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Beyond Customer Service

We are all experts in customer service; after all, we are customers every day of our lives. Furthermore, as department managers, we need to ensure that our phones are answered quickly and courteously, that our clients and potential customers have short wait times and are treated with care and respect, that our customers receive accurate and timely results, and that we conduct periodic surveys to ensure that our high standards are maintained.

by Ronald B. Pickett
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Tips for making your lab more personalized, event-specific, and anticipatory

Situation 1 — “John Anderton, what you need now is a Guinness,” explains the holographic advertisement in the futuristic Tom Cruise movie, Minority Report. How does it know? By the ever-present retinal scanners on the street.

Situation 2 — The white linen napkin appears as the man reaches for his tie to clean his glasses. A glass of champagne magically materializes as he settles into his seat. The seat becomes a full-length bed as he stretches out for the long flight. A voiceover warbles, “In British Airways’ business class, we anticipate your every need.”

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Situation 3 — I’m sorting through my e-mail and see that Amazon has sent me a notice that a new book is available from an author whose books I’ve previously ordered. As I am completing my online order, it gives me a list of other books purchased by readers with the same interests.

We are all experts in customer service; after all, we are customers every day of our lives. Furthermore, as department managers, we need to ensure that our phones are answered quickly and courteously, that our clients and potential customers have short wait times and are treated with care and respect, that our customers receive accurate and timely results, and that we conduct periodic surveys to ensure that our high standards are maintained.1, 2

Technology, however, is driving the next phase of customer service. As cited in the examples above, those changes are:

  • Person-specific: highly related to the individual’s needs
  • Event-related: additional information is provided that is keyed to the specific research being undertaken
  • Anticipatory: we are able to identify and propose future needs

Application in the laboratory

This is not to suggest that you meet every client in the facility’s parking structure with a cup of coffee and a doughnut, or whatever his or her personal preferences are, although for your major customers that’s not a bad idea. Nor am I recommending that you send e-mails similar to the one I receive from my car dealership informing me that my car is due for an oil change. Laboratories are often constrained in the ways they can modify their service because of their physical space, overall workload and flow, privacy, and other legitimate concerns. But many are merely constrained by habits and “the box,” the one we are enjoined to move outside of. There are also privacy issues for clinical labs related to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) that restrict the ability to directly reach out to customers. Further, your research results can be highly confidential, restricting your ability to use your successes to expand your customer base. How can you and your laboratory take advantage of the customer service revolution within those restrictive walls?

Who are your customers?

Clarification of your customer base is the first step. Sometimes this is not as easy a question to answer as it seems. Particularly in complex organizations with numerous complicated relationships, clarity about the customers is a challenge. Here are some definitions:

  • Customers: the people who pay your bills and receive your product or service
  • Internal customers: the people who are directly connected to the organization, as opposed to external customers
  • External customers: the kind of people we usually think of

It is important to spend some time clarifying for your staff who your customers are, and helping define how they are to be treated. Often in a long-term affiliation there is a tendency to take customers for granted, and to move into a collegial and close personal relationship. While there can be some excellent outcomes from this association, it is vital to keep the true nature of the relationship clear to everyone on your staff.

When I talk to laboratory managers about organizational politics, I often ask the audience, “What can you do or what do you know that others in your organization can benefit from?” I’m usually met with a room full of blank stares. This is not a question people typically consider. But with a little work and some thinking, the group is able to develop a list of laboratory management capabilities that have the potential to be useful for others in the wider organization. These typically include:

  • Good analytical skills and processes management
  • Attention to detail
  • Experience with integrating automation
  • Skill with upgrading information technology
  • Capacity to improve communication of results
  • Ability to adapt to change

These skills and capabilities open up several possibilities for moving into the new world of personalized, event-specific, and anticipatory customer service.

