July 06, 2010 | | Comments 1
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Eight Ways to Drive the Complaining Patient and Family Member Nuts

One of my favorite activities is facilitating patient and family focus groups. What I love about focus groups is that I always learn something!

I’ve consistently found that patients and families are very sensitive to how they are treated when they complain and very articulate about the experience. If there’s one thing I’ve learned well it is “What drives the complaining patient and family member nuts?”

Listed here are the highlights. Consider sharing this list with staff throughout your organization so that people avoid some of the pitfalls of dealing with complaints.

1. It drives patients and families nuts when we get defensive. If we take complaints personally and say things like “I only work here” or “It’s not my fault”, we make matters worse. We need to keep calm, stay objective, and avoid judging, acting superior or making excuses.

2. It drives customers nuts when we coldly cite “policy” as our reason why we can’t do what the customer wants. Statements like “I’m sorry, but that’s the way we do things here” or “It’s our policy” infuriate patients and families, because it seems we care more about protecting ourselves than serving their needs. We need to somehow give them at least one option in line with policy or find ways to bend rules when we know we’re acting in the patient’s and organization’s best interest. And when the rule can’t be bent, we can at least listen intently and, with sincere regret and caring, explain how the rule exists for the sake of the patient. Why is there no smoking? Not because “it’s our policy.” Instead, “For the health and safety of all of our patients and staff, there’s no smoking.”

3. It drives patients and families nuts when we don’t listen intently. When we fail to really listen to their complaints, when we interrupt them, act unconcerned, or minimize their complaints, we almost always increase their hostility. We need to focus our undivided attention on the customer, tune in, nod, look concerned, and do all we can to grasp the content of their message and the feeling behind it, so that they will feel listened to and respected and so that we can respond effectively.

4. It drives patients and families nuts when we give them the run-around. When we pass the buck or tell them to go tell someone else, or we give an excuse that doesn’t make sense, we further frustrate and alienate them. If we need to shift the complaint to someone else, WE should hand off the complaint ourselves, instead of making the patient of family member do it.

5. It drives patients and families nuts when we show “off-putting” nonverbal behavior. When we look annoyed, fidget, scowl, appear skeptical, impatient or rushed, avoid eye contact, or keep working on our paperwork, we put off the patient and the family, making them feel unimportant and aggravating their dissatisfaction.

6. It drives patient and families nuts when we make false promises. Sometimes in our fervor to make things right, we offer solutions we can’t implement or promises we can’t keep. It’s better to stop at hearing the patient or family out and apologizing than it is to promise to do things that won’t happen.

7. It drives patients and families nuts when we blame our coworkers or our own organization: We really make them anxious when we make remarks like:

• “We get complaints like this all the time”

• “Sometimes I wonder what management thinks it’s doing.”

• “I’m sorry that happened. It’s a zoo here.”

• “That doctor always does that.”

The fact is, when a complaining patient and/or the family is interacting with any one of us, we are our organization’s ambassador of goodwill. If we condemn our organization, we make our organization and ourselves look bad, and kill our patients’ and families’  confidence in us and our services for the future.

8. It drives patients and families nuts when we question their objectivity. “THAT doesn’t sound likely!” “That’s never happened before.” Words like these are dismissive and discounting and will most definitely fuel dissatisfaction.

Whether we field a complaint from a patient, their family, a doctor or coworker, we have the power to turn dissatisfaction around by listening intently without judging, by taking the person and their concern seriously, by showing sincere regret that they’ve had an unhappy experience, and by doing everything possible to make things right. And even when we can’t fix the problem, we can respond with our full attention, heartfelt regret and caring.

Click here to view the short video: “The Blameless Apology”, a concrete approach to communicating caring with a complaining customer. (After you click, scroll down to the 5th video in the jukebox player.)

For other useful tools, sign up for Wendy’s free monthly e-newsletter HeartBeat on the Quality Patient Experience.

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Wendy Leebov About the Author: Wendy Leebov is a passionate advocate for creating healing environments for patients, families and the entire healthcare team. A mission-driven expert, Leebov provides outcomes-based consulting services, culture change strategies with healthcare organizations, training and tools for enhancing the patient and employee experience. With more than 30 years of experience and skills in communication, training design and delivery, she is known for making hard skills accessible and motivating people to stretch and apply skills which set them apart. Author of 12 books for healthcare, Wendy has produced two groundbreaking video-based skill building systems that educate and empower all staff to deliver the exceptional patient experience consistently by excelling at caring communication. Wendy writes a free monthly e-newsletter - HeartBeat on the Quality Patient Experience - packed with concrete tips and tools for managers who champion the great patient and employee experience. Visit Wendy’s website for more great tips and tools.

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  1. Ms. Leebov,

    Do you believe that we need a patient service liaison to manage a complaint board?

    I have not seen patient experience data that accounts for demography changes and staffing acuity. How do both variables correlate with perceived “harm done”.

    FNP-c, MPH

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