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Training staff in customer based service.

How to minimize the annoyance factor in coping with residents

Mary Sue Ringer was just delivering her last meal of the evening at Green Elm Manor, when the shrill, high-pitched voice of Mrs. Wallace wafted down the hall toward her.

"Oh no," she thought to herself. She felt herself grinding her teeth. "Mrs. Wallace is at it again. I'm going to get an earful of arthritis, can't sleep, ungrateful kids and awful food. I don't have time for this. I'm already covering for Judy -- and who knows what the kids are up to at home."

By the time Mary Sue entered the room, she felt put upon and impatient. She delivered the meal in steely silence.

Mrs. Wallace caught Mary Sue's eye. "I've been calling you. Didn't you hear me? I don't know why nobody ever comes when I call." She glanced at her plate in feigned horror, "What is this? Cold I'd guess. I never know what you're giving me. It all looks the same -- gray, brown. It all tastes the same. Can't you put some flavor in this?"

It's not my fault the food's no good, Mary Sue muttered to herself. She bit her tongue to keep silent.

"In any case," Mrs. Wallace continued, "I was calling you because I decided I wasn't up to dinner tonight. I'm feeling my arthritis and it's making me a little queasy. I didn't sleep at all last night and I've been aching all day. I think I'd prefer a little dry toast and chicken broth."

Mary Sue felt an overwhelming desire to walk out of the room and go home to her kids. "But you ordered the creamed chicken! It says so right here on the slip. You can't change now."

"I don't care what I ordered. I just don't feel like creamed chicken," Mrs. Wallace grimaced. "My stomach is acting up."

Now she tells me. Barely suppressing her irritation, Mary Sue replied, "Well, I'm afraid you're going to have to eat it. You have to eat something. I can't get you anything else. The kitchen is closed."

Mrs. Wallace kept at it. "Couldn't you just get me some broth?"

"Even if the kitchen were open, I can't change the order without talking to the supervisor. And she's gone home for the evening" Mrs. Wallace said, "The other girl was able to get me some broth."

"Well, it's against the rules. I can't do anything about it. I'm sorry. You're just going to have to eat creamed chicken."

This story probably does not have a happy ending. Mrs. Wallace may have thrown her tray on the floor in frustration, causing more hassle and delay for Mary Sue -- or she may have been abandoned to brood alone over her creamed chicken. In either case, Mrs. Wallace's needs were obviously neither understood nor met.

Service Industry Challenges

One of the greatest challenges facing service industries heading into the 21st century will be their ability to understand and meet the needs of their customers. Those service facilities that don't have the capability of totally satisfying their customers will be at a severe disadvantage.

The long-term care customer poses even more difficult challenges. This market is becoming older, sicker and unhappier. It comes accompanied by family members with their own needs and expectations.

This is compounded by a shortage of qualified service-oriented staff who have the desire and skills to understand and satisfy the needs of the customer.

Improving Service Quality

Many institutions feel the basic responsibility of meeting customer needs lies with the front line, as in "What we need is a customer relations course." Often these courses are of value. They boost morale and refine staff's communication skills. If Mary Sue understood that Mrs. Wallace's behavior meant she was depressed, feeling helpless, and neglected, she could avoid feeling defensive and put upon, and react in a more positive manner.

But customer relations courses provide only short-term solutions. To deliver a quality of service that successfully meets the needs of customers in the long term, organizations must commit to three basic conditions:

* a total organizational commitment to customer satisfaction

* a system to continually measure customer needs and expectations

* design standards, services and training based on customer needs and expectations

Benefits of Customer-Based Service

Why go to all this trouble? What are the benefits to the organization of customer-based service?

One of the strongest benefits is that satisfied customers are easier to work with. This is no small factor in an industry which demands continuous, face-to-face service for the rest of the customer's life. One of our clients, for whom we helped install a Customer-Based Service System, said "The customers have gotten much nicer."

Meeting customer needs and exceeding expectations not only creates happy, loyal customers, it has a profound impact on staff self-esteem and motivation. Empowered to act, they find endless energy and creativity to improve service and efficiency.

