Get your team on track communicating with clients and improve customersatisfaction

In my years as a manager of more than 100 clinical engineers and as a clinical engineering consultant to dozens of hospitals nationwide, I have noted that the overwhelming majority of customer complaints can be traced back to one thing: the technician’s failure to regularly communicate the status or outcome of a repair to the equipment users.

I have seen brilliant clinical engineers perform the most complex of repairs only to be shot down by an angry department manager who thought the repair took too long or cost too much. The engineer knows that the repair was completed as quickly as humanly possible and that parts are expensive, so how can the equipment user (the customer) think otherwise? I contend it is the clinical engineer’s failure to communicate with the customer on an ongoing basis during the repair process that usually leads to poor customer satisfaction.

Whether a hospital, a manufacturer, or an independent service organization employs you, the equipment end-users are your customers. Clinical engineering is a service industry, and when your product is a service, the customer’s perception of that service—not reality—is what dictates whether you have good or bad customer satisfaction. The customer’s perception is based on the information they have. If the technician is not communicating any information to the customer, the customer will have no qualms with filling in the blanks on their own.

Suffice it to say, there are a variety of communication methods and tools, including communicating in person, via voice mail, e-mail, work orders sent or accessed electronically, paper service tickets, or placing repair tags on the equipment. I suggest creating a standardized approach for every customer, such as e-mailing a copy of the open work order to let the customer know the status of the repair, and then following up continuously with a method that works best for that customer, whether it be in person or by e-mailing updates.

There are a number of commonly held myths regarding the need for communication that lead to poor customer satisfaction in our industry:

Myth 1
The customer will intuitively know you are working hard to complete the repair as quickly as possible.

Reality: The customer has no idea what you are doing unless you let them know. I suggest putting yourself in the customer’s shoes. We have all taken a car to the mechanic for what we thought would be routine maintenance. The mechanic says it will take less than an hour, so we opt to sit in the waiting room. For every minute that goes past that hour wait, your anger level increases. When nobody bothers to advise you how much longer it will take, you become livid, because you intuitively know they must have no idea what they are doing and that it is going to cost you a fortune. 

It is really no different for the clinical equipment end-users. Like your car, that equipment is necessary for them to perform their jobs. The longer they have to wait to use it again, the more anxious they become. If you tell them the repair will be completed by a certain time and then find out it will take longer, it is simple common courtesy to immediately let them know of the new time frame, why it is taking longer, and what you are doing to expedite it.

Myth 2
If you sense a customer does not like you, it is best to stay clear of them.

Reality: Anyone who has been in clinical engineering for more than a few months has run across the “problem customer.” Most clinical engineers have at least one. It’s the charge nurse, surgery manager, or radiology director who seems to have a personal vendetta against you. No matter what you do, they are not happy. Your reaction to this hostility is natural: You try to avoid any contact or communication with this person. That tactic, however, will eventually lead to your downfall.

If you find yourself in this situation, you must still communicate with the customer, but not necessarily in person. Written communication, whether it is via e-mail, a work order, etc, is often more effective than verbal communication. Personality conflicts are not uncommon among clinical engineers and their customers, but the two of you still need to work together. You must always keep communication at a professional level, regardless of what you might really want to say. If your problem customer is one of those people who seems to always “forget” you gave them an update and what was said, I tell my technicians to send their updates via e-mail and keep a copy of everything. You never know when you may need to resend it to jog their memory.

Myth 3
If you communicate the status or result of a repair to a staff member in the department, you can count on that person to relay the information to everyone who needs to know.

Reality: Another common situation is when a clinical engineer tells a nurse about the status of the repair and assumes that the nurse will take time out of his/her busy schedule to inform each and every person who is waiting for that equipment to be fixed—it never happens. You need to make sure the end-user(s) and the department head are informed, which may require you to send multiple communications.

Myth 4
A customer does not want to hear from you regarding the status of the repair if you do not have any new information to share with them.

Reality: Even if you have nothing new to report, a short update that lets your customer know that you are still working on the problem will let them know you have not forgotten about them and that you are still trying to resolve the problem as quickly as possible. No news is never good news when it comes to waiting for a repair to be completed on a critical device.

Myth 5
A customer does not need to know why a device malfunctioned or what you did to fix it.

Reality: I am amazed sometimes at how many clinical engineers think it is OK just to repair a device and return it to service with no explanation as to why it went out of service and what had to be done to fix it. Using the previous car scenario, how would you feel if the mechanic came out 3 hours later and just said, “Here’s your bill”? Wouldn’t you want to know what was wrong with the car, why it took so long to fix it, and what parts they replaced?

Myth 6
If you let a customer know the status of their repair once, that should be enough.

