Unlock Supply Chain Strategies

The importance of a customer service mentality

Journal of Healthcare Contracting readers don’t need to be told, theirs is not a simple task.
On the one hand, contracting executives are expected to be the silent partners on the healthcare delivery team, efficiently delivering the tools of care to front-line providers. But on the other hand, if they’re too silent, their value may be underrated or misunderstood.

On the one hand, many in the hospital or IDN, frankly, don’t want to know what their supply chain team does, or how they do it…they just want what they want, when they want it. But on the other hand, this is the age of transparency, and – just as consumers track their UPS and FedEx shipments – healthcare end users want to know the status of their latest product/equipment/project request. They want to see how the sausage is made.
And on one hand, end users want the best and latest of everything. On the other, they know they have to help keep costs down.

Given all this, the contracting executive must do some soul-searching and ask herself some pointed questions:

  • Who’s my customer?
  • How do I keep him or her satisfied?
  • How do I know I’m keeping them satisfied?
  • How do they know what I’m doing to keep them satisfied?

Cornerstone of success
“Customer service is the cornerstone of success in any organization in order to drive value,” says Kathleen Krueger, president, ProMedica Supply Chain Management, Toledo, Ohio. “You must first identify and understand who your customer is before you can deliver on product and service, and share efficiencies in processes and purchases, which should be measured.”

Krueger knows something about both supply chain management and customer service. Throughout her career, she has held various positions in supply chain management, from manufacturing and sales of industrial products, to distribution services. Her undergraduate degree was in business. “From there, I went into a manufacturing role, which prepared me for working with vendors and a variety of suppliers.”

She worked for a global distributor, Hydraulic Supply Company, a global distributor of hydraulic and pneumatic components and systems, hose, fittings and connectors, electronic systems, and accessories.

Following that, she joined Kenakore Solutions, a Perrysburg, Ohio-based third-party logistics provider, where she stayed for 17 years – the last 14 of which she served as the company’s president and chief executive officer. At Kenakore, she oversaw a staff of 60 with a throughput of goods exceeding $80 million.

She joined ProMedica as president of the IDN’s supply chain operations in 2010.

No difference
Krueger says that customer service in the industrial setting and healthcare look very much the same. “In any setting, there is the direct customer of supply chain management, and then there is the organization’s customer … both of which are different.

As a support department, supply chain management’s customers are often internal – i.e., individuals within the organization.
“The ultimate goal is to successfully meet the needs of your internal customers – the people whom you touch each day – not the patient, who is far removed from supply chain management and so may seem a ‘lofty’ target to serve,” she says. “If supply chain management defines the customer as the patient, it may be easy to become complacent with your internal customers. Moreover, you may view internal customers as simply ‘coworkers’ within the organization instead of true ‘customers’ with whom you must build lasting, trusting relationships.”

What is customer service?
The building blocks of customer service are simple, continues Krueger. “Lessons learned about service excellence in other industries absolutely carry across industry lines, and what I learned in manufacturing and sales and distribution is true in health care. Simply put, knowing your customer, listening to the voice of your customer (such as through ongoing, direct conversations and/or surveys), bringing value to your customer, and then measuring your success, are crucial steps in customer service.”

Customer service is about accountability, reliability and integrity, she continues. “The foundation of exceptional customer service is building robust relationships. When your customers come to trust that you are responsible, reliable and honest, they will come back to you time and time again. These values are what build lasting, long-term relationships.”

Mark Faulkner, director of strategic supply chain management and sourcing, Partners HealthCare, Boston, Mass., believes the emphasis in healthcare has changed since he began his career in healthcare supply chain management 30 years ago. That said, there remain some constants in terms of customer service.

“Healthcare, overall, is a changed market, a changed world,” says Faulkner, who joined Partners’ corporate team in 2001. “In addition to delivering great patient care, there is added focus on expense, and how we can do better with less.” Providers need more products and services, in a timely fashion, in order to provide exceptional patient care. The contracting and materials team has a huge role to play in that effort, he says.

“Giving clinicians, physicians, administrators and others updated, prompt, accurate information is key to any organization’s success,” he says. His internal customers need detailed information about prices, contracts and new product opportunities in order to make the best clinical – and business – decisions. “They used to do much of that on their own, but today, they lean heavily on the supply chain leaders to get them that information.”

At press time, Partners was making plans to roll out a contract management tool that will allow end users to check on the status of ongoing projects, including contracts, item requests and new technologies. When the supply chain team makes adjustments to any project, they will notify interested end-users by e-mail, or customers can go into the system and check on their own. “It’s a tool that will help us provide great customer service,” he says. “It makes us more accountable, and, at the end of the day, it will validate [to customers] the work that we’re doing” to fulfill their requests.

End goal
“You must measure how well you’re doing, otherwise, you cannot claim success,” says Krueger. “To determine if you are succeeding in meeting your customers’ needs, you should routinely conduct surveys, listen to the voice of your customer, and craft your strategy around their needs.”

“[Surveys] give us the ability to focus on areas in which we’re not doing as well as we could,” says Faulkner.
If the supply chain executive has earned the trust of his or her customers, both sides win, according to those with whom the Journal of Healthcare Contracting spoke.

“ProMedica’s values of compassion, innovation, teamwork, and excellence tie in well with these necessary supply chain behaviors, and so I have found ProMedica’s internal customers very welcoming of our efforts to collaborate on gaining efficiencies and standardizing products to achieve value and savings,” says Krueger.

“The largest and most fulfilling payoff of providing exceptional customer service in healthcare supply chain management is employee and physician satisfaction, because ultimately that ensures high satisfaction for the patient – the organization’s customer,” she continues. But again, the supply chain team must maintain its focus on the people they touch in their role every day – that is, the caregivers and other internal customers.

“If you want a reward or notoriety or the ‘limelight’ for what you do, you shouldn’t be in supply chain management. Just as for the theater stagehand on Broadway, or the airline mechanic who makes the pilot and airline excel, the healthcare supply chain member’s role is to support the physician, respiratory therapist, dietary manager, and other internal customers to do their jobs better.”

Avoid common pitfalls, Krueger advises supply chain executives. The first is failing to know who your customers are. The second is failing to sell the value of your department to them, that is, failing to specifically define how supply chain can help them.

Supply chain teams need to keep their eye on the ball, day after day, week after week, says Faulkner. “Don’t think that because you’ve responded to [a question or need], you can ease off the pedal. To me, it’s more of a matter of continuing and sustaining that level of service. And you need to challenge yourself and your employees. You’re only as good as the people around you.”