different styles of communicating. While you may want to research those different styles in more depth online, Table 1 provides a quick visual guide to four typical communication styles: rational, experimental, emotional, and safety-oriented.

Table 1: Communication Styles.

People who have a Rational style typically feel most comfortable with those that have styles that are connected vertically and horizontally in the table (Experimental and Safety). They are likely to feel less comfortable with the style that is diagonally connected (Emotional). This is due to the lack of commonality when trying to communicate with styles that are the exact opposite (diagonal in the table).

While no one profession would ever fit into a single mold, below are some examples of what a you might encounter as a biomed. A nurse might be focused on his or her patients’ safety, concerned with the needs of others (not ego-driven), and a good listener. He or she would thus be in the Safety quadrant.

A physician might be inclined to make fact-based decisions, to be orderly, and to make decisions slowly. He or she would therefore fall into the Rational quadrant.

We may have all encountered the manager or administrator who is impatient and dominates the conversation. He or she would be in the Experimental quadrant. You can see that a Rational person and an Emotional person are on opposite ends (diagonal) and I am sure you can understand how the two different personalities might not see eye-to-eye. How should you put the accompanying table to use? Try to identify and mimic the style of the person with whom you are talking. If you recognize you are working with a Safety communicator, based on traits listed, do not propose a risky solution to the problem. If a radiology room is down and the parts are scheduled to arrive by 10:00 AM, do not expect a Safety person to schedule patients for a 10:30 procedure in that room. Take a more conservative approach.

Communications and the Service Event

In their communications with you, customers deserve to be listened to and understood, to have their concerns and questions taken seriously, to receive a timely response to their requests, and to be treated with respect. If you observe these four customer rights, the customer interaction will have a strong foundation for success.

With any service event, you must set and manage expectations. If your customer expects a central monitor in ICU to be fixed in 20 minutes, but the reality is that it will take 6 hours, you must make the customer aware of it. While the conversation might not be comfortable, it will help to set expectations early on and avoid frustration and disappointment later.

Greetings

Always introduce yourself to your customers, even if they know you. If you have an established relationship, the introduction can be less formal, but it needs to take place nonetheless. During the introduction, you should briefly explain what you understand the issues, concerns, or requests to be. This explanation should be prefaced with, “I understand that” and close with, “Is that correct?” This method will put you in a position to ask questions without appearing as though you already know the complete picture.

Asking Questions

8 Keys to Customer Service

  • Stay in contact with customers and build a relationship
  • Greet the customer
  • Listen to what the customer is saying—don’t assume you know what they will say
  • Ask the customer questions
  • Propose a solution and manage expectations
  • Resolve customer complaints quickly and completely
  • Keep customers informed of progress or lack of progress toward a solution
  • Follow up after a problem has been resolved to ensure they know it was resolved and confirm the problem was actually fixed

An open-ended question is designed to allow full and narrative responses. Open-ended questions typically begin with words such as “why” and “how,” or phrases such as “tell me about.” They are meant to collect general information and can uncover information that a customer may not immediately think is important. A closed-ended question is one that can normally be answered using a simple “yes” or “no” or other specific short response. An example of this type of question might be, “Did the monitor work during your last case?” Closed-ended questions are often used to drill down into specifics, and are often combined with open-ended ones.

Start your conversation by asking open-ended questions to uncover the problem. You should start with broad questions and narrow them down as you collect information. Your opening questions should allow the customer to elaborate as much as possible. As you collect information, you can introduce closed-ended questions to fine-tune the picture.

To help understand what the customer says, you should practice active listening, which consists of three primary elements: comprehending, retaining, and responding. In practice, this means listening without judging, and without assuming that you know what the customer will say. Do not put the customers’ comments in your own frame of reference; just listen to their words and understand them. Many times the customer provides a lot of details and information. To retain all of the information, it may be best to take notes. Finally, you need to respond. Be aware of body language when responding to a customer. Your words may say one thing, but if you are looking around the room or have your arms crossed (a closed body posture) you may be sending the message that you do not really care.

Propose a Solution and Manage Expectations

Some people are ego-driven; some are driven to serve others. Being ego-driven is not a bad thing in this context. It simply means that the individual is driven to meet his or her own needs rather than the needs of others. You can identify such individuals by their frequent use of “I” or “me” statements. An example would be, “I was able to complete all my PMs this month.”

If the individual is driven to serve others, they will predominantly use inclusive words, such as “we” or “us.” An example would be, “We were able to complete all our PMs this month.”

These are subtle differences, but are critical when gaining a customer’s acceptance of a proposed solution. If you tell ego-driven customers that the purchase of a product or service (or a proposed solution to a problem) will benefit their team, they may not care, because it will not serve their ego. However, if you tell them that it will be benefit them individually, you are speaking their language.

In short conversations it may be difficult to determine whether the individual is ego-driven or driven to serve others. In this situation, you should phrase your proposals in a way that appeals to both types, such as, “This solution will benefit you and your team.” This method helps to ensure your proposal will be valued.

When proposing a solution to a problem, do not assume that the solution will work. Always ask whether that solution will work for the customer. You can gain the customer’s acceptance and approval with a simple question like, “Will that work for you and your team?”

One of the best ways to set and manage expectations is to make realistic promises. Sometimes it may seem easier to tell the nurse manager what you think they want to hear, such as, “The dialysis machine will be fixed in 10 minutes,” rather than disclose that it will take 90 minutes. But while they might not want to hear that it will actually take 90 minutes, it is easier to set expectations and have that uncomfortable conversation early on. It is more difficult to go back later and tell them it will take longer than expected, which can only lead to damaging your credibility. So as you work through the solution, keep the customer informed.

Closing the Event

The close of the service event is critical. Unless you let your customers know you are done, they might not realize it and may assume there is still an issue. During the closing, you should confirm that you checked everything, that any equipment repaired is functional, and that the paperwork is complete. Before ending the service event, always ask if there is anything else you can do to help them. When you leave, your customers must have a clear understanding of what you have done and whether any further action is required.

When the customer is not available for a closing conversation, be certain to leave them a message on voicemail or with another person. Ideally, you should do both. Be sure to include the following pieces of information:

  • Your name
  • What you did
  • What the customer needs to know
  • What the customer needs to do
  • Your next step (if required)
  • Your contact information

If the issue is not resolved, you need to close the event by updating the customer. Provide honest information about the status of the service request. If it will take a week to resolve the issue, be frank and set the proper expectation. In addition, take care to reassure your customer that you are there to support him or her. Finally, you must confirm that the customer is satisfied with the event.

Depending on the nature of the repair, you should follow up within a reasonable time frame to ensure your customer is still satisfied. It is not uncommon that customers will feel satisfied at the end of an event, then realize the next day that they have the same problem, a new problem, or additional questions. Agree to a follow-up plan, whether it is by phone, voicemail, or email.

Whether you are involved primarily in field service or in-house service, the points discussed above will all apply to one degree or another. Remember, your technical skills are just one element of successful customer service. Without effective communication skills, you will not do your customer justice.

Randell Orner, PhD, MBA, MS is a 20-year veteran of the biomedical field. For more information, contact editorial director John Bethune at jbethune@allied360.com.

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