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A year ago, as I worked to launch my new executive search firm, I experienced problems loading a customer/candidate database. I needed help in a hurry so I turned to the software company.  What a disaster in customer service.  It was if their motto was We make a lot of money selling software.  Don’t bug us.  Visit our web site.

Welcome to Microsoft customer support.

If you are not a technical wizard, the Microsoft web page is as opaque as the complex Collateralized Debt Obligation instruments from the real estate debacle that were so complicated that the bankers who sold them didn’t understand. Forget trying to find the right article, among hundreds, that will explain the issue and tell you how to fix it, assuming they were written in easy-to-understand English.   

They make it difficult to find their contact information and more difficult still to find a telephone number to technical support for the specific product.  When you finally get through the telephone decision decision tree, assuming you are not cut off, you are then connected — using a system that is only marginally better than two orange juice cans and string — to a technical support guru who is obviously not in the USA.  You struggle to hear. Understanding the representative is another struggle.  A pronounced accent and a bad connection is one definition of technical support hell.

Now compare that with Apple.  Today I had a question; I used their super fast Safari browser, easily found the technical support contact information, entered my product model number and filled in a quick form to explain the problem.  They gave me choices:

1. Immediate call.  They would call me.  The waiting time listed on the web was less than one minute.

2. I could schedule a call

3. I could use their knowledge base — for the technically sophisticated among us

I chose the immediate call. Within seconds of entering my number, my telephone was ringing.  Apple was calling.  I also received a case number and explanation on my email. The technical support representative was friendly, eager to help and communication was not a problem… I will not ramble on.  Apple owners get it.  They know that this company is committed to making high quality products that surprise and wow their customers, and they back that up with what many think is best-in-industry customer service. No competition.  

Microsoft service is a long standing bad joke.  And given the mediocrity of some of their software, you would think they would take customer service a little more seriously. But what the heck, they are making a lot of money.  Too bad Apple just passed them in terms of market capitalization.

So now we come to hospitals.  We are not even in the same universe when it comes to customer service.  

A friend visited her physician who works in an integrated health system. They took x-rays, performed lab work and gave her two major injections to counter an infection.  She is a Medicare beneficiary.  Several weeks later, she received a bill, which she paid.  Then she received another much larger invoice, which was for her lab work.  Immediate payment was requested.  It seemed high, so my friend called Medicare to determine how much they had paid.

Guess what? Medicare had not been billed. Medicare’s representative advised her to wait to pay that amount until the clinic filed a claim and Medicare determined how much they would pay.  The suggestion was clear — that if my friend paid the clinic the full amount now, she might have to wait for months before receiving a refund. So she called the clinic billing office and dealt with someone whose name should have been: Ms. I Am Clueless. They discussed the situation but it was unclear to my friend if she made any progress, if anything was resolved, based on her conversation with the customer service representative. Hence the clueless moniker.

This week my friend received yet another bill for a different amount for the same test, but the amount — $43 with another $4 tacked on as a late fee because the amount had not been paid in 30 days. She called the clinic back and talked to another customer service representative, Ms. Dismissive Indifference, who said she could not see why they had added a late fee since the payment due was not late.   In the end, however, my friend paid the principal amount and the late fee. She was told that it was just easier to do so.  I an era of tightening reimbursement, I guess that is just one small way to boost revenue. 

The big bill apparently is still rattling around in payment hell waiting for a settlement. 

This story, unfortunately, is fairly common. Not all hospitals and large clinics operate this way.  There are some great operators who get it right every day.  But many do not.

I work in healthcare and I am beginning to hate even thinking about going to my doctor. He is part of a big clinic whose centralized business office is run, I have come to believe, by some obscure, inept arm of the government.  Who needs the aggravation?  It is like dealing with Microsoft.  

The problem for most hospital CEOs is that they only hear about these incredible stories only if someone complains, which my friend will not do.  So absent an aggressive pro-actve customer service program that can identify problems before they alienate clients, nothing much changes.  Far too many are like Microsoft’s leadership.  If they are profitable, the seem to say, don’t sweat the small stuff.  I guess that means service, too.

Healthcare providers need to stop and take a page from Apple’s playbook. They understand customer service and they love to exceed their customers’ expectations.

 © 2010 John Gregory Self