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Six steps to deal with complaints about lab service.

Don't react defensively-just get the facts, follow through,

and tell the client what action you've taken. "I have a complaint about the

SMAC panel on Mr. Jones," said a physician who came into the laboratory one afternoon.

"We don't do SMAC panels," the closest technologist said.

"What do you mean, you don't do SMAC panels'? I've been ordering them for years."

"We do chemistry profiles, not SMACs," the technologist said sarcastically.

"Well, then, I guess I'd better take my business elsewhere," the physician snapped, walking out.

The pathologist who told us this story got angry all over again, his face flushed and voice cracking.

This kind of encounter is not unique. As laboratories have expanded their marketing effortsto employers for drug abuse testing, to nursing homes, or to health fairs, for example-they have had to deal with a wide range of problems, including an increase in client complaints.

No doubt a sour client can ruin your day, but complaints can help identify areas where change is needed. They may therefore be a springboard to improved service, helping you retain clients and gain new business. So the next time you face a dissatisfied laboratory user, don't hide or make excuses. Instead let it be known that you are genuinely interested in what the person has to say.

Here are six steps that can help you deal effectively with the client who has a complaint:

1. Show genuine interest. Be approachable and give the client an opportunity to blow off steam while you remain calm, interested, and attentive. If the complaint is made in person, maintain eye contact and verbally acknowledge what is being said. Smiling at the right time and nodding in agreement also communicate that you understand. If the complaint is made on the telephone, respond encouragingly with well-placed phrases ("Yes" and "I understand").

Keep in mind that no matter how unreasonable a complaint may seem to you, the client has a right to express an opinion. Do not respond by stating what the client should have done; usually he or she will not be in a mood to hear that.

As stressful as it may be for you to listen to the complaint, remember that the client may be even more tense, Just think of the times individuals have approached you with a major complaint. From the look in their eyes and the expression on their face, you could see that they were poised for a fight. Nothing deflates a fight-prone client faster than the chance to vent frustrations to a nonargumentative, attentive listener. If the complaint is received with an open mind, in an accepting manner, the client will continue to talk and begin to relax.

2. Identify the complaint. Don't take the complaint personally and react defensively, and don't exaggerate or minimize the complaint. As the client speaks, key in on the factual information (who, what, when, and where) and the impact that the problem is having on the client.

If the conversation is lengthy and covers many specifics, it's helpful to take notes. Assure the physician or nurse that you are interested, and state that you must get details of the problem in order to make a meaningful response. We can recall watching in horror, during one visit to a hospital laboratory, as a lab supervisor and a physician got into a heated argument about a reporting delay. Instead of seeking clarification of the complaint, the lab supervisor shot back with"Your office never calls the lab when patients are coming over. Then she assailed the physician with a laundry list of other problems.

What had started as a minor complaint about a reporting delay quickly deteriorated into a nasty confrontation with finger pointing and accusations. As the physician stalked away, the lab supervisor appeared quite satisfied with the way she had handled the situation.

A proper response to complaints? A sure way to win friends and influence people? Hardly. The supervisor may have won this small skirmish, but sometime in the future she will lose, probably over something much more important.

3. Rephrase the complaint. It's important that you establish the facts and get the complainer's agreement that you understand the problem as he or she sees it. Then you must tell the complainer what you plan to do to about investigating the situation and what followup to expect.

For example, you may say, "As I understand it, the problem is that it's taking three days to get results on your chemistry panels. Is this correct'?" A good conclusion to the conversation would be: "I'll discuss this with the supervisor and call you back tomorrow morning."

You have thus agreed on the nature of the problem in a nonpersonal, factual manner; you have stated said how you will investigate the situation; and you have explained what form of feedback you will provide.

4. Thank the complainer. "Dr. Green, we really appreciate your taking the time to stop by and voice your concerns. We always encourage feedback, so thank you for bringing this to our attention." Such a statementconveying an understanding of the complainer's feelings, avoiding an argument, avoiding any attempt to assign blame-will help develop client loyalty.

5. Initiate prompt followthrough. The importance of doing what you promised, or following through, cannot be overstated. Failure to make good on promises to look into a problem and get back to the client will result in a loss of credibility. Often such negligence can turn a bad situation into a hopeless one.

Following through may mean you have to talk to other departments in your institution-for example, the emergency room or the admitting office. You may have to air some dirty laundry if the complaint is the result of a bad situation that has been going on too long. All the details of the situation must be evaluated and discussed.

It may turn out that there is no right answer. Still, try to follow through as promised, even if you must call the client back for additional information to clarify some points. This alone shows that you are working on the problem and proves that you are interested and reliable.

It's important that you take action to prevent the problem from recurring.

6. Provide feedback. As soon as possible, report back to the client on the findings of your investi

gation and how the lab has acted on the complaint. How you communicate, by phone or in writing, will depend on the situation. In some instances, you will want to

document your action in the laboratory log.

In fact, a record of complaints can be helpful as quality assurance. If a pattern of recurring complaints is recognized, steps can be taken to analyze the overall problem and make appropriate changes. And to help develop a marketing perspective, lab management should share with the entire staff its log of complaints and

actions taken.

Feedback to the client should relate the complaint, tell what did or did not happen in your institution, convey additional facts you may have discovered, say what you believe led to the situation, and, finally, point out what was done for the client. A physician or nurse will often take a lot of satisfaction if a policy or procedure was changed by your laboratory or if a previously unidentified problem was discovered in response to his or her complaint.

In providing feedback, it is not necessary for the lab to accept blame when it is not due. But also you shouldn't expect clients to accept any blame, even if they have made a mistake. If a complainer responds to the feedback by saying, "So you screwed up, eh'!" don't pick up the gauntlet. Just stick to the facts and convey the action taken in response to the complaint.

We recently advised a laboratory in dealing with a physician who complained vaguely about the lack of "quality" in the lab and the "shabby results" turned out. In talking to the physician, one of our consulting medical technologists identified the specific problem: The physician felt that all alkaline phosphatases reported by the lab were too high.

In the follow-through, a review of alkaline phosphatases showed that three-month quality control revealed no problems; recent proficiency tests showed excellent performance; and of 35 panels ordered by the physician in the previous two months there was just one elevated alkaline phosphatase, on a 12-year-old boy, normal for a growing child.

These findings were detailed in a letter from the lab's pathologist and covered in person during a follow-up visit to the physician by the consulting technologist. Since this episode, the physician has often made mention of the attention her complaint received and the feedback she has gotten.

Our experience has been that making clients feel important in an unpleasant situation, even if we cannot completely resolve the problem, helps win their loyalty. No matter what the situation, the client will remenber how the lab handled the complaint. Physicians and nurses will appreciate and cherish the fact that you cared.
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Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Oostra, Randy; Young, Les
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Nov 1, 1988
Words:1499
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