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Who are customer service reps? Everyone!

Are you too busy to smile at a resident? Too preoccupied with your own worries to ease those of a family? Too self-absorbed to stop and help another staff member navigate a med cart, pick up a dropped fork, or quickly wipe up a spill? Do you think no one notices? Then it's time to stop being self-centered and become people-centered. Manners, courtesy, and genuine concern are the building blocks of goodwill among residents, families, and staff. And goodwill promotes good service and a glowing reputation in the community.

In 2002, Lawrence Gelfand, executive vice-president of Daughters of Israel (DOI), a 303-bed LTC facility with a 49-bed Alzheimer's unit, located in West Orange, New Jersey, challenged department heads to develop a series of in-services addressing customer service. The goal was to make DOI a better place for its residents, their families, and its staff.

"We accepted Larry's challenge," says Susan Harris, assistant executive director, "and held three brainstorming sessions to pinpoint problem areas or the potential for problems and developed a program that would reach all 400+ employees in every department and on all shifts." What resulted was a 12-month "do's and don'ts" program.

"In January of 2003, we held a kickoff party to introduce the Make It Happen program, its purpose, and its goals to employees. We asked customer service questions to the employee audience and tossed out candy for the correct answers. The staff was energized and response was tremendous, judging by the ease with which each month's presentation committees were formed," says Harris.

Among the topics covered throughout the year were Just Say Hello, which focused on general courtesies, attitudes, and friendly demeanor; First Impressions, which dealt with making new admissions comfortable; Leave Your Worries at the Door, which covered the roles staff attitude and behavior play in creating a stress-free environment; Who's Calling?, which trained staff on telephone courtesy; and Raving Fans Club, an employee recognition program that was so successful it became the general theme for 2004's programming.

"Because nursing is the largest and most difficult department to cover on all three shifts, each month we tried to have a nurse serve as cochair of the committee and help work out the logistics of presenting the program to all nursing personnel," explains Harris. Because of the excitement generated by the Make It Happen concept, every month the committee in charge discovered engaging, creative, and entertaining ways to present customer service educational material and exercises.

"We only have one chance to make a first impression," confides Harris, "and that begins immediately." To demonstrate the potential pitfalls involved in mishandling that opportunity, the First Impressions committee wrote a skit that exaggerated many things that can go wrong when a new resident moves in. Perhaps a resident and the family are left standing in the lobby without any idea as to how to register or where the resident's room is located. The skit depicted worst-case scenarios and, following the presentation, a group discussion/brainstorming session examined how situations such as these could be handled differently and with better results. "We wanted to make the point that we must be attentive to how our words and actions are perceived by the customer. This job is not the responsibility of any one department or person--it's a universal duty for all staff," states Harris.

The purpose of Leave Your Worries at the Door was to create an employee code of conduct. Each day, when staff arrived at work, they were invited to write down their worries ("I had a fight with my boyfriend," for example) and toss them in a brown lunch bag. A sign by the entry said that any and all worries could be deposited and, if anyone was so inclined, the worries could be picked up at the end of the shift. "The ultimate message is that work is not the place to discuss and dwell on your problems. Full attention must be on serving and caring for residents," stresses Harris.

To keep things interesting and upbeat, messages on future topics were creatively communicated throughout the year using posters, flyers, table cards in the staff dining room, stickers on payroll checks, and buttons. Some months the committee incorporated puzzles, games, and quizzes into its in-service and awarded small prizes, such as lottery tickets, for correct entries. "Staff really responded to these activities and completed them quickly," says Harris.

In this fast-paced society, one of the most important tools of customer contact has fallen on hard times: the telephone. During Who's Calling?, staff were shown a 20-minute video that reviewed the basics of telephone etiquette and how to make a good impression. Later, they were tested on basic phone courtesy in a phone-a-thon event. The 400+ employees were organized into 20+ teams. For a week and a half, committee members would place random calls to all departments and during all shifts. Points were awarded based on four basic rules: (1) Identify yourself, (2) identify your location, (3) offer a greeting, and (4) speak pleasantly. A scoreboard was placed in the lobby so staff could keep track of the standings. Each team received ten surprise calls, with one point awarded for each properly delivered behavior per call (a maximum four points). At the end of the call, the committee caller thanked the employee for participating, awarded any points earned for the call, and closed by wishing the team member a good day (or evening). The maximum team score was 40, and the winning team was treated to a pizza party.

Meanwhile, says Harris, "The Raving Fans theme was so popular that it became the general theme for 2004." The message of this presentation was to have customers who were not only satisfied, but who became Raving Fans of DOI. Employees were asked to nominate a staff member who had put extra effort into his or her job. Harris cites a nurse on the 11-7 shift who was nominated because she took all the time necessary to comfort, console, and assist a family that had lost a loved one during the night. "Another nomination praised a CNA who received a stat call concerning one of her residents. Although it was her lunch hour, she stayed with the resident until the situation was resolved," says Harris with pride. With the theme from Rocky playing, the committee honored each Raving Fan in his or her department or floor and presented these special employees with chocolates and Raving Fan badges as their nomination letters were read aloud.

"For 2005, we will continue to address customer service issues, but we will also be booking a motivational speaker once or twice during the year to put a bit of rah-rah into the Make It Happen program," says Harris.

A telephone survey was used to measure the program's success. Did staff courtesy improve? Were staff more helpful? Did the timeliness of communication improve? Was telephone manner improved? "We discovered a 10 to 22% improvement in customer service," states Harris. She noted some residual effects, too. "Staff learned to work alongside people who they had never met or worked with before. Now, there's a different sort of camaraderie around the building," she says. Most families were positive and some even praised staff members by name and acknowledged the care that was provided.

A customer service program in this vein is not an expensive proposition, according to Harris: "Our biggest expense was the kickoff party, but I believe that this beneficial program can be adapted to any facility size or budget. The most important consideration is that although the program is created and run by employees, it needs the full support of administration." And when a program has top-down buy-in, any facility can Make It Happen.

For more information on the program, contact Susan Harris, Assistant Executive Director of the Daughters of Israel, at (973) 731-5100 or To send your comments to the author and editors, e-mail


A collaboration of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging and Nursing Homes/Long Term Care Management Not-for-Profit Report, appearing in every issue of Nursing Homes magazine, addresses issues of particular interest to long-term care's not-for-profit sector. It provides nonprofit aging service providers with an additional information resource. Topics have been identified in collaboration with the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging. Nursing Homes welcomes comments and suggestions for future coverage.
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Title Annotation:NOT-FOR-PROFIT report
Author:Hoban, Sandra
Publication:Nursing Homes
Date:Feb 1, 2005
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