When Bad Systems Happen to Good People | Person in Laboratory

When Bad Systems Happen to Good People

I needed to get some routine blood work done a few weeks ago, and the doctor recommended that I use the hospital network his practice was affiliated with. My schedule was packed and the hospital was not close, so I found a major testing company that was closer to home and gave them a call.

Bad Systems

I was greeted by an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system — nothing wrong with that, at first — but the IVR only gave me two choices: book the appointment using the phone keypad or book online. I had a question about my test however, and I needed to speak to a human. I was already tight on time, so I wanted to make sure my question was answered to avoid showing up at the lab and having to go back another day. Since I couldn’t get a human, I bailed on the private company and called the hospital my doctor had recommended.

“Bad” People

When Bad Systems Happen to Good People | Person in LaboratoryUpon calling the hospital, I was not confronted with bad systems but instead with less than helpful frontline reps. The person who answered the phone was rude at first but then, oddly, turned extremely nice. I’m not sure if she had started the call a bit distracted or her boss had just walked into the room. Certainly, it was not a great first impression, but it was one from which the hospital could have easily recovered.

If only.

I was then transferred to the lab itself. The rep who answered the phone in the lab was extremely curt. The entire conversation consisted of him replying in one word and short single sentence answers. The exchange gave me zero confidence in the lab, its professionalism, or its ability to perform tests properly.

Sadly, when we’re discussing healthcare, I believe that this type of unfeeling service becomes an ethical issue on some level. My tests were routine, but imagine those people recently diagnosed with an illness or calling for a sick child. A little compassion and communication is the least one would expect. Certainly, poor service in healthcare is not new (in fact, I have written about my ridiculous healthcare customer service story before), but it can really impact those on the receiving end in a way that bad customer service at the mall cannot.

In healthcare, a little customer service can go a long way.

Good Systems

To recap: I had bailed on the lab company in favor of the hospital because the lab company’s systems did not allow me to speak with a human or ask a question. At the hospital, I easily spoke with people but was treated unprofessionally and had little confidence in their service.

Now I had to decide what to do. The only reason I was willing to make the extra drive to the hospital was I had been turned off by the personless “customer service” systems of the lab company; however, the hospital’s customer service was so bad, why bother driving. If I am going to have bad customer service, it might as well be convenient.

So I went back to the lab company’s website and began the process of signing up online. The rude rep at the hospital had already half answered my question, and I figured I could always just call the doctor’s office to get the answer.

Fortunately, once I began the registration process on the lab company’s website, I discovered that its system was pretty easy to use. The instructions were clear, the process was simple, and the follow-up emails were helpful and answered common logistical questions. It was actually a pretty good experience once you got past the fact that you were forced to use it because of the lack of a human option.

Good People

The experience at the lab itself was perhaps one of the best customer experiences I’ve had in healthcare. The receptionist greeted me with a smile and used positive language when I signed in. When I went back to speak with him and pay, he was genuinely friendly and more importantly, would briefly look past me while he was working to wish the people leaving the lab behind me a good day. He didn’t miss a one, and he never did it in a way that distracted from our process or made me feel he was not focused on me.

Of course, some people gave him a warm good-bye in return, some acknowledged with a smile and “you too,” and some semi-acknowledged him and kept walking. No matter. He said good-bye to each patient with the same enthusiasm as the first one. I wish I could have hired him.

The nurse (phlebotomist technically, but I just don’t think I can write that word too many times) was great also. She had a warm greeting, good communication, and made the process as painless as possible. I joked with her that I was anxious for her to stick me with a needle. She looked at me, smiled, and said “you are?”

“Yes,” I replied. “I want to eat.”

We joked around the whole time. She was a refreshing change from the often dour personages that I have had take my blood before.

When Bad Systems Happen to Good People

What was interesting about this experience was that this company seemed to have a truly customer-centric culture. They had a core value on the wall behind the receptionist that spoke about “patients first.” Of course, there are millions of it’s-all-about-the-customer placards scattered across organization walls around this country, many of which are not worth the paper they are printed on. In this case, the lab company truly lived up to it.

The challenge for this company is that their first impression is an impersonal process that is poorly communicated. In healthcare, where people have concerns that truly concern them, this impersonal approach is all too common and all too distressing. In the case of this company, it seems like an oversight however — a customer-centric company that has a major hole in its customer journey.

3 Lessons

Here are three quick lessons from the above experience that can be applied to customer-facing systems:

  • Overcommunicate up front. If you truly think automated systems are the best way to go, then make sure you understand the key concerns and questions that your customers will have. Give them an idea of the process before they begin the process. Most people do not like to jump into a voice menu or online registration process without some prep. “This process will take about three minutes.” “You will need your driver’s license and insurance card.”
  • Always have a human option. At the beginning of the process, you should note that you have a human out. “If at any time you want to speak to a representative, press zero.” Online, make the human options, whether phone or live chat, clear at the beginning of the process and make sure it is prominently accessible on every screen of the process, like Zappos.
  • Have great follow-up. The lab company’s system did this well, but many organizations drop the ball at this crucial step. Make sure that your follow-up communication is on point. Send frequently asked questions, directions, and of course, prominently placed contact information for further questions.

When you’ve worked hard to create a great customer-centric culture and to get the people side of the customer experience down (generally, the hardest part), it is important to make sure that your systems support the creation of great customer experiences and do not prevent customers from experiencing the rest of the amazing journey with your organization.


By Adam Toporek. Adam Toporek is an internationally recognized customer service expert, keynote speaker, and workshop leader. He is the author of Be Your Customer's Hero: Real-World Tips & Techniques for the Service Front Lines (2015), as well as the founder of the popular Customers That Stick® blog and co-host of the Crack the Customer Code podcast.

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