1. If you want to stem patient dissatisfaction, stop giving off cues of indifference and uncaring. Such as: Healthcare professionals avoiding eye contact with “civilians.” Med students hurrying self-importantly down the halls, nearly running down the slow-moving patients who won’t get with the program. Patients ignored by nurses who haven’t yet clocked in and therefore don’t realize they are already (poorly) representing their institution. Doctors in the hallway loudly carrying on about the relative benefits of different Canyon Ranch vacations they’ve taken. Two radios playing at once from two administrative areas (with the waiting area for patients and their families located equidistant to both). Vending machines that are left out of service indefinitely. Vending machines that require exact change, but there’s no change machine.

2. Strive actively to experience your care the way that your patients do. Park where the patients do. See how easy it is/isn’t to get to the front door on crutches. Take a tour of your hospital with someone who hasn’t been there before, and let them show you whether they can really find where they’re going. You’ll be amazed how many mis-aligned, out of date, confusing signs you have. It all makes intuitive sense to you, of course, because you have been in your building enough times that you know your way around in your sleep (Literally, I suspect.) And, once a year, do a “full bladder exercise”: Everyone who works with patients should drink two or three liters of water–it is incredible how your perception of a “reasonable delay” between call button and response changes when you have a full bladder.

3. Get every employee thinking about purpose, not just functions. A particularly crucial aspect of great patient service is ensuring that every employee—from orientation onward –understands her particular underlying purpose in your organization and appreciates its importance. An employee has both a function—his day-to-day job responsibilities—and a purpose—the reason why the job exists. (For example, ‘‘To create successful medical outcomes and hospitable human experiences for our patients” is a purpose. “To change linens” is a function. A properly trained and managed employee will know to—and will be empowered to—stop changing linens if creating successful medical outcomes or being hospitable require a different action at the moment. And afterward, she will be celebrated for doing so, not scolded for being a few short in the number of linens changed.

4. “Sorry” may be the hardest word, but it’s a word that everyone on your team needs to learn. Resolving patient issues means knowing how to apologize for service lapses pointed out by a patient. It means getting rid of the defensiveness (or, at best: apathy) that tends to mar the healthcare industry when confronted by a patient upset with what she perceives to be a service gaffe. Instead, take your patient’s side in these situations, immediately and with empathy, regardless of what you think the “rational” allocation of “blame” should be. And spread this approach throughout your staff through role-playing and other training devices, so it will serve you fully every time a patient hits the fan.

5. Teach your employees – every single one – how to handle a patient or family member’s complaint or concern. Even if handling the concern means “I’m finding you someone right now who can address this” it’s far better than “I can’t help you, I’m the wrong person.”

6. If you want to improve, strive to create a blame-free environment. As the founder of the Ritz-Carlton is fond of saying, “If a mistake happens once it may be fault of employee. If it happens twice, it is most likely the fault of the system.” So, they get to work fixing the system. This blame-free system has worked to help The Ritz-Carlton build a great culture, and it can do the same for your hospital.

7. Understand that improving patient satisfaction is about systems just as much as it is about smiles. When we discuss improving patient satisfaction and the patient experience, physicians often think we are going to focus on making them “smile harder.” While genuine warmth and smiles are of value here, so are systems. For example, when Mayo Clinic overhauled their scheduling system they employed (according to the great Leonard L Berry) industrial engineers using stopwatches to time wheelchairs between appointment locations in order to ensure that correct scheduling algorithms were created.

8. Benchmark outside healthcare. One of the biggest obstacles to improving the patient experience in healthcare is the industry’s insular nature and the way this makes its problems self-reinforcing. In other words, healthcare providers and institutions compare themselves to each other – to the hospital in the next town, the surgeon in the next O.R. – and benchmark their customer service accordingly. And to do so is to set the bar too low. It’s not as if patients stop being consumers – customers – when they put on a hospital gown. And it’s not as if their loved ones surrender their identities as businesspeople, twitterers, Facebook users, either, when they enter your institution. So, it’s time to benchmark healthcare customer service against the best in service-intensive industries, because that’s what your patients and their loved ones will do. Every patient’s interaction with healthcare is judged based on expectations set by the best players in hospitality industry, the financial services industry, and other areas where expert players have made a science of customer service.

By Micah Solomon