Believing that customer service is the battleground where patients will be won, South Essex Partnership foundation trust has recently implemented a renewed customer service strategy.

The trust believes, as reported by Ipsos MORI in Frontiers of Performance in the NHS, that, for patients, compassion is more important than clinical performance when it comes to patient choice.

MORI found that 90 per cent of the variation between trusts in patient satisfaction is down to three factors: being treated with dignity and respect, being involved in decisions about care, and perception of a clean environment. All of which are concerned with how patients are treated as people, rather than how they are treated for their condition.

Patient experience

In a bid to push the patient experience agenda to the fore, South Essex Partnership commissioned consultancy April Strategy to work alongside it in developing new customer-first values and a set of service standards radical enough to improve their reputation with patients and lead to better business performance.

Trust director of performance and business development Peter Wadum-Buhl explains: "For years, we've been told patient experience must improve, but it's been finding a way to do that. Our approach has been to become unapologetically commercial and start embracing our clients as customers. We didn't want another paper-based exercise, we wanted a radical way to challenge the culture, behaviours and capability throughout the organisation. We needed to get the message across to staff that only by clients choosing to use our services do we all have a job. In the emerging world of NHS choice, we need to be working not only to satisfy but win more patients to thrive. And customer service is central to this."

With the involvement of clients, staff and stakeholders, the trust and consultancy set about developing a corporate strategy, at the heart of which sat the new brand: "in tune with individuals".

New standards

Critical to implementing the customer service strategy was developing a new set of service standards that all staff are being trained to deliver.

The 13 standards range from the simple - such as always giving "positive hellos and goodbyes" - to the more challenging, such as providing smooth hand-offs when clients move from one service to another (for example, by calling the client after one and seven days to ensure they are happy with their new team).

Like successful retailers, staff are asked to imagine that they are "on stage" in any area where customers may go, to keep their ears and eyes open for customers in need and to maintain a positive and comfortable environment.

In a bid to enforce the customer service strategy's position at the heart of its business, the trust has changed its performance management and appraisal processes to highlight progress against the standards.

Raising standards

Compliments are on the rise and they are now logged (along with complaints) under service standard categories, with immediate feedback to teams. Staff appraisal and performance management are also based on the standards. Twenty "mystery shoppers" have been recruited to offer constant feedback from the client perspective.

It is early days, but clinical staff have said focusing on customer service from start to finish means customers are in a better frame of mind to engage with their treatments.

Peter Wadum-Buhl concludes: "There is more than one reason to be compassionate. Yes, we owe it to patients, but in the increasingly competitive world of choice, NHS organisations ignoring the needs of patients as customers could be the difference between success and failure."