The art and science of customer service

Danielle Campbell-Angah is a former editor of an audiology magazine and currently works as a freelance writer for CareCredit.

Instilling good customer service skills in your staff will enable you to reach more patients with hearing aids.

Everyone has a litany of customer service horror stories to recite — from the unintelligible restaurant drive-through operator, to bank tellers who’d rather talk about last night’s episode of Grey’s Anatomy than process your checks, to supermarket employees who don’t go to colleagues for help when they can’t answer your questions.

We are generally unforgiving of these customer service crimes when they happen in our leisure time, but as a clinician or practice owner, you may not be doing all you can to prevent them from occurring during working hours at your practice. If your staff members are indifferent, attitudinal, or unable to answer patients’ questions, they may be turning off current and potential customers—meaning you are reaching fewer people with the hearing help patients need and also stunting the growth of your bottom line.

Mind Your Marketing

Customer service means so much because “it is the best and cheapest form of marketing,” said Kim Cavitt, AuD, owner of Chicago-based Audiology Resources. Patients will give a positive or negative referral for your practice depending on their perception of how they were treated at your practice.

“Patients should be treated with respect and get what they’re paying for,” says Cavitt. If your professional and/or support staff are falling short in this area, you will not be meeting patients’ expectations for caring, knowledgeable employees who can educate themselves with the information they need to decide to get hearing aids.

In the dispensing world, first impressions influence whether or not a customer will buy hearing aids from you. According to a study conducted by Inquire Research of 500 respondents who were tested and not sold hearing aids, only 13 came back to the original practice to make purchases.1 The implication is that your customer service better be good the first time, because you’re not going to get a second chance.

Cavitt offered a description of an audiology practice that offers top-notch customer service: At this practice, when a patient calls for the first time, the receptionist is knowledgeable and friendly and is able to schedule the patient for an appointment within a week or two. The receptionist also explains to the patient what will happen during the first appointment and offers to mail any forms that need to be filled out before the patient’s visit.

When the patient first comes to the office, his or her presence is acknowledged in some manner: either with a friendly “Hello!” or, if the receptionist is on the phone or otherwise busy, an assurance that the patient will be tended to momentarily. Similarly, the dispensing professional needs to interact with the patient in a timely manner. The practitioner greets the patient by name, is prepared to answer any questions, and is organized, following a clear-cut protocol to diagnose the patient’s hearing ability and determine the best way to treat any hearing loss. The clinician treats the patient with respect, and “makes [the process] as seamless as possible,” Cavitt notes. This professional “recognizes [the patient’s] needs and tries to serve them within reason. If you can’t, be honest and explain why you can’t,” she recommends. Behaviors that sabotage encounters with customers include:

  • Support staff not picking up the phone when a customer calls—either letting the phone ring incessantly or letting the caller be routed to voice mail. “The phone should be answered by a human voice, even during lunch,” says Cavitt. “Stagger [lunch times] so the phones are always covered.”
  • Professional staff who consistently run late—defined as more than 15 minutes
  • Staff members who don’t ask others for assistance when they don’t know the answer to a question
  • Staff members who are not honest about the costs of hearing aids and services.

The best way to instill good customer service skills in your staff members is to “lead by example,” Cavitt stresses. “If you want your staff to provide good customer service, you need to provide it.” For example, if you are counseling a patient and he confesses to you that he is concerned about the cost of hearing aids, informing him of a hearing aid financing plan that your practice offers will help to put him at ease. As research reveals, the availability of a patient payment program positively influences how the majority feel about their hearing care professional.2 Additionally, the study found that offering payment options is as important to the patient as offering a low price when choosing a hearing professional,2 so don’t discount the positive impact a discussion of payment options can have on patient’s perception.

Hire the Best

Another important way to ensure your employees are treating customers with courtesy and respect is to ensure that you are hiring people who are capable of doing this. Use behavioral interview questions to discover which job candidates are top-notch. For example, you could ask a potential employee how he or she would respond to an angry patient who complains that his new hearing aid doesn’t work. Or ask what the interviewee would say to a patient who calls and says she needs to be seen by the audiologist the same day, but no appointments are available. The responses candidates give to these kinds of questions will grant you a sneak peek into how they might act in your office.

