Service Excellence: Team Sport or Improve Troupe? Both!

En route to my most recent On the Road visit to Rush University Medical Center, I was privy to an exemplary service “moment.” My flight from Washington to Chicago should have been a simple 2-hour trip, but winter weather took hold and turned that short trip into an almost endless journey. It was a situation that for most would be stressful, frustrating and all too often one in which the customer is left “in the dark.” Rather, what occurred on this trip was an incredible orchestration of service that had what could have been a plane full of angry travelers leave with an appreciation for the care and attention they received.

I emphasize the word “moment” because too often service is viewed as a single encounter at one point in time. Rather, I suggest effective service is an integrated effort and a connection of experiences over time. In healthcare, I do not think any of us would suggest the valet at our front door, the person in admissions, the nurse on rounds, or the discharge manager represents the totality of the service experience in our facility. It is the work that these individuals do in concert with one another (whether consciously or not) that shapes the perceptions of a patient’s, family’s and support network’s overall experience.

While on my flight, I thought of the core elements of service excellence often suggested including ensuring the “right people” are hired and providing them with the “right words.” Selecting for fit is often easier to say than do and takes a significant commitment and patience in the hiring process. Scripting, while also a practice that generates positive results, still faces resistance and often raises the concern of removing the passion from the healthcare process. What stood out to me on the flight was that while these service keys may have been used, they represent fundamentally individual activities. The right individual or the right words only work in one-on-one encounters, yet as suggested above, our healthcare journeys are built on countless interactions.

What I experienced on that plane was a coordinated team effort, including consistent communication on our status from the flight deck and engagement by flight attendants who went above and beyond in reassuring concerned travelers about connections, while providing comfort with either beverages or blankets. It included the actions of the gate agent (when we needed to land in an alternative airport to refuel) who greeted us, kept us informed, and provided thoughtful options for travellers with specific needs. More importantly they were communicating with each other, across roles, in addressing the specific needs of the situation. The group of individuals interacted as a team, covering all aspects of our service needs at every moment of the experience. There were plenty of individual “moments of service,” but it was the synchronized actions of the group as a whole that led to service success.

Clearly this was not a typical situation for which these specific individuals could rehearse. What they had to do was improvise, not just as individuals, but rather through a coordinated effort that helped them best address the situation at hand. Unlike the story shared during my visit to Rush of the rental car shuttle driver who recited her complete script even though there was only one individual on the bus, they adjusted what they did to the situation. In service encounters, where no two individuals or experiences are exactly the same, improvisation becomes a critical team skill.

Service delivery, especially in our healthcare environment, cannot be over-structured. We need to create a team consciousness that helps our people realize they each play a part in the service picture and that every action they take is part of the overall patient encounter. We also need to challenge them to respond in the moment to what is needed.

While understanding the parameters of what is acceptable, we need to ensure these individuals have the ability to “dance in the moment” and share the passion for care that draws so many of us to this work. As we ask our patients to both take on the wholeness of their experience, while accepting the need for flexibility along their care journey, we too must recognize that service is a team sport, requiring agility and the need to improvise in order to ensure the greatest of patient experiences. Our flight “team” did just that, turning a “moment” into a service experience to be remembered.

Jason A. Wolf, Ph.D.
Executive Director
The Beryl Institute