Customer service SOS: How will John Lewis save the NHS?

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Faced with growing criticism of patient care and demand for better ‘customer’ experience, the NHS has turned to retailer John Lewis to help improve service in a move that has been both welcomed and scoffed at.

As reported by the BBC, retail staff at the store made famous for its excellent customer service will be re-educating NHS doctors in Devon in a new bedside manner that focuses on the needs of the patients.

Jenny Winslade, chief nurse at the Northern, Eastern and Western Devon Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), which includes GPs and other health workers and is responsible for buying health services in the area, told the BBC: “Customers have a great experience at John Lewis so the opportunity to partner with them is absolutely brilliant. It should have a great effect on how we commission health care."

And Kate Connock, store manager at the John Lewis Exeter branch responsible for training the NHS staff, said it had provided “great insight” for the firm into how a “huge organisation handles its challenges".

“It may look as if we have little in common but whether private or public, our concerns and opportunities are very similar. These are two great organisations with a long heritage and history, but made successful by its people for its customers, so there is lots of synergy in the way we work with our teams,” she said.

The news that the public sector turned to retail for customer service best practice may come as a surprise to some but choosing to heed the advice of retail's king of customer service, John Lewis, is not so. Since it first opened its doors in 1864, satisfaction has been the key tenet of the retailer's strategy, introducing a slogan in 1926 reflecting this – "Never knowingly undersold” – which it still uses to this day. For the last two years, the retailer has taken the crown for providing the best customer service, according to the Institute of Customer Service’s UKCSI ranking.

And it’s not just John Lewis customers that demonstrate a high level satisfaction with the store. The retailer’s employee ownership scheme, which enables staff to become beneficiaries of a trust that shares profit and be involved in key management decisions, has also been linked to high employee satisfaction and often cited as the leading example of a successful employee stock ownership plan.

But how can these accolades be transferred to the healthcare sector to improve both patient satisfaction and staff morale?

Shared satisfaction

Simon Kenwright, director of engagement at brand engagement specialist agency Maverick, believes that the partnership is a bold move by the NHS, signalling a new commitment to tackling HR and employment issues in an innovative way.

“With a number of challenges facing the NHS, the organisation can learn a great deal from the way in which John Lewis works,” he says. “Firstly, John Lewis is renowned for training staff in providing extraordinary service, with the retailer regularly topping customer satisfaction polls. The iconic retailer’s approach ensures that clients come first, and the NHS needs to adopt the same guiding principle. Understanding how to harness the qualities that enable connections to be made on a human level makes a huge difference.

“Empathy, clear communications and support all inspire trust, the bedrock of any successful relationship, whether that’s a 30 second interaction on the shop floor or a 30 year relationship with your GP. Similarly, being seen to go above and beyond builds trust and reassurance that you and your concerns matter, and therefore builds loyalty.”

He adds that whilst profit sharing in the form of an employee ownership scheme is not possible for the NHS or its staff, the organisation could still emulate John Lewis’ stock ownership plan with reward models that demonstrate the importance of customer care and demonstrate to staff a clear link between performance and rewards.

Carolyn Blunt, owner of Real Results Training, suggested that getting NHS staff to adopt a service attitude under the partnership will be no easy feat. “Even just seeing patients as customers will be a new mindset for some doctors,” she says.

“A key point for frontline customer service staff recruitment is to recruit the smile and the positive service attitude, the rest you can train. For the role of a doctor there is much more training to be done, and so this approach is not as easy.”

But some are far more optimistic of the benefits the initiative can bring to the NHS. Ian Ayliffe, a member of our Google+ customer experience community, said: “It´s great that the NHS patient is being seen more as a customer as oppose to a number. This shows great management as the Doctors will get to learn from some of the best in the customer service field.  Learn from the best! It saves a lot of time to get the desired results.”

Marcus Longley, professor of applied health policy at the University of South Wales, added: “There is no doubt that the best of our retail industry does customer service better than the average of the public sector. There may well be real merit, therefore, in John Lewis helping doctors and other healthcare professionals think afresh about those aspects of care that aren't clinical, but still matter to people. 

And Jo Causon, chief executive of the Institute of Customer Service, addressed the issue of disparity between the two organisations: “Though John Lewis and the NHS deliver different types of services, and use different operating models, they share many of the same customers and there is potential for significant learning for both organisations,” she said.

“John Lewis achieved high scores across the range of customer satisfaction priorities [in the UKCSI] and scored  particularly strongly on measures to do with employee engagement and attitude, such as friendliness, helpfulness and professionalism of staff – these are key attributes that can be applied to all sectors. By embedding these qualities consistently across an organisation, it is possible to improve customer satisfaction, employee engagement, and achieve greater organisational efficiency.”

So are there any specific lessons that can be learned? Tony Cram from Ashridge Business School provided three key lessons that John Lewis can pass on to the NHS:

  • Every face in front of you is an individual, not a patient nor a shopper but an individual with unique needs, hopes, and fears. Respect their individuality and use your expertise to answer their needs.
  • If you have bad news (it's not in stock or not available in your colour), give the news as quickly as possible AND then find ways of helping to deal with the situation your customer faces
  • Finish each encounter so well, that every person you serve will leave saying something positive about you and your organisation

Synergy cynics

However, whilst John Lewis’ Kate Connock and Jo Causon believe that there is a great deal of synergy between the two organisations, not everyone agrees.

Daniel Todaro, MD at marketing agency Gekko, highlighted a key difference between the two: “The very fact that John Lewis is a retailer and the NHS is a service should be an immediate red flag,” he says. “If you shop in John Lewis, you are there by choice whereas if you’re in A&E it’s likely that you really didn’t have much of a choice in the matter; it’s a question of need.

“This is the crux of the issue; how do you translate the needs of a John Lewis shopper to that of a patient? It is true that John Lewis offer a best in class, successful retail experience with the human element at its core, but a health care provider and a retailer have zero points of synergy.”

“As good as the John Lewis model is, it applies to retail and not to an under-resourced not-for-profit public organisation.”

The proof of this unique collaboration between the public sector and retail’s golden child will essentially be in the eating – whilst it poses strong benefits in theory, only by putting the proposals into practice will the NHS understand if there are lessons to be learned from John Lewis.

About Natalie Steers

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