It was good to see that the unemployment rate fell to 9.4 percent late last week. Let’s hope we can build on that with more upbeat economic news as 2011 moves along.
But the fact remains that for many people, if not most, the recession hasn’t ended. It may be years before the job market returns to normal. For businesses, bankruptcy is still one lost order away. Watching all of this happen, after years of a boom economy, has been traumatic even for those who still have a job or whose business is doing all right. Hospitals and some other healthcare businesses have escaped the worst of the downturn, but even healthcare has been hit by lower demand for services and thin-to-nonexistent margins.
Of course, business is still business, and you have to do everything you can to stay competitive. As any good businessperson knows, there are opportunities to gain market share in a down economy, and customer service is a key strategy to achieve that goal. Often, it doesn’t cost much more to deliver, though it does take organizational commitment. Even healthcare organizations are discovering the value of having loyal customers. Repeat business is the key to success, and being the provider of choice in a community will be critical after healthcare reform, which will cut reimbursement and increase demands for higher-quality care. Patients faced with higher out of pocket expenses are looking harder at their healthcare purchasing decisions, and a big part of a hospital’s business is going to come from its reputation for customer service.
All over the economy, I am seeing more attention to the customer. Even when I enter the local hardware store and the neighborhood pharmacy, salespeople seem more willing to smile and make eye contact, asking me if they can help me find what it is I’m looking for. At the grocery stores, the check-out person gives me a smile and thanks me for shopping there. Everybody is suddenly making me feel valued. It is all so exhilarating and it makes me realize once again how important it is to make a customer feel treasured, and to be treated with dignity and respect. That was lost in the boom years, when customers weren’t treated nearly so well.
I have written about how hospitals and doctors’ offices need to focus more on pleasing their patients. Just last week the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released regulations that will implement what is known as hospital value-based purchasing under Medicare. A big part of that payment system will be measurements of patient satisfaction. In other words, hospitals will be paid in part based on their scores from patient surveys of customer service. That should grab the attention of providers. In coming years, most other sites of care will fall under this new payment system.
That is all for the good, but soon the economy is likely to begin a return to something approaching normal. Over the past few decades there have been other recessions – not as dramatic and deep as the one we are still attempting to climb out of, but significant nonetheless. After each downturn, I have seen people and organizations revert to old habits of taking customers for granted. It doesn’t make sense and I always wonder who is responsible for this kind of irresponsible behavior. Management can’t escape blame nor can the sales side. It simply means that for whatever reason, businesses have taken their eye off the ball. Hopefully, this isn’t going to happen if things really pick up over the next few months or years, but I remain skeptical.
Customers are the lifeblood of any business, and whether the economy is in bad or good shape, they should be treated always with the utmost respect and attention. To do otherwise is to invite catastrophe.