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Is poor customer service dangerous to your health?

Posted 14th December 2020

Recently, my family and I had a spot of bother with ESPA – an outfit that sells high-priced unctions to those who, like me, want to keep on the right side of their mother-in-law. The company, sold to the Hut Group a few years ago, failed to provide the the level of after-sales service that their prices and marketing would suggest is a requirement of an allegedly high-value brand.

ESPA made the mistake of entrusting a package to Hermes, another customer service black hole. The effect of this conjunction was so appalling that I am now taking every opportunity to use this as an object lesson when discussing leadership, reputation and the risks of damaging valuable goodwill. Like Hermes, The Hut Group TrustPilot scores are so miserable, it’s clear I’m not alone in thinking they are torching shareholder value.

Now, let’s be clear, I am the first to admit that this is a quintessentially first-world problem. While there are millions being infected in a pandemic, whingeing about courier services and lost perfumes may have a ring of “let them eat cake“. Losing some lotions is, of course, entirely trivial.

But I bring this up for a reason: it is relevant to the primary purpose of my day job, namely improving patient safety.

ESPA committed every customer-service sin in the book: lying, evasion, procrastination and – of course – blaming the customer – just in order to avoid sending-out a replacement package via Royal Mail (which gives me an opportunity for a big shout-out to Nigel our joyful and hardworking postie)

But what struck me forcibly last week, is that everything we experienced had parallels in the heart-stopping report we read last week about the Shrewsbury and Telford Maternity Unit over a 20 year period.

The experiences of the many hundreds of parents detailed in this report is, without any shadow of doubt, anything but trivial. As a country and as users of the NHS we should all give thanks to Rhiannon Davies, Richard Stanton and to Kayleigh and Colin Griffiths whose courage and relentless determination eventually drew rightful attention to these horrors.

The Ockenden report is the most damning assessment of a rotten safety culture since the Mid Staffs report. And unsurprisingly, it contains all the same behaviours: lying, evasion, procrastination and – of course – blaming the patient. We have yet to read the final report, but I have little doubt that we will find serious lapses in leadership resulted in bullying, intimidation and silencing of staff in the name of ‘meeting the numbers’ and ‘protecting the reputation’ of the trust.

So it is possible to draw parallels between a fractured patient safety culture and the far less serious problem of a customer service failure?

I think it is. And I’m not alone. Quint Studer and his colleagues have been talking about “service recovery” in healthcare for decades.

The issues are clearly complex, but there are evidence-based ways to improve patient safety culture. It is my experience that patient safety culture can be taught. This paper written with my colleague Judi Ingram – demonstrates that this can be low-cost and high-impact.

Within the STEP-up system that we discuss (and you can enjoy our ‘British humour’ laden video to accompany it) there four key behaviours that leaders can teach:

  • SPOT the problem – encourages a culture of reporting
  • TALK about it – creates a culture of openness
  • EXAMINE the system – promotes justice for individuals
  • PREVENT it happening again – implements improvements

All of these add up to a culture that supports the customer (the patient) by looking at error as a systemic problem to be fixed by the people on the ground. This is, in short, a customer – and patient – centred approach.

It is safe to assume that the Ockenden report will show all these were missing at Shrewsbury and Stafford. I would hazard they are missing in many other healthcare institutions around the world.

Customer service in retail is nice-to-have – but you can alway walk away, or get a refund.

By contrast, generating a culture of safety in our healthcare institutions is essential.