Quality Corner: How Do You Get Quality Customer Feedback?

Developing personal relationships is still the most effective way to improve interagency relationships, resolve problems and improve customer service


Acquiring customer feedback is a valuable management tool for any service-related business. But this is a tough nut to crack. Anyone who’s tried getting this feedback by conventional means— typically a survey form—will tell you it’s extremely difficult. Restaurants try to bribe customers with discount offers on their next meal or a chance to win prizes, and still do not get an overwhelming number of replies. Generally speaking, unless a customer has had a very unpleasant experience, most people don’t have the time, interest or patience to provide any feedback.

Shortly after taking over as quality improvement coordinator at Bucks County Rescue Squad, I searched the Internet for keywords that could help me figure out how to do this new job. One of the first items to come up was customer satisfaction surveys. Aha, this is gold, I thought, pure gold. No one at my agency had probably ever thought to do this before. The very next day I went to see the chief to brainstorm what might be the best questions to ask, confident he’d be impressed with my idea.

“We already tried that about six months ago,” he replied. Thud! Another blow to my self-imagined brilliance. “We mailed out 50 surveys,” he explained. “Simple things, just five questions, large print, along with self-addressed envelopes,” he added. “We got exactly one reply back.” Needless to say we can’t afford to do any more customer satisfaction surveys.

Every Question Has an Answer, Every Problem Has a Solution

I was a system analyst in my former life. And the one thing about system analysts is, we may retire, but we never stop analyzing. We’re always looking for a better way to do things. I’m a firm believer that every question has an answer and every problem has a solution.

I started to ponder the problem with survey forms. I always declined to take any myself. They were an inconvenience. Likewise, I declined taking any surveys by the people roaming the malls with clipboards. I always felt it was an assault on my time, which was too precious.

Unless there is a burning issue—very good or very bad—the same feelings probably prevail with our patients and their families. So what other ways are there of getting customer feedback? I recalled having been tricked into a telephone survey, most often if they promised up front that there were only three questions or the survey wouldn’t take more than a couple minutes. So, for me, the most effective method seemed to be a short telephone survey.

The one advantage we might have in EMS is, unlike a meal at a restaurant, if patients or their families were asked to share their opinions on the heels of an intense personal experience, most would seemingly want to share their thoughts. Additionally, if a survey asked for more open-ended thoughts and opinions, rather than sticking to a rigid framework, it might seem more personal. And I started to think it might just work.

The next day, I put my theory to the test. Lo and behold, I ended up with a nearly 80% response rate. Every individual who picked up the phone cooperated. Most even thanked me for the follow-up. About half of the calls initially went to voice mail, but most of those people ended up returning my call. I also decided to try a little experiment. For some calls I identified myself as a deputy chief, while on others I introduced myself as the quality coordinator. Not everyone wanted to talk to the quality coordinator, but everyone seemed willing to speak with the deputy chief, probably owing to the more “important” and familiar title. It didn’t take long before I always identified myself on the calls as the deputy chief.

Turning Stumbling Blocks into Stepping Stones

No sooner had I sat down the next evening, basking in the satisfaction of another problem solved, when the definition of our extended customers struck me. Yes, our primary customers are our patients, but there are others we serve and work with as well. It occurred to me that important information on our performance and potential for improvement may be obtainable from these other customers.

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