While the National Health Service is, in parts, already paying more attention to its customers and their experiences, there is still much to learn from both within the organisation and from companies in the consumer sector such as John Lewis and Lloyds pharmacy, finds a new report by the NHS Confederation, Great expectations: what does customer focus mean for the NHS?

The report interviewed the chiefs of nine companies “pursuing excellence in customer focus,” and the importance of seeing things from the customer's point of view to help an organisation offer the best possible experience of its services was emphasised time and time again, it said.

But Great Expectations concedes that adopting a customer focus in healthcare can be somewhat different than in other sectors. “We need to be aware that people often need our services at very vulnerable times in their lives. Their experience of treatment and care will be critical to them and to their whole family,” commented Alwen Williams, chief executive of Tower Hamlets Primary Care Trust. “The interaction between provider and customer is typically of a different order to an in-store purchase, with consequences that can be much longer term and more important for the user,” she explains, but maintains this “doesn't change the value of considering the experience from the patient/customer's own point of view.”

The public vote

According to a survey conducted by Ipsos MORI for the NHS Confederation, a whopping 93% of the public agree it is important for the NHS to take a closer look at customer services, while a separate survey of 337 NHS chief executives and chairs found that 100% of NHS leaders believe the Service is not sufficiently customer-focused at present.

And, although patient surveys indicate that NHS providers are already doing well with regards to customer orientation, the report points out that there is always more that can be done. “As expectations continue to rise, customer focus becomes a crucial factor in delivering high-quality healthcare and winning greater recognition for this through word of mouth among the wider public,” it stresses.

Great Expectations concludes that the key to good customer focus is happy staff, and “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.”

Commenting on the report’s findings, Dr Gill Morgan, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, agreed that focusing on customers has become a critical issue for all healthcare providers. “We all need to learn from the best to deliver a first class, customer- focused NHS fit for the 21st century,” she said.

But some of the leaders interviewed warned about the potential hidden costs of leading an organisation and its staff in a customer-focused direction, and they stressed that any such move will therefore need to be “right from the start” with strong leadership from the top.