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First Impressions

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How can a hospital polish its image, increase preference share and ultimately drive market share and profits? Many providers are looking to five-star hotels and retail industry innovators for the answer. Concierge services, upscale cuisine and a host of other customer-friendly practices, the theory goes, will improve the patient experience, boost patient satisfaction scores and get both patients and visitors talking about the organization in a positive way. Since most people decide where to seek healthcare based on word-of-mouth referrals, improved customer service can be a relatively inexpensive and effective marketing tactic.

But at many hospitals, the patient experience is poisoned long before the patient has a chance to order from the snazzy new room-service menu. Think about the kind of buzz that’s generated when patients and visitors can’t find a parking space, get lost while trying to navigate your campus, or run into staff members who don’t smile or make eye contact with them.

“Before people go to an unfamiliar place, they have a certain amount of goodwill. They expect that they’re going to have a good experience,” says Janet R. Carpman, PhD, an architectural sociologist with wayfinding consultants Carpman Grant Associates in Ann Arbor, MI. When your customers’ first impression is negative, she says, that goodwill is squandered.

Want to make a better first impression? Try these three techniques:

1. Hit the pavement

To put yourself in your customers’ shoes, take a walk outside. “It starts at the parking lot,” says Michael Gilpin, vice president of marketing at Blessing Health System in Quincy, IL, who adds that many hospitals are not noted for their “stellar parking situations.” If parking is at a premium, consider adding free curbside valet service. If the parking lot is a distance away from the facility, consider a free shuttle service. “People find that very useful, especially in inclement weather,” Gilpin says.

2. Find your way

Once you get your patients through the front door, how do you help them navigate your hospital’s maze of doors and hallways? Confusing signs—or no signs, for that matter—are especially frustrating for patients and visitors.

Sometimes it takes a complete overhaul to prevent a customer from becoming a lost customer. Such was the case at Hennepin County Medical Center, which has 27 entrances to five buildings occupying six square blocks in downtown Minneapolis. The public relations department led the effort to rename buildings, floors, halls and rooms, replacing inscrutable identifiers such as “Caf-A on 3rd” with a color-coded zone system. Finding your way around campus is much easier now, says Ted Blank, director of marketing.

Other hospitals are using computerized kiosks that allow users to punch in their destination and print directions in multiple languages. The kiosks can dispense service-line information and other marketing materials, as well. Secure kiosks accessed with a password can also allow a patient to check in for an appointment, register for a class or check whether a prescription is ready. The data from these transactions can help hospital marketers track utilization and, ultimately, downstream revenue.

3. Try a little tenderness

In the end, however, good customer service is about more than shuttles and maps. “Patient satisfaction really comes down to your people,” Blank says. “It’s about people and how they interact with the patients.”

To that end, make sure volunteers and other frontline staff receive customer service training, says Gilpin. Teach them to recognize when someone looks confused or frustrated, and make it a policy that they reach out to help. And if the directions are complicated, tell staff members they must take the time to walk the visitor to his or her destination. “I don’t think you can afford not to take the time to do it,” he says. “It’s that old adage: If you don’t take care of your customer, somebody else will.”

—Gienna Shaw