Customer care’s importance in occupational health

Customer care and client relationships can make or break the reputation of OH providers. Director of Working Well Solutions Jane Coombs shares some tactics to promote a harmonious working relationship.

Two of the key issues when starting any business are relationships with clients and exceptional customer care. Dealing with people in a service industry is the biggest long-term problem faced in business. When dealing with health issues and health-related matters in a non-clinical setting, this becomes even more important – not so much to the client, patient or service user, but for management and the stakeholders who are purchasing your services.

The personality of the practitioner is important to form a relationship, which is fundamental for developing a professional rapport with patients, upholding their dignity and respecting their privacy.

In the workplace, this relationship can be difficult to maintain because of other priorities – for example, maintaining production outputs and appeasing demanding managers can be a source of conflict for health professionals.

So many times I have seen excellent health work being done, but the practitioner’s attitude about management has made life intolerable to the parties involved, leading to an inevitable parting of ways.

Focus on the person in front of you

Something that I found helped me in my early days of working in OH was to consider that the manager, standing there and shouting or getting cross because I had recommended a rehabilitation programme for a key worker, may have his own set of problems.

Any of the following could be influencing the manager’s behaviour:

  • not meeting a deadline because of my recommendations;
  • work stress caused by overwork and a lack of sleep;
  • domestic issues;
  • personal performance issues; and/or
  • not enough resources to meet the current demands.

Now, when I am confronted by an angry or aggressive manager I think of them as a patient who needs my professional help.

This may seem patronising, but by treating the aggressor with respect and compassion, and looking at it from their perspective, we are able to discuss alternatives to my original suggestion and come up with a win-win solution.

Using this approach and keeping that example in the back of my mind has made me a better OH practitioner.

Strategy in action

Recently, I shared this philosophy with a colleague I was mentoring. She was having difficulties with a supervisor and was at the stage where she wanted to “punch his lights out”.

Following this strategy completely changed the dynamics of the whole situation for her and was a point at which her OH practice changed forever – I believe it is called a paradigm shift. Try this approach the next time you are faced with a difficult manager. (Incidentally, it also works with family, friends and your children!)

Just as each OH service is different for each business, so is the culture of each organisation. For example, there are some things you could say on a construction site that would not go down well if you were working in local council offices. Clothes you would wear to work in a foundry would not be acceptable in a bank. Practitioners must adapt their behaviour to fit in if they want to become part of the company and long-term OH providers.

In order to remain successful in OH, it is important to maintain integrity, honesty and build trust with the purchasing organisation. We would all like to think that this is how we live our lives, so everyone assumes there is an automatic tick in that box.

quotemarksIn order to remain successful in OH, it is important to maintain integrity, honesty and build trust with the purchasing organisation.”

I have talked to many owners, managers, HR staff and safety workers who have a poor opinion of their OH service provider – and their complaints are not usually about how work is done or because of ethical considerations around confidentiality or patient dissatisfaction.

Nature of complaints

Many of the complaints about workplace health service I have come across fall into one of five categories:

  1. Not adding value – that is, a lack of professional help or opinion beyond that which the client already knows or has tried.
  2. The reports back to the customer are considered to be unhelpful or confusing, or too employee focused.
  3. The manager is unable to contact the right person when clarification or explanation regarding the report is required.
  4. The OH provider does not understand how the client’s organisation works.
  5. The OH service provider is not able to provide staff and clinics when required – for example, at night or during evening shifts – or fails to attend at short notice.

Consider the experience and understanding of the organisation or manager in question when writing a report and tailor it accordingly. If in doubt, check details before committing opinions to paper. Clients rarely complain directly to an OH service unless the situation is serious. Service users tend discuss the situation between themselves and compare experiences. Even if only a few managers have had a bad experience, the chances are that this will be discussed in the boardroom and trust will be lost. Managing the contract will then become difficult, as all managers will expect problems and be hypersensitive to errors.

Top tips for success

Clients rarely give negative feedback to doctors and nurses face to face, if it can be avoided. Businesses are also often confused by how OH works, because it seems that customer care is directed at employees of the business rather than at the business that is paying for the service. OH service providers wanting to be successful in the long term should focus on avoiding these common gripes using the following tips:

  • Use the telephone more. This is at the top of any strategy for communication with the client. Many situations are accidentally made worse by a thoughtless word or perceived tone in an email.
  • Ensure that when setting up a new OH contract you visit the work site and any high-risk areas and talk to the main users of the service – for example, HR, safety managers or senior management.
  • Allocate a contract leader and point of contact for each contract.
  • Schedule regular contract review meetings with an agenda for discussion.
  • Provide regular reports back to management regarding performance against key performance indicators and any issues that arise.
  • Keep everything as simple as possible. Managers are busy people and do not have time to read five-page reports with medical terminology and dis-claimers throughout.
  • Use plain English and keep reports and emails short and to the point. Only use complex technical language or medical terminology when losing an argument – it works every time.
  • If a report is going to be controversial or may create problems for the organisation – for example, allegations of bullying and harassment or work-related stress – be aware that any reports and records you write may become available to courts in legal proceedings. Check details or facts with the organisation before committing to paper or a computer file.
  • Be reliable. Setting up a clinic for, say, 15 workers to have lung-function testing takes a lot of organisation by an employer. Shifts may have to change, production rates may have to be altered, and the time taken to send out appointments and arrange the distribution of questionnaires, plus answering questions from anxious workers, can become an eight-hour job. Think very carefully before cancelling a visit as it can leave the organisation out of pocket and patience. OH service providers should have back-up plans for this situation.

    quotemarksConsider the experience and understanding of the organisation or manager in question when writing a report, and tailor it accordingly.”

  • Always ensure that the medical advice given is research- or evidence-based by checking developments in treatment and advances in technology with reputable sources on a regular basis.

Finally, customer service is about the quality of your service and adding value to the organisation. I believe value means “helping” with the use of professional skills to interpret individuals’ and groups’ health needs and translating that back to management in an easily understood way.

Jane Coombs MSc RGN CMIOSH OHNC DMS is director of Working Well Solutions. This article is an excerpt from her book How to Start a Healthy Business: An Insider’s Guide to Occupational Health Success. She can be seen talking about the book.


Keyes-Evans O, Woods A (2013). “Marketing occupational health: exploring the purchaser perspective”. Occupational Medicine; vol.63, no.1, pp.66-69.

Case study: absence management

I worked as the OH group manager and used a contracted OH service for absence management. I was asked to see a manager who had a number of staff off sick, all of whom had been referred to the OH provider for case management.

The manager was frustrated with the slow speed of response (10 working days) and the template reports which, he said, did not help him at all. I asked to see the OH reports to investigate for myself and was handed a bundle of papers. Within the bundle were five management reports regarding five different members of staff.

Each report was three pages long. More than 75% of each report used exactly the same words and standard phrases. I had to search carefully to distinguish one report from another.

None of the cases had been resolved or gave the manager a time frame of when the person would be returning to work or a prediction of recovery time. The manager received a report like this every four weeks or so.

This is not an example of good customer service or evidence of relationship building. The manager was against the OH service continuing with the cases as he felt that he was wasting the departmental budget.

A research paper titled Marketing occupational health: exploring the purchaser perspective outlines the key principle behind marketing OH services: “OH providers need to improve their communications and marketing with existing and potential employer clients. Most respondents agreed that the provision of expert advice on a workplace health matter, including absence management, is a central feature of OH services.

“However, other purchasers of OH services spoke of being given insufficient, inappropriate or partisan recommendations, and some mentioned problems with turnaround times for medical reports.”

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