1. Getting Started:

A Customer-Based Service System must start at the top. The board of trustees, the owners and the management must actively and visibly commit to, support and lead the effort. This can often be set in motion through a 2-day retreat involving the trustees, owners, and management. The purpose of the retreat is to:

* promote buy-in

* define the need

* explain the overall system

* define or clarify the mission of the organization

* set broad goals

2. Measurement

The next step is to acquire intimate information about your customers and their families -- who they are, their needs and expectations, and how you are doing meeting these expectations.

This must be an ongoing process. Customer expectations are changing so rapidly that you must have your finger on the pulse. The information can be gathered through focus groups with selected residents and their families, through questionnaires, and through your staff's conversations with individual residents. It's important to create an inexpensive and easily maintained system that will yield the kinds of information that will be helpful to you.

3. Standards of Service

We refer to standards of service as "What the customer gets." In most cases "what the customer gets" is left to chance, or the mood or skills of the person delivering the service. What did Mrs. Wallace get? It certainly didn't meet her needs, or satisfy her expectations.

In many institutions, management defines the standard of service delivered. Traditionally, it's been assumed management knows best what the customer needs. The customer is usually not consulted.

Today, both approaches are doomed. Standards of service must be based on valid, reliable data about customer needs and expectations.

4. Design services, systems, and training

Once service standards are defined, you are in a position to design the services, systems and training enable staff to deliver them. You may find that many services you currently provide are irrelevant to your customers and can be eliminated. You may find that you will re-engineer services you are now delivering to more closely meet customer needs, and be delivered more efficiently.

One of the most important manifestations of management's commitment is its willingness to treat its employees as it wants them to treat customers. The effort will succeed only when staff feels valued and that their needs are being met.

Mrs. Wallace Revisited

Green Elm Manor has recently installed a Customer-Based Service System. Among other things, customer research has revealed that residents want the flexibility to change their mind about what they will eat. They want a variety of meals that taste good and are delivered hot.

The kitchen service has been restructured. Great care is taken to identify what kinds of foods are most popular with residents. Satellite lounges are now open all night, equipped with microwave ovens and toasters, allowing modest snacks. All staff are trained to use the microwave and prepare approved snacks, so that anyone can deliver a snack to a resident.

Resident education programs on nutrition have been instituted to help residents make good choices about their food.

Green Elm has also done some customer relations training, enabling its staff to recognize expressions of loneliness and unhappiness -- expressions some staff previously took as personal attacks. Staff now listen better, and proactively provide comfort and reassurance to the residents. Incidentally, staff turnover has decreased by 50%.

Mary Sue Ringer was just delivering her last meal of the evening at Green Elm Manor, when the shrill, high-pitched voice of Mrs. Wallace wafted down the hall toward her.

"Oh, dear," Mary Sue reflects to herself. "Mrs. Wallace is feeling lonely and neglected again. Her children haven't visited or called in two months. I guess she's depressed."

By the time Mary Sue enters the room, she's prepared herself to be warm and comforting. She greets Mrs. Wallace warmly, "Oh, Mrs. Wallace, you must have thought I'd never get here. I've been hurrying as fast as I can, because I know it's important to you that your food is hot, but Mrs. Wright needed me for a moment.

"Here is the creamed chicken you ordered -- I asked the cook to spice it up a little. I know you like it tasty. It has curry in it."

Mrs. Wallace, now a little subdued: "I was calling you, because I decided I didn't want the creamed chicken after all. My arthritis has been bothering me all day and I'm feeling a little queasy. I didn't sleep at all last night."

Mary Sue responds sympathetically, "That darned arthritis. I'm sorry it's causing you so much pain. Would you prefer something lighter, like some nice toast and chicken broth? I can go down the hall to the lounge and get you some."

Mrs. Wallace: "Could you dear? You're a lamb. That would just hit the spot."

Nancy Borden is on the staff of Victoria International Corporation, a training and consulting company that has worked with five-star hotels, banks, shipping companies and health care institutions worldwide to install customer-based service systems.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Medquest Communications, LLC
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Borden, Nancy
Publication:Nursing Homes
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Words:1643
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