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Optometry and customer service: why policies can go wrong


Most businesses have polices that employees are required to follow. In general, office policies are a good idea. Policies provide structure for how to conduct business and create consistency around processes and operations. But in a service-based industry, well intended but rigidly executed office policies can become an obstacle to providing great customer service.

When you take a close look at office policies, it becomes clear that many of these policies are intended to protect the business. In fact, some policies are created as a response to issues that negatively impact the practice. I once heard a practice owner complain about an uptick of returns recently and responded by posting “No Refunds” signs in her optical. This is a perfect example of a policy that solely serves to protect the interests of the business without considering the paying customer (patient). As a consumer, why shouldn't you be allowed a refund if you are dissatisfied with a product or service?

Why even have policies?

I’ve heard from owners and managers who have been asked by the staff, “Why even have policies if we’re not going to enforce them?” Policies establish guidelines, but they can still be flexible. In fact, I suggest having an easy to remember “office motto” that supersedes written policies. For example, “Always make the patient happy” or “Let the patient win”. As long as employees are not allowing for anything that is illegal or unethical, empowering the staff to bend office policies on an individual basis to satisfy the office motto actually simplifies the decision making process when special requests or circumstances arise that require a deviation from a policy. What’s more important to your long-term success, happy patients or rigidly enforced policies? 

Set guidelines

If you’re concerned staff will abuse this newfound freedom, establish some guidelines. Consider allowing employees to make on-the-spot decisions that align with the office motto for any issue that will not cost the practice more than X dollars. When employees are no longer bound by strictly enforced policies but are free to act in the patient’s best interest, people are less likely to request refunds or make unreasonable demands when they sense you are trying to help them. If there’s uncertainty over whether an exception can be made to a policy, the employee can grab a manager (or you) for guidance.  However, keep in mind that “taking to long to resolve an issue” is commonly listed as a top reason for customer dissatisfaction.

What if we can’t violate the policy?

Obviously you can’t satisfy everyone’s request. Sometimes you have to stand by a policy. A good approach in this case is to say no without saying no. For example, “I’m sorry Mr. Smith, but we do require full payment before we can place the order. But here’s what we can do. We’ll fill out all the paperwork and have the order ready to go as soon as you call us with a credit card number”.

In summary, it’s a bad policy to lean heavily on the phrase, “That’s our policy!”

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Steve Vargo

Steve Vargo

Steve Vargo, OD, MBA is a 1998 graduate of Illinois College of Optometry. After working in clinical optometric practice for several years, Dr. Vargo pursued his passion for practice management by earning his Masters of Business Administration (MBA) degree from the University of Phoenix in 2008. A published author and speaker with 15 years of clinical experience, he serves as IDOC’s Optometric Practice Management Consultant. Dr. Vargo advises optometric alliance members in all areas of practice management and optometric office operations.