What can we learn from the NHS?

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A clue- it's an activity that should be central to any business or organisation.

The answer is... a healthy attitude to customers.

Its easy to assume that pushing to improve customer focus is one of those activities thats seen in the most dynamic, entrepreneurial private companies, thirsty for new business and growth.

But its an activity that should be central to any business or organisation. Even the one that springs to many minds as the hugest, least profit-driven, least thrusting, most monolithic and bureaucratic of the lot: the NHS.

But the NHS is turning to successful companies, as well as leaders from within the health service at home and abroad, in a drive to improve customer focus and the service it offers patients.

A new NHS Confederation report, Great Expectations: what does customer focus mean for the NHS?, released early this summer, highlights examples of excellence in customer focus in organisations including John Lewis, Lloyds Pharmacy, Turning Point and BT as well as health bodies, and draws conclusions for the whole of the health service.

The report was launched as research by Ipsos Mori, commissioned by the NHS Confederation, revealed that 93 per cent of the public think it is important for the NHS to pay more attention to customer services such as friendlier staff, easier appointment booking systems, clearer information about treatment and better bedside manner.

In addition, in a survey of 337 NHS chief executives and chairs, 100 per cent concede that the NHS is not sufficiently customer focused at present. Of those, 43 per cent say a significant change in customer focus is required and 22 per cent believe it needs to be a fundamental change.

Great Expectations says the key to good customer focus is happy staff, as a contented workforce will provide more customer-focused services. The report also emphasises that customer focus needs to be driven from the top of any organisation and NHS leaders must endeavour to make sure that their staff receive job satisfaction. It concludes that a customer-focused workplace will give staff greater confidence and increase their ability to respond to patients needs, as well dealing with the stresses and strains of working life.

Dr Gill Morgan, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents over 90 per cent of NHS organisations, says: "Customer focus is about doing everything we can to make the patients experience as pleasant, straightforward and unstressful as possible. High satisfaction ratings in patient surveys show that NHS
providers are already doing well in this area, but there is always more that can be done. And in this age of rising expectations, customer focus has become a critical issue for all healthcare providers.

"The report shows that there is a great deal of good practice on excellent customer service – not only from the private and voluntary sectors, but also from within the NHS itself.

"Getting the best outcomes from the care we give to patients is vital but is not sufficient. We must think about the patient experience as a whole. It is about seeing things from the patients point of view and treating them as we would expect to be treated ourselves. Caring as well as curing is not an optional extra it is at the heart of good practice.

"What is striking from this report is that all the examples of excellent customer focus involve giving staff and the systems they work in more attention. As we move towards a more customer-focused health service, staff will have a key role in redesigning systems to ensure they are customer focused."

Among senior figures in organisations that have pursued excellence in customer focus, Simon Fowler, director of customer services with the John Lewis Partnership, echoes the sentiment expressed by Morgan. "You have to see your organisation through the eyes of your customers, and match this to your organisations vision of itself," he says. "Then you can spot the gaps between the two. You have to recognise that gaps do exist and that you need effective arrangements to put them right. What matters is the way you sort it out."

It clearly seems to be a message that is getting through to parts of the NHS, and if this, the very antithesis of a profit-driven organisation can manage to reap the benefits of better customer focus, there can be little excuse for any other business in the land.