Truth be told, there are a lot of similarities between raising kids and managing staff members. One that immediately comes to mind is that, no matter how many kids or staff members you have, you’ll eventually find yourself in the uncomfortable and unenviable position of needing to discipline them. As the person in charge, how and when you choose to take on the disciplinary role will have a significant impact on whether your reprimand sticks and the behavior ultimately changes.

Working as a Team
A professional practice staff, or any group or team for that matter, is the driving force behind getting things done. The team runs the systems and processes that make the day-to-day workings of an office function. For example, let’s look at online ordering.

While it may be only one person who visits a company’s website to place an order for a patient’s contact lenses, there are several steps that lead up to that final task. First, the patient must make an appointment to be examined and fit with lenses—a process that likely involves the practitioner and one or two assistants. Next, let’s consider the financials. Several individuals are involved in the process to guarantee that the funds are in place to put in an order, that the order is placed and finally, that the payments are made in a timely fashion.

In order for the office to function efficiently, all of the systems and processes in place are driven by the sum total of the efforts of several individuals—that is, by a team. When there is a breakdown in a process (i.e., lenses were never ordered), you might be able to trace back the problem to one staff member, but it’s also an indication that better checks and balances are needed.

Individual vs. Team
Let’s take a look at another scenario that addresses the issue of patient complaints and staff discipline. When patients complain about something in our office, more often than not it’s the result of how an individual—not the team—responds to something that affected the patient’s experience. For example, if a patient’s lenses were never ordered and the patient calls the practice to follow up on the order status, the staff member’s response can be the difference between inspiring a patient’s lifetime loyalty and losing their business to a competitor.

In one response, a staff member may imply indifference by saying, “The lenses were supposed to be ordered when you were here, but I guess they weren’t. I’ll order them today.” Such a response will likely generate a complaint because the patient’s underlying issue—that the contact lenses are not ready for pick up—is not addressed.

Instead, a more effective response is: “I’m so sorry this happened. We dropped the ball. I can’t apologize enough and I understand how disappointed you must be. I will order the lenses right away and have them overnighted to your office. I’ll call you back to confirm once the order has been placed. Once again, I am so sorry this happened.”

Remember that how your practice handles a patient’s complaint is critical to its continued success. The way most of us tend to handle problems is through a healthy dose of optometric avoidance. That is, we ignore the problem in the hopes it will go away. Another common misstep is to discuss the complaint anonymously with all the staff members during a weekly meeting by saying something like, “We need to be more on top of how we queue up our patients contact lens orders.”

While you are proactively trying to avoid a repeat by having a general conversation, the problem here is that the offending staff members are probably not even aware of who they are. And, if they are aware, they will no doubt blame the faulty system instead of singling themselves out as the offenders.

Instead, recognize that patient complaints are usually the result of individual interactions and the patient’s perception of those one-on-one experiences. It’s best to handle these issues directly with the offending staff person and to do so as soon as you first hear about the issue.
Your team is what drives the systems and processes in your practice. Individuals mold the perceptions patients have of your practice. When patients complain, it usually has to do with an individual encounter. Deal with it on an individual basis—not as a team.