New directions in customer service

How can you look at your operations, your customers, and your services in ways that will lead to a more specific, anticipatory, and eventrelated environment (i.e., “X” result on “Y” test should lead to “Z” response) without infringing on a physician’s prerogative? It is worth noting that hospital-based pharmacists have begun to take a much more active role in monitoring drug usage and possible interactions, and in interpreting test results, than in the past; moreover, they have begun to work closely with physicians and nurses in this area, which tells me that the same progress can be made in the clinical laboratory.3

Begin by analyzing the processes you have in place:

  • Are you customer-friendly?
  • Are your systems aimed at providing customer-oriented reports?
  • Does your staff look at their work from a customer’s perspective?

Second, ask your customers, stakeholders*, and staff the following questions:

  • What would your customers like that they are not currently getting from your lab?
  • What are your customers telling you about your laboratory’s service quality and orientation?
  • What are vendors telling you about the needs and wants of your customers?

Third, take a look into the future:

  • Which technical changes will reduce the “hands-on” nature of the laboratory business?
  • What trends are you seeing that relate to the cost of tests or overlapping batch processes?
  • How should you modify and expand your information processing to add a higher level of personalized customer support?
  • Which company do you know that is a leader in this field?
  • What are the “best practices” available?

Going beyond

One of the skills I have found to be common among the best managers I have worked with is the ability, nearly a compulsion, to see applications for new knowledge in unusual areas. What will you find in your review of trends in customer service that can be applied elsewhere in your lab and management style?

There are possible applications in quality control and management, staff involvement in decision making, improved interaction with internal customers, and a wide variety of additional areas.

A challenge

Perhaps the most important underlying themes beneath these suggestions are: “How do we define and position ourselves for the future? Are we going to be responders who wait for business and who rest on our laurels, or should we begin to take a more aggressive stance in defining and promoting our capabilities and potential?”

Taking an innovative stance may require navigating numerous potholes, detours, and hazards, but it can also lead to a far wider, more influential, and more prestigious role for your department, and the impact will be felt broadly.

If you have success stories about making the lab more personalized, event-specific, and anticipatory, please send them to me at to help me develop a follow-up article that incorporates these kinds of personal laboratory experiences.

*Stakeholder: A person, group, or organization that has interest or concern in an organization. Stakeholders can affect or be affected by the organization’s actions, objectives, and policies. Some examples of key stakeholders are creditors, directors, employees, government (and its agencies), owners (shareholders), suppliers, unions, and the community from which the business draws its resources.

Clinical Laboratory Customer Service Ideas

The following list was developed for clinical laboratories, so many of you will have to modify the concepts so they can apply in your environment. While the opportunities will vary among laboratories, here are some thoughts to consider (note that several of these recommendations will need to be approved by physicians and other practitioners):

  1. Have a computer in your waiting room permanently set to the Lab Tests Online website. You might consider listing the site as a reference on your printed reports or on your business card as well as including the reference on the reports you submit. Other consumer-friendly sites include
  2. Give ordering practitioners the opportunity to select the degree of detail they choose to receive in their laboratory results to match the personality and level of interest for individual patients.
  3. Join your pathologist in a presentation on new tests at Grand Rounds.
  4. Analyze your outlying clinics. Do the location, staffing, capability, and hours of operation match your patients’ homes and work sites? Develop a protocol to check for duplicate or overlapping tests. Has test X been performed for this patient within Y number of days? Does test Q give results that are substantially the same as those that will come from test X? These options might be emailed immediately to ordering practitioners for consideration and confirmation.
  5. Have copies of recent popular articles on testing procedures, testing protocols, and results interpretation available, or attach them to reports you send.
  6. Have the option of sending results by email or fax directly to patients. (However, make sure that the e-mail address or fax machine you send to is adequately secure and approved by the patient. Investigate the possibility of including previous test results on some reports (personally, I like to compare my previous blood test results with the current one).
  7. Keep up to date on new tests that are available over the counter.4
  8. Develop a list of tests that patients can order for themselves and ensure that the interpretation of results is by a qualified professional.