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What's Your Brand?

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Magazine, November 14, 2008
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At Cleveland Clinic, "Every single employee owns the patient experience," Duffy says. "You have one shot to do it right, from the second they enter the parking lot to the second they leave." Duffy adds that Cleveland Clinic employees have the autonomy to provide the patient with "an extraordinary patient experience." Such autonomy is critical because most people who chose careers in healthcare want to help people, Seltman says. "To have a value that empowers people, that says you have permission to do what the patient needs—that's a wonderful order to work under."

The plain truth is that you'll never get 100% buy-in, says Matthews. There will always be skeptics. There will always be low-performers. There will always be employees who just shouldn't be in a service business. But when patients do experience excellence, you can bet they'll talk about it. That's because, in part, even well-educated consumers have trouble describing the clinical aspects of their care, Seltman says.

People will talk
Most consumers have a hard time judging clinical and technical quality, Berry says. But they do know how to talk about "how comfortable they are and whether they're treated with respect and whether the service is delivered efficiently," he says. "The interpersonal behaviors of caregivers in part and the overall expertise of receiving healthcare in general are not only important to most patients—very important—they are also easier to judge. It's a differentiator."

According to Mayo's research, more than 90% of its patients voluntarily say good things about the clinic. Each patient talks about their positive experiences at Mayo to an average of more than 40 people.

"Multiply that by 500,000 patients a year," Seltman says. "That's 20 million." Patient satisfaction is one thing, he says, but to satisfy people enough that they will go out and be an advocate is another. "Mayo Clinic earns the word-of-mouth that it gets because it provides surprisingly good service," he says. "There are lots of people who satisfy, but there are relatively few organizations in healthcare that can deliver services in such a way that people will say, ‘That's amazing.'"

You don't have to be a brand name to benefit from the power of positive word-of-mouth, Seltman says. Begin by asking and measuring what people are saying about your organization and how many people they're saying it to. "You can't manage what you don't measure."

A quick recovery
If a positive experience has a positive impact on the brand, a negative experience, of course, has the opposite effect. But there is a cure for an ailing service reputation: Act fast.

Experts agree that organizations must move to implement improvements—even seemingly small ones—before bad experiences spread via word-of-mouth. For example, by digging into patient satisfaction surveys, Huntington discovered that many of its patients had the same complaint: The remote controls on the in-room televisions were confusing. A simple solution—volunteers who greet every new patient at Huntington now show patients how to work the TV—made a big difference in scores.

Other solutions to common customer complaints were a little more complicated—and expensive. Patients often complained that it took a long time to get their meals delivered and that the food was cold by the time it arrived. So the hospital's expansion plans included a large cafeteria in a more centralized location, making food delivery more efficient. The hospital also offers on-demand room service for patients and family.

Another tactic: Ask patients for feedback about their stay before they leave the hospital or shortly after discharge. Just asking the question, "What could we have done better to enhance your stay?" makes a difference, says Duffy.

If patients do have a complaint, apologize and promise to put a system in place to ensure that other patients don't have the same problem. If you do that, Duffy says, most of the time they'll forgive you.

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