Are your customers — your patients and their physicians — loyal to your health system or hospital because they want to be?  Or, are they there because they feel there is no real choice in the marketplace?

Doctor holding heartDo you want your customers coming back because they feel they have to, or because you have created a bond of trust and have made them feel valued?  A cautionary note: being efficient in registering patients, and highly effective in collecting their money, is not the point I want to make regarding customer loyalty and trust.

Aside from my healthcare references, I could be talking about the highly siloed, bureaucratic behemoth AT&T, or perhaps the customer service tail dragger, the notorious Time-Warner Cable.

Let me share a brief story about AT&T’s poor customer service that destroyed our Firm’s sense of trust and the value of our relationship as a customer.

I have been a loyal AT&T customer for more than 20 years — business lines, RingCentral Office@Hand (a virtual PBX and voice mail service), wireless, and U-Verse, which provides internet cable for our office suite.  Since 2010, our business has continued to expand, and managing incoming telephone calls with our multi-line phones was not providing our clients with a professional experience.  So I asked if we could take our unused fax line and bundle that and two others in a rotating system.  The line numbers were, after all, in sequential order.  Apparently that was not technically possible so the helpful AT&T representative referred us to the AT&T RingCentral subsidiary, which we were already using for routing to our offices elsewhere in the DFW area and in Houston.  Instead of using conventional lines, AT&T’s innovative RingCentral service uses the Internet.  This seemed like a better option than buying a new $15,000 telephone system for the office, plus it helped us improve our virtual networking.

I was pleased that “my business partner,” AT&T, helped us resolve the problem.  Today, that solution is in place and working like a charm.  But wait, sadly there is more to this story.

My pleasure with AT&T soured when I got a nasty collection letter informing me that because I had broken my AT&T business telephone line contract when I shifted to their subsidiary, I would be obligated to pay a $500 penalty.  After talking to non-responsive customer “service” representatives who refused to help, and refused to allow us to speak to a supervisor, we reluctantly paid the penalty.  And then we received another collection letter that said we owed an additional $186.  Again, customer service, while more polite in this round, refused to hear our complaints.  Rules are rules, after all.

To summarize, the AT&T business “service” group could not help us solve our problem and actually referred us to their sister division which could, and did, help.  We just transferred our business from one business AT&T unit to another.

The point I want to make is that AT&T hit us with penalties because they could, not because it was the right thing to do.  When a certain Fort Worth-based airline repeatedly treated me badly, I walked away.  Today, I use them only when I have to, not because I want to.  At one point I was a “valued” frequent flyer.  With AT&T, I don’t feel like I have a choice.  I am not switching to Verizon wireless because their network does not allow my iPhone functionality to work at 100 percent, and I have received too many calls from customers of Verizon, Sprint and the other guys with poor quality sound.  When you are trying to conduct an interview and a cell is the only phone the candidate has, the word nuisance comes to mind.  When it comes to cable internet service, my previous Time Warner experience with service reliability in the central business district and their crack billing team convinced me they are, not now nor ever will be in the future, a realistic option.  Our building does not permit satellite antenna so that leaves out that option.  So there you go.  Unless I am missing something, I am stuck.

I was once a proud and loyal AT&T customer.  I told people that AT&T was great for small businesses like mine, because they offered an array of innovative solutions.  I just never dreamed that I would have my hand slapped if I took advantage of one of those solutions.

As I look out the window of my 24th floor suite, I can see the impressive office tower that houses AT&T’s CEO, a mere three blocks away.  But because of their “we will because we can” approach to customer service, I am less enthralled with the idea that they helped me grow my business.  When I watch the sun set behind the AT&T tower, I  am now ambivalent, not pleased, that I feel forced to do business with them.

There is an important lesson here for healthcare organizations.

As healthcare leaders work to navigate their organizations through reform, when what hospitals and other providers are paid for the services they offer will decline, in some cases significantly, they face a tough challenge of sustaining the trust and confidence of their customers while maintaining financial viability.

Health systems, and hospitals can and will spend heavily on marketing, telling their stories in glitzy newspaper inserts or slick television ads.  But that won’t be enough.  How healthcare organizations deal with customers day in and day out on all matters will determine whether they can sustain trust and confidence; whether customers come back because they want to, or because they feel they have no other choice.