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Days that try our souls

Kasewurm, Gyl A.

doi: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000364279.23762.47
Gyl's Guide to Managing for Success

Gyl A. Kasewurm, AuD, is Founder, President, and Owner of Professional Hearing Services in St. Joseph, MI, which receives more than 16,000 patient visits a year. Readers may contact Dr. Kasewurm at For past installments of Gyl's Guide, visit the HJ archives at



At the end of a particularly challenging day, I breathed a sigh of relief as my final patient walked through the door. It had been a day of chronic complainers.

When I asked this last patient how he was doing, meaning with his new hearing aids, he replied, “These are the days that try men's souls.” He then proceeded to give me a detailed description of every imaginable problem in his life, his business, his body (trust me when I say you don't want to know about that!), his crazy mother-in-law, his obsessive-compulsive neighbor, and more. When I finally was able to bring the conversation around to his hearing aids, 40 minutes had passed. By this time I was late for a meeting and it was hard to really care that his new hearing aids “just didn't work.”

When you work with people, days like this will happen. It's unrealistic to expect to satisfy every patient's needs, wants, and expectations. Actually, when a patient complains about a product or service received, it can be a blessing in disguise. We all know that a happy patient tells almost no one and an unhappy patient tells everyone, so dissatisfied patients will have an impact on business. Since competitors may offer the same services and products that you do, it is the satisfied patients you have to rely on to bring in not only repeat business, but also new patients. Therefore, resolving complaints quickly and completely is the key to maintaining a successful business.

In case you've had a day of complainers, here are some suggestions on how to handle them:

Start with an apology. Your patient's problem might be entirely out of your hands. On the other hand, you could have made an honest mistake. Either way, offering an apology helps bring down a person's defenses. Once you calm the patient down, remind them that you care. Whether you are responsible for their problem or not, remember that any bad experience can lead to resentment—and lost business.

Always let patients know that you are sorry they are unhappy and will do whatever you can to resolve the issue. Whatever you do, don't get angry. It's impossible to win an argument with an angry person. Reinforce what you are going to do to correct the unfortunate situation and, even if the patient is at fault, don't remind them of that.

Resolve complaints quickly. When complaints occur, deal with them immediately and resolve them completely. It doesn't matter whether you feel you are at fault or not. The only thing that matters is that the patient is satisfied that you have done everything possible to resolve their concerns. Resolution may require refunding money, exchanging a product, or doing a complimentary repair. It's imperative to make sure the patient is completely satisfied with the outcome. I don't know about you, but I can't read minds. Don't assume you know what patients expect. Ask them. Exceeding a patient's expectations is the best way to convert an unhappy patient into a cheerleader for your practice.

Train your staff how to handle unhappy patients. It's human nature to become defensive when faced with a complaint. Staff members will naturally react this way unless you train them to react differently. When confronted by an angry patient, the challenge is not to become defensive, but to approach the situation calmly and professionally. Tell your front-office staff how you would like them to handle a difficult situation and help them understand why patients get angry.

A staff member on the front lines must have the authority to handle some complaints when they happen in order to make the patient happy. Don't waste a patient's time keeping them waiting “to speak to the boss.” That may only inflame the situation.

Take steps to avoid future complaints. Hearing healthcare practices rely on repeat business to succeed so it doesn't make good business sense not to use customer complaints to improve. When mistakes occur, take time to discuss them with your employees and ask how things could be handled differently in the future.

Many complaints are not a result of a mistake but rather a misreading of a patient's expectations or needs. While you can't take every complaint to heart, take note of each one to determine if there is a “common denominator” that could be changed. What if the patient has no basis for the complaint? You could argue the point, but most of the time it's more productive to take a deep breath and ask the patient what they would like you to do. It not who “wins,” but how you end the game.

While it is important to try to satisfy every patient, there are a few patients who simply can't be satisfied. It's in the best interest of the business to let those patients find another service provider.

For every patient who voices a complaint, there may be 10 more who were dissatisfied and felt like complaining but never did. Instead, they switched service providers and told all their friends of their dissatisfaction. When patients complain, it means they care enough to give you a second chance. So the next time a patient shares a frustration or concern with you, embrace this feedback instead of dreading, denying, or resenting it.

© 2009 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.