HOUSTON – Ask anyone in El Paso about their experience at MD Anderson Cancer Center and it’s a good bet you will get an overwhelmingly enthusiastic and positive response. Wife Ellie has been receiving treatment for breast cancer here over much of the last year, and we are among those who would wholeheartedly second those opinions. (Ellie completes treatment here this coming Tuesday and, hopefully, will remain cancer free.)

The level of customer service at MDA is truly extraordinary and it occurred to me 1) that kind of service doesn’t happen by accident and 2) any business could benefit from their customer relations protocols. So as Ellie went through her various treatments, I began quizzing people on how MDA delivers on customer service.

It turns out that every employee – from highly specialized surgeons to administrative staff – have a mandatory training requirement of three, two-hour courses a year. They are reminded of what is expected of every employee concerning customer service. New employees, of course, get it from the start.

Here are some of the highlights of the MDA program:

Patient waiting times: In our experience, we never had to wait when coming in for a scheduled appointment. In fact there was a sign in one waiting room that read: “If you have waited more than 20 minutes, please check with the desk.” The one time that we did have to wait was unusual – about 45 minutes – after which the surgical oncologist came out and apologized for the delay. But she had a humdinger of an excuse.

“We were all huddled around the television watching Dr. Allison get the Nobel Prize,” she said. Indeed Dr. James Allison, MDA’s chair of immunology, was receiving the 2018 Nobel Prize in Stockholm for his revolutionary work in developing new cancer fighting drugs.

In fairness to doctors in El Paso who run behind, I am sure the doctor-patient ratio is a lot more favorable in Houston, enabling doctors there to better control their schedules.

Response times: Most employees are required to answer work-related emails within the hour. “That’s why you see people in scrubs walking the halls with their noses in their cellphones,” said one of Ellie’s providers.

Confused patients: The Houston medical complex is the largest in the world and MDA has a major footprint in adjacent blocks with some buildings linked by skywalks. Learning to navigate this labyrinth takes time. MDA asks employees to stop and offer directions to anyone who looks lost. It works. Every time we stopped to read a directory sign someone asked where we were trying to go and offered directions. Several people even led us to our destination.

Caring and concerned: Employees are instructed to look patients in the eye when speaking to them and to do everything possible to “exceed their expectations.” In fact, they are encouraged to ask patients if they have exceeded their expectations.

Response to requests: When patients make a request, even if it can’t be accommodated, employees are instructed never to start out with a “no.” Instead they are asked to explore ways to figure out “how we can make this better.”

Program retention: To reinforce and remind employees of the organization’s values and expectations, employees are given wallet-sized cards summarizing key takeaways. For example, one card reads in part: “Alternatives to ‘No’… explore options together, Yes if…, I could if…, I can when…” Another side of the card reads, “Service Excellence Standards.” The five standards – Safety, Courtesy, Accountability, Efficiency and Innovation are followed by one-sentence explanations.

On screwups: When stuff happens that shouldn’t, employees are asked to be open and honest and exhibit an attitude of, “Let’s fix this.”

One employee mentioned that MDA also looks at and takes cues from customer relations models in other industries. She mentioned Disneyland and Chick-fil-A, where employees of the latter are encouraged to say, “My pleasure” after interacting with a customer.

We could certainly use a good dose of this at organizations where I have worked, not to mention my current employer. I am reminded of the time years ago when I was at Gannett and a corporate executive called the El Paso Times pressroom in my presence. The response at the other end of the line was a rather surly, “Yeah?”

Whereupon the Gannett executive responded, “Is this the state prison? It must be the state prison. You sound like you might be an inmate.” And, of course, that was followed by the employee getting a good lecture on telephone etiquette.

Opportunities for improvement? Everywhere you look!

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