Out of every adversity comes the opportunity to learn and improve. That sounds like a deep, meaningful quote from a management book, but it is not. It is something I try to use when things look less than ideal. There is true currently.

Mrs Moneo and I have just moved to a new house. In itself, during lockdown, this was awkward enough, but to increase the angst level we had to move into rented accommodation to protect our house sale. We suddenly found ourselves in a less than ideal situation, especially with regard to internet connectivity, and signing up to the various utilities. Despite the huge frustrations of trying to manage these issues I began to realise the importance of customer service and delivering a competent reliable service. As I sat there hanging on a phone line for literally hours, I began to reflect on how this situation could relate to an optometric practice.

I realised there were probably numerous occasions where, we might think we have systems in place, but we have set them up from our point of view rather than that of the customer or patient. On many occasions, prior to being left hanging on for hours I got told that my call was really important, and I was thanked for holding on. While this may sound nice initially it becomes very irritating by the 50th time. What I really wanted to know was how long I was going to be kept waiting. Messages like ‘we are really busy now and our wait times are longer than usual’ cut no ice with the person hanging on the line. That actually causes more irritation because stating the blindingly obvious does not make things better.

Phone systems that told me where I was in the queue and the potential waiting time, were more useful. At least I felt my call was being taken seriously. What then became the issue was the competence of the person at the other end when the call was eventually answered. That competence ranged from totally incompetent to absolutely excellent. One example that will live with me was that of one of the leading British telecoms company. I was shovelled between at least six operatives who, on each occasion, assured me they were the expert who would sort out my issue. On each occasion the interaction was passed on to someone else and to this day, as I write this, I still await a satisfactory outcome. While that company was probably the worst I dealt with, many others vied quite successfully for the top spot. I eventually came away from this experience battle-scarred and vowing I would never deal with any of these companies again because they all left me feeling that I was not valued, that all they wanted me for was my money and they just did not care.

I then phoned an optometrist to be greeted with an instant automated message telling me that they were ‘really busy right now but my call would be answered as soon as possible’. I put the phone down immediately because I just could not go through that all again. I mused over previous times I had phoned practices either to hang on endlessly while the phone just rang and no one answered or it was answered with the greeting, ‘can you just hang on for a moment’ and I was then left wondering what was happening. These first interactions are vital, yet so often they have not been thought through and send totally the wrong message to the person ringing in. It is vital to have staff who are not only trained to answer the phones correctly but are also knowledgeable enough to be able to answer the caller’s questions competently.

Too many times I have been met with comments like ‘I am new here’ or ‘I can’t answer your question as I don’t know the answer’ or similar. But with no solution offered. This is not confined to one sector or other within our profession, but I have found over the years is that the independent sector often does not seem to have thought through the consequences of bad up-front interactions with patients. As we now, hopefully, emerge from this latest lockdown it is going to be so vital to ensure growth within our practices. There will be many out there who seek our services, and competition will be fierce.

To recover and succeed it is going to be vital to approach our ways of working and interacting with the public correctly and efficiently with a friendly customer facing approach. The corporate sector is very good at doing this. The independent sector often lags behind. There is a lot of good help out there from specialist companies who can support and advise on how to correctly position your practice so that it is perceived as customer facing and well informed. I would suggest now is an excellent time to take advantage of those and ensure you are serving your patients or customers in a way that welcomes them rather than sends them looking elsewhere.