We recently had the chance to talk with John Lacy, one of the top customer service experts in the inpatient substance abuse treatment business, about his secrets for success.

“With inpatient treatment,” he told us, “the key is to remember that every staff member is a customer service representative.”

John tells us that he looks at every customer comment card or satisfaction survey in his facilities. Over and over again, he sees comments like “Marcie on the housekeeping staff was so nice!” and “I was really impressed with not just the quality of the food, but how kind and pleasant the catering staff was.” and “Sandy in the business office really went above and beyond to be helpful.”

Inpatient customers are at your facility 24 hours a day, seven days a week. During that time they may be interacting with counselors, group leaders, techs, medical staff and other clinical folks for several hours a day. But the hospitality staff are there all the time.

Clinical staff are expected to be able to listen and help clients solve problems. But business office staff, admin personnel and others interact with them too. And every single staff member needs to have both the attitude and the training to be a customer service specialist.

John notes that this isn’t enough, though. “You can hire people for their attitude, and you can give them training. But if you don’t provide customer service-centered leadership, it’s too easy for busy people to focus on task first, task next, more task, and customer service somewhere down the road when they’re not so busy.”

There are three parts to creating the level of customer service excellence John describes:

First, you have to find the right people to start with. Competence in their core job area is only a start: Look for people who see what they do through the lens of optimistic warmth and who have innate empathy, as well as excellent task skills and a “learning” orientation (see our article on “Hiring for Success” for more information.)

Second, provide all of your staff with a toolkit of customer service training. This includes basics like how and who to refer clients to for needs they may not be able to meet (obvious) but also tips on how to deal with awkward situations gracefully and what to do if they think that a client is in distress or having problems.

Third, provide customer-service focused staff leadership. Customer service needs to be part of everyone’s job description. Kudos need to be shared. Performance and productivity expectations need to be built around rewarding good customer service. What’s more important, getting the linens all folded by 3:00 p.m. every single day without fail, or having a few extra minutes to help a client find a resource, and leave them with a good impression?

This kind of customer service orientation can make the difference between adequate and excellent. John points out that in addition to making a difference in your marketing power (those great client satisfaction surveys matter to referral sources) this approach pays dividends throughout your operations:

  • The common focus on customer service builds cohesiveness in your staff team and improves communications among staff
  • Attentive, well-trained staff can provide an “early warning system” for clinicians when clients are having problems
  • You can head off problems in the most common areas for customer dissatisfaction: Services such as catering, recreation, housekeeping, etc.