Customer Service is Killing People

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counseling private practice tips help

counseling private practice tips help


In a previous post and in my e-newsletter I let you know about how I was diagnosed with cancer in July. As I move forward with treatment, I had some observations about customer service that I think directly apply to the work that we are doing in our counseling private practices.

First, the situation…

So I am going out of the state to a wonderful cancer institute. I will leave it unnamed. I am completely blessed to be able to go to such a leading institution, my insurance coverage is great, and I have met my annual deductible already. I have very few out-of-pocket expenses beyond getting there.

So about 10 days ago I received a letter, saying that my appointment had been changed, but the letter did not indicate as to when the new appointment would be.

We had already bought our plane tickets for my surgery.

Mind you, when we met with the doctor, we asked very clearly if the appointment would/could be changed, we were assured that it would not, especially because we were from out of state.

So, I called the number on the letter and left a message for Ralph (a name I made up). I left a message and assigned it the “urgent” level of message. A few days later, another person called me (we’ll call her “Sally”) and indicated that my surgery had changed. Despite already buying plane tickets, I was told that I should be prepared to change the dates of those tickets.

Ralph then called me the next day and told me, “The only thing that has been changed is your initial appointment date.”

I replied, “But I talked with Sally yesterday and she told me that the surgery changed.”

“No, it is only the time of the consult,” Ralph said.

“Can you check that to make sure?” I asked.

“No I don’t have access to those appointments.”

“But you are all one hospital, why don’t you have access to all of my appointments?”

“I can transfer you if you would like.”

I then left a message for Sally, who called me back the next day. Sally informed me that my surgery date was changed. I asked, “Why didn’t Ralph have access to that, he told me it had not changed?”

“Our hospital is too big to give everyone access.”

“But the letter I got said that Ralph was speaking on behalf of Dr. ____.”

“I don’t even know who Ralph is,” Sally said.

I give you these details to show you the added frustration that often occurs in health care. I could use other examples of cable companies, cell phone companies, or even small businesses.

Start Unbundling!

Despite all of this unnecessary stress, my own pushing and self-advocacy (and not being too much of a jerk) made it so that my time was only moved by 12 hours and we don’t have to change planes. In the midst of fighting cancer, is it fair to have to deal with such unneeded stress?

As I processed through this experience I was reading the book Business Model Generation. In Alexander Osterwalder’s book, he covers a number of different principles. One tip that applies to us as counselors in private practice is the idea of “unbundling”.

Unbundling is the idea of a large business that has competing interests that are at odds with one another. The example that Osterwalder gives is that of a bank that offers investments and investment advice. A bank will have customers that need great investing advice that is truly the best, while part of the bank is also trying to sell the bank’s products. If these two “arms” of the bank were each their own businesses, they would not be as inefficient as when they are within the same system.

The same is true of a hospital. Often scheduling, reminder calls, and the individual doctor’s offices all cannot coordinate, whereas if they were split apart, they may be more efficient and focus on being amazing at their specific area.

What does this have to do with counseling?

So let’s bring this down a bit. Most of us work in a private practice with a handful of people. Or maybe, we’re just on our own. The concept of “unbundling” still applies to what we are doing. As a counselor in private practice, we often wear many hats…counselors, money collector, scheduler, web designer, and marketer.

I am all for doing as much of this on your own as humanly possible. It saves money and helps you to learn new skills. With that said, we have to do our own self-evaluation. For example, I just took on a consulting client who evaluated her own skills and saw that hiring me to make her website, set-up her Psychology Today account, and link everything would save her from the 20+ hours of learning, and I did it at a price that was fair for her. She realized that she didn’t want to spend her time doing that kind of work. As a result, she’s less stressed and happier.

We each need to evaluate what we can do and what we need to hire out.

Customer Service is killing your private practice

Now back to the topic at hand, customer service. With so many stories of bad customer service, it seems that the bar is fairly low. Also, it means that if you can streamline and evaluate your current flow, you can rise very quickly in the field. Here are some questions/thoughts to focus your efforts:

  • How quickly to you return a phone call or email?
  • Is it easy to figure out how to make an appointment on your website?
  • How do people know what to expect in the first session? Do you include a Google Map to your practice? How does payment work and how can you prepare people for that?
  • What frustrates your potential clients?
  • What is the typical waiting period before a first session at other counseling private practices in your area?

It is easy to say, “I’d never be like that hospital. Poor Joe, he’s going through cancer, that’s just not how to treat people.” But, (and I’m guilty of it too) when we don’t return a call quickly, especially an intake it does the same thing. Potential clients often think about and research counselors quite extensively. When they make that first call, it takes a lot of courage. Anything we can do to set ourselves apart and make it easier will help your practice grow rather than die.


counseling private practice advice

Joseph R. Sanok, MA, LLP, LPC, NCC is a counselor in private practice who owns Mental Wellness Counseling. He is a frequent speaker and blogger about applying marketing and business principles in private practice. He will be launching a podcast soon.

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