When new staff members come on board, be sure to train them in what you feel to be good customer service. “Make an investment in people,” says Cavitt.

When you are training new employees, the dispensing professionals may simply need to have their communication skills reinforced. However, support personnel will likely need this same kind of training, plus need to be educated about hearing loss and hearing aids so they can properly answer patients’ questions. You will need to explain to them things like what hearing aids are, the basics of hearing, and the differences among the types of staff members you employ. “Arm them with the basics,” says Cavitt. In other words, your support staff should know if someone calls about a perceived hearing problem that they should encourage the person to come to your practice for a hearing test, then schedule an appointment. The people who work in your front office should also know there are certain questions that are best answered by the professional.

For more general questions, point your support staff to the Internet and brochures that they should become familiar with. For example, if your practice offers hearing aid financing plans, your support staff should be aware of this. Imagine how many more price-shy patients the receptionist could get into the office if, during their tentative first calls to seek help for their hearing losses, she answers their questions about costs with details about plans that can break hearing aid payments into more manageable monthly chunks. In a 2006 study,2 56% of patients polled said they would be more likely to return to the practice for additional services if they were offered a hearing aid financing plan, and 51% said they’d be more likely to refer the practice to friends and family.

In addition to sharing brochures and other information sources with staff, role-playing exercises should be part of the education process, says Cavitt. You also can send staff members to off-site training. Hearing aid networks regularly offer support personnel training, and you can frequently find such classes at state and national hearing care conventions, as well.

For you to find out how well your employees treat your customers, consider conducting “secret shops,” suggests Cavitt. Your secret shopper can be a friend, colleague, or family member whom your staff does not know. Have this person call the practice, or even come in for an appointment, then report to you on how the experience was.

Damage Control

If an incident occurs that upsets your secret shopper (or any other patient), you can use it as a learning experience, Cavitt points out. When you learn of a customer complaint, first be sure to get your employee’s side of the story. “Not all patients are free of blame or sin,” she says, and isolated mistakes can happen.

The key is to inform your employee of what the patient told you, and ask, “How could we, as a practice, have handled this differently?” Be sure to communicate that the problem is bigger than the employee. If the employee felt there wasn’t anything he/she could do to remedy the situation, empower him or her to address the situation differently in the future. Employees also should know that they can call on you if a situation ever gets out of hand, Cavitt says.

So you are not keeping someone on staff who is a detriment to your business, Cavitt recommends annual reviews. “People need to know how they’re doing,” she explains. They need to know what their strengths are, as well as where there is room for improvement (for which you will give them training).

It is obvious to address negative behavior but, as Cavitt points out, it is equally important to reward good customer service. “You’ve got to reward them,” she stresses. You can do something as simple as taking your employees to lunch or as lavish as hiring a masseuse for a day for your staff or taking them shopping. A day off is also a much-appreciated reward.

Brian Taylor, AuD, says that knowing patients’ social styles can be a great benefit in counseling and consultative selling. The article, “Understanding People’s Social Styles Can Boost Productivity,” is from the January 2005 issue of HR.

Good customer service is too important to the success of your practice to leave it to chance or ascribe it to natural ability. As Cavitt points out, your support personnel are “your first line of defense” when it comes to convincing patients to get hearing aids from your practice. Professional staff members who treat patients with courtesy and respect enable you to help as many patients as possible and increase your profits.


  1. Campbell-Angah D. Study points to the value of third-party payment plans. Hearing Review. 2006;13(6):62-64.
  2. Inquire Market Research. Purchase behavior among hearing loss patients: Results of a study with 200 patients requiring a hearing device. Santa Ana, Calif: Inquire Market Research; 2006.

Correspondence can be addressed to HR or Danielle Campbell-Angah: .