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Customer service the new differentiator in aged care

Australia’s aged care sector has recently undergone what is arguably its most profound period of reform, with new legislation coming in earlier this year that affords clients and their families unprecedented choice regarding the facilities in which they reside.

This has big implications for businesses in an industry that isn’t known for great customer service or experience. Suddenly, they are now competing for clients that have full control over their financial affairs and more choice than ever before.

At the same time, the aged sector is showing signs of finally catching up with the digital age, made evident by the growing number of trip-advisor style ratings sites created in response to the growing demand for information by aged care clients and their families.

Digital disruption has forced organisations in many industries to change how they view customers, and to prioritise their happiness and satisfaction across all aspects of the business.
But for many organisations, designing and delivering best-practice customer experiences has required a big shift in mentality and, moreover, a big shift in culture.

This is expected to be the biggest challenge for the aged care sector over the next few years, as it has no choice but to deal with attitudes and patterns of behaviour ingrained in many aged care institutions over the past few decades.

Speaking at the recent LASA (Leading Age Services Australia) National Congress event in Sydney, a veteran aged care industry manager expressed the view that the current discussions about the importance of customer service and experience is just another business ‘fad’. But only a few weeks later, mainstream media outlets were abuzz with criticism of the sector’s poor handling of the influenza crisis, which saw aged care clients and their families struggle to access information about the risks and their impact.

These sorts of stories are familiar to most people interacting with the aged care industry, which has endured decades of negative press, ranging from patient and family frustration, to shock and horror.

Granted, aged care is an extremely challenging industry, with many complexities arising from the heightened sense of anxiety and trepidation experienced by clients and their families. With this in mind, a properly considered and deployed customer service framework will help to minimise the frequency and impact of these sorts of situations.

The International Customer Service Standard (ICSS) provides a robust framework to help organisations elevate a focus on customers to its rightful place in every core business function, such as sales, accounting or HR.

ICSS sets out a methodical and practical approach that requires input from every part of an organisation, from frontline staff right up to senior executive levels.

The priority for aged care institutions should be to foster a different mindset and corporate culture that places customer needs and expectations at the centre of all interactions.

This requires creating an environment where customer input is largely responsible for determining the product or service output, rather than where the supplier or service provider attempts to force a product or service on the customer, in the hope it will meet customer needs and generate loyalty.

For instance, the ICSS recommends that organisations work with customers to create a customer charter, setting out what they promise to do and deliver in clear terms. In the aged care sector where there is so much uncertainty and trepidation, initiatives like this are likely to be warmly received.

Of course, a sector like aged care is likely more in need of traditional customer service touches than most others. Personal contact and genuine empathy are critical to the wellbeing of clients and the happiness of their families.

Providing great customer experiences is much more than good intentions and friendly smiles. It’s also more than the prompt answering of emails and phone calls – possibly outside of normal hours – and ensuring all interactions are pleasant, polite and accommodating.

It requires using all tools and resources at your disposal to listen to internal and external customers to understand how their experience can be improved, then developing strategies and procedures for achieving these improvements. A true customer focus can lead to real business benefits spanning improved operations, more personalised services and offerings, increased loyalty and higher revenues per customer.

I know that sounds simple, but that’s because it is.

The real challenge for aged care organisations into the future is to live and breathe a focus on customers, and foster a culture that puts that at the centre of everything they do.

Anouche Newman is the CEO of the Customer Service Institute of Australia.


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