Reality: Depending on how critical the device is to patient care, you may need to provide repair-status updates daily or even hourly. It is better to overcommunicate than to not communicate enough. The end-user needs to make clinical decisions based on the availability of that equipment, such as if patients and procedures need to be rescheduled, if loaner equipment needs to be brought in, etc.

Myth 7
If you are going “above and beyond the call of duty” for your customers, they will know it.

Reality: Unfortunately, this is not true. You do things every day behind the scenes your customers never see and will never know about unless you tell them. Whether it is finding them a less expensive or hard-to-find part, or keeping a   20-year-old device running when its life expectancy is only 10 years, don’t be shy about letting them know you provided them with great service. It goes a long way in gaining forgiveness for the unavoidable times when a repair is not completed to their total satisfaction.

Obviously, the previous suggestions are all generalities. How often you communicate and how you communicate depends on how critical the device is to patient care, how your customers prefer to get their information, and what the customer’s communication comfort level is. Some people want continuous updates and others just want to know when the repair will be completed. Do not assume what works well for one customer works for everyone. Like the clinical equipment we maintain, each customer has his/her little quirks.

Is all of this sounding like a lot of work? If you create a communication process for your shop, it doesn’t have to be a lot of work. I contend that continuously communicating the status and outcome of a repair is part of the clinical engineer’s job responsibilities—and your customers agree with me.

Heidi Horn is vice president of clinical engineering service, SSM Health Care, St Louis. For more information, contact us at [email protected]

Creating a Communication Plan
As clinical engineers, it is all well and good to say that we need to communicate to our customers all the time. But unless you develop a standardized process and make it part of your policies and procedures manual, it will never happen.

Any standardized processes you come up with should enhance and not replace your ongoing “in-person” updates to your customers. There is no communication process out there more effective than talking to the customer face-to-face to answer their questions right then and there.

Here are just a few of the many options to start you thinking about standardized communication procedures that will work best in your facility. Try them out on a few customers and find out which methods they like. When you find out what works best, create a procedure your technicians can use, put it in your policy, and make sure the policy is followed. I guarantee your customer-satisfaction scores will improve.

• Many new clinical equipment maintenance database programs now have the option to automatically e-mail your customers the work order when it is opened and/or when it is closed. This accomplishes two things: It tells the customer their service request has been received and who is assigned to the work order. When they receive the closed work order, they should be able to see the date it was completed, what was wrong with the device, what was done to fix it, how many hours were spent on the repair, and the cost of parts used in the repair. This gives the customer needed information and requires no additional time spent on the technician’s part. If your database has this ability, part of your policy needs to be that the technicians must close the work order immediately upon completion of the repair. Otherwise, the customer might not receive the update for weeks, defeating the whole purpose.

• If your database cannot send an e-mail automatically, you can still use the e-mail system. I like e-mail because you have a record of the sent message, and you can easily send the same message to multiple people. Create a standard letter for your technicians to use when they have completed a repair. Have them copy it and put it into their “drafts” mailbox on their e-mail. When the repair is complete, the technician simply copies the letter, fills in the pertinent information or attaches the work order electronically, and e-mails it to the customer.

• Attaching tags to the equipment when it is returned is also very effective. We use one that is bright green that reads, “Thank You. The following maintenance was performed on this equipment, and it’s being returned in full working order.” Then there is a space to write what maintenance was performed and a work order number they can reference if they have more questions. Our customers like this method because they can immediately associate the device with the repair outcome.

• Giving your customers “read-only” access to your database allows customers to check on the status of the repair at any time from their own computer. This is a great communication tool if used properly, but you need to make sure you have proper procedures set up first. First, you must make sure the customers can only view the data and cannot make changes to it. They also need to be trained on how to access the information and look up work orders in their department. Your technicians need to understand that customers will be going into the database to look for updates on their repair, so there need to be updates to look at. And finally, be sure your technicians do not enter anything into the database they would not want their customers to see.

• Calling the customer each time a significant repair is completed is very effective. If you cannot reach them in person, leave a voice mail. Again, write a short script for the technicians to use so that the process is standardized. For example, “This is ________________ from clinical engineering. I have finished repairing the (manufacturer, model, tag #) and returned it to (name of person in department). The problem was ____________ and I did ___________ to fix it. If you have any questions, please call me at extension _________.”

• Many department managers do not want to know about each individual repair as it is completed. Rather, they want a summary report that lists all the maintenance performed in their department over a given period of time. Again, many maintenance databases can run and e-mail these reports automatically. If yours cannot, you should make it part of your month-end duties to send these reports to the department heads. They really will appreciate it, and it lets them see how much clinical engineering has helped them. —HH