Customer Service: Take the Long-Term View

Healthcare leaders and clinicians will win patient loyalty and create customer evangelists by following some basic customer service principles and taking a long-term view toward customer relationships.

About a month ago, I discovered a problem – my favorite regular-use bag for the last two years, a TOM BIHN Brain Bag, had a hole in its right front pocket due to a seam coming loose.

TOM BIHN Brain Bag with hole in right front pocket
My TOM BIHN Brain Bag with a hole in its right front pocket.

I probably could have lived with it but I was concerned that the pocket’s contents might fall out if the hole got any larger.

The TOM BIHN website states that repairs can be done for a fee. So I emailed the manufacturer to ask for a quote. After a few days, Eliam, their Customer Service Representative, replied and told me that I could either send the bag back to Seattle, WA, and they’d fix it at no charge or I could get a local company to do the repairs. I chose the first option.

I was responsible for shipping the bag to the US (which cost me almost $50!) but they’d pay for the shipping back to Malaysia. After nearly three weeks of using freebie bags picked up at various conferences, I finally received the long-awaited parcel from Seattle a couple of days ago.

And the outcome?

The crew at TOM BIHN fixed the broken seam, as I had requested and expected.

TOM BIHN Brain Bag right front pocket hole repaired
The hole in the right front pocket of my Brain Bag was repaired.

But they didn’t just do the repair; they did a whole lot more. The following photos show what else was done, without me even asking or knowing beforehand.

Zipper of front right pocket was replaced with a new one
The zipper of the front right pocket was replaced with a brand new one.
Shoulder harness was replaced with a new one
The shoulder harness was replaced with a brand new one.
Many straps and plastic hardware were replaced with new ones
Many straps and plastic hardware were swapped out for new ones.
Suspect seam was reinforced
A suspect seam was reinforced.

It also appears that the bag was cleaned and re-treated with water-resistant coating.

No doubt, this bag underwent a thorough quality check, and, as I put it in my email to Eliam yesterday, it’s now “new” but still my “old bag” – the best of both worlds for me. All in all, I was/am one happy TOM BIHN customer!

I apologize if this sounds like an informercial – the punchline is coming soon. In my delight, I started analyzing my customer experience.

Customer Service Mantras

I was reminded of the following well-known mantras in customer service:

1. Don’t Just Meet Customer Expectations. Exceed Them.

Sure, this company exceeded my (previously already high) expectations, going beyond the minimum. Although cliché, consistently delivering beyond customers’ expectations is something often talked about but rarely accomplished.

But TOM BIHN does this with high regularity – I should know; I own quite a few other TB bags and accessories besides the Brain Bag.

2. A Happy Customer Tells 3 Friends. An Unhappy One Tells 10.

Business is about relationships. And if you want to grow your business, you’d want to keep your customers happy, and particularly, keep them from being unhappy. This way, (free) word-of-mouth marketing will grow your business like wildfire.

3. Be Passionate About Your Work.

I have followed TOM BIHN, the company, for more than a decade and exchanged emails with the staff (including Tom Bihn, the boss, himself) on several occasions. If anything is clear, it’s the fact that these people are passionate about making great travel products and they do it well. They certainly understand why they’re doing what they do.

Take the Long-Term View

When I was first reflecting on my recent experience with TOM BIHN (my entire experience with the company, not only the return for repair described above), my impression was that this relatively small bag manufacturer in the USA could not be compared with hospitals and healthcare organizations. But I’ve reconsidered this point.

Think about this: here’s a manufacturing company that makes and sells bags. They deal primarily with physical goods. Even if their customer service standards were nowhere near what they are, people will still buy their products (at least in the short-term).

On the other hand, healthcare is a service industry. We ought to excel in customer service! What proportion of hospital administrators, doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals treat patients and their families with the level of respect and caring that they deserve? How consistently do they do this, on an individual basis and between different staff members? When a medical error occurs, how quickly does the healthcare team tell the patient and/or family that they’ll fix the problem right away and at no charge to the patient? (versus apportioning blame).

My experience is that the vast majority of hospitals (as an organization) and individual staff members become highly defensive when things go wrong and portray a duty to protect the organization only, instead of managing the situation in a fair and balanced way.

Unfortunately, the focus on short-term gains and a presumption that patients have little or no choice in their healthcare provider often leads to very average results in terms of customer satisfaction, even if all therapeutic goals were met.

Being disrespectful to patients and their families (or anyone else for that matter) is not OK – they will eventually seek care somewhere else.

On the other hand, healthcare managers and clinicians who take the long term view toward customer relationships and who embrace the customer service principles mentioned above will not only win patient loyalty but also create customer evangelists who will fuel their mission.