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Is Your Doctor Smarter Than Your Average Employee?

Do you think your average surgeon is smarter than your average retail employee or restaurant staff member? We think so. Which is why it’s such a mystery that managers expect hourly employees to automatically treat customers in ways which so many doctors cannot.
You’re sitting in the doctor’s office and you’re scared to death. Maybe you’re the patient or maybe it’s a loved one, but your anxiety level is high. Your meet with the physician, who gathers information, presents a diagnosis and then talks about your treatment options.

Doctors are human, and sometimes their diagnoses and treatments of patients (who are their customers) don’t go as hoped. What’s interesting – and important for any of us who deal with customers of our own – is that the likelihood that a patient decides to sue his or her physician when this occurs has nothing to do with the quality of medical care provided.

A surprising predictor. One of my most interesting take-aways from Malcom Gladwell’s book, blink, was his review of a study involving how doctors interact with their patients and – in particular – how those interactions predict lawsuits.

Instead of clinician quality, the likelihood of a patient suing his doctor has a lot more to do with the types of conversations and relationships between doctor and physician leading up to the point where something goes wrong. In blink, Gladwell writes that they found:

  • No correlation between quality of care provided and likelihood of a malpractice suit.

  • A strong correlation with a patient’s impression of how he or she was treated – on a personal level –by the doctor.

  • That those surgeons who had never been sued spent more than 3 minutes longer with each patient than those who had been sued at least twice. (18.3 minutes vs. 15 minutes.)

Even more surprising, one study which Gladwell references involves participants who listened to recordings of conversations between doctors and their patients. The study participants quickly learned to differentiate between doctors whose tone and manner distanced themselves from their patients, or which might have even seemed imperious or condescending, and those who took even a small amount of time to establish a personal connection with their patients in the process of discussing diagnosis and treatment.

The latter group made orienting statements such as “I’ll take a few minutes to examine you, and we can discuss options”. They explained ahead of time that there would be plenty of time for questions; they diffused tension with humor; they made appropriate small talk along the way to put their patient at ease. Whereas the first group of doctors sounded cool and detached, the latter seemed relatively warm and approachable.

Guess which group of doctors was far more likely to have been sued during their careers for malpractice? That’s right – the doctors who failed to make those personal connections. In short, patients have a lot more patience with doctors whom they have been given reasons to like.

What’s even more remarkable is that the study participants could eventually predict with an extremely high degree of accuracy whether or not a doctor had been sued at least once within his or her career simply by listening to a few random moments of recorded interaction with patients. The difference was that pronounced.

How can someone so smart be so dumb? For a doctor, getting sued for malpractice can be devastating. Personally and professionally it can be a serious setback and very difficult to endure.

So, if failure was this predictable, why don’t more doctors protect themselves? Why don’t they make the adjustments in their bedside manners necessary to lower their risk for malpractice suit?

The answer is: because they’re blind to the risk. They lack the context to evaluate their own interactions and the data to understand the consequences of them. Seeing your own actions objectively is incredibly difficult, even for someone as highly educated as a physician.

Good Medicine. Losing a customer in your own organization might seem like a far cry from being sued for malpractice, but the cumulative effects of a steady drain of customer defections can be equally punishing on any company.

There are two lessons that we think you can apply from Gladwell’s chapter on malpractice. First, be sure that you’ve invested the time into talking with customer-facing employees about the importance of their not mistaking a professional tone for a detached one.

Study participants were able to divine whether or not a doctor was at risk for being sued just by listening to a few random moments of recorded patient conversations.  We'll bet you know just as quickly when your employees are putting you at risk with their approach to talking to customers. Getting this right sets the stage for more and better future discussions. And, as Gladwell points out, it does a great deal to build you a base of goodwill when things go wrong.

Second, be sure that you do everything you can to show employees objectively how customers perceive their interactions with employees.  A good start on this is to implement a policy of complete transparency when a customer complaint arises. If your employees can’t see firsthand how customers felt at how they were treated, you can’t expect them to make changes.

About the Author:  Max Israel is the founder of Customerville, a Customer Satisfaction Measurement Solution for Multi-unit Operators that can help you create happier customers and drive sales.

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