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I’ve spent my entire career in professional services, starting as a mental health professional followed by various stints in different parts of human resources services – employee assistance programs, outplacement and career management – and for the past 15 years, retained executive search.

I always have felt that the professional services sector is a particularly challenging one.  Our stock in trade is knowledge, gained through both education and experience.  But knowledge and experience in no way guarantee success in professional services.  One must also master the “services” side of the equation.  Specifically, how does one deliver that knowledge through services that are efficient and appeal to the consumers of those services?  Clients, patients, investors, customers at a spa – all are looking for highly specialized knowledge and assistance, but if it is delivered poorly, they will certainly devalue it and go elsewhere in the future.

I am particularly interested in how the “front line” delivers professional services.  In an organization, employees on the front line have the most customer contact, thus affecting the organization’s reputation most significantly.  Also, because those on the front line often make up a large portion of the organization, they are the most challenging group in which to build a consistent, positive service orientation.  I always look for excuses to talk to the front line whenever possible.

I recently spent an unexpected few weeks as a guest in a large hospital, part of an integrated health system in a major metropolitan area.  When I was conscious, and not staring at the ceiling wondering if my [fill in body part here] would ever function again, I had time to speak with the staff, especially the nurses and technicians.  I observed how they went about their work, how serious they were about following protocols around safety and quality and how they interacted with patients, and me in particular.  I asked some of them how they liked their work and why they worked at this particular hospital.

These are the things I saw most consistently during my stay:

  • There was a culture of patient safety that was fully embraced by all staff and integrated into everything they did.  Double-checking names and birthdates, scanning medications, clearing IV lines – the list went on and on.  Equally remarkable was the consistency with which each person carried out these duties.  Several times, I asked who was in charge of quality and safety in the hospital only to find that no one could tell me the name of the executive with this task.  I took this to mean that the only people they considered responsible were themselves.
  • Much of the work done around me was enhanced and enabled by technology.  I saw many more computer screens than thermometers.  What struck me was that the technology did not get in the way of these people establishing a personal relationship with me, understanding how I was feeling and knowing what I needed.  It added value rather than creating a barrier.
  • There was a clear hiring bias at work in the organization.  It favored people who were positive in nature, exuded high energy, were extroverted, smart and compassionate.

One of the things I always have found to be true about fostering and maintaining excellence in professional services is this – if you want your people to treat your clients well, you have to treat your people like clients.  I asked many of the people I met why they worked at this particular hospital and, again, heard very consistent messages:  Good pay.  Excellent benefits for continuing education.  Flexibility in hours and shifts.  Exceptional colleagues.  Clear commitment to patient care and quality in the organization.  Clear guidelines on how to grow professionally in the organization and advance.  Support of employee-initiated programs to enhance care.

I’m sure that mystery executive out there who is in charge of quality could give me a list of several ways things could improve, but after spending some time with the front line, I’d have to say things are well in hand.

We are happy to report that all of Mr. Salveson’s body parts are now working adequately and he has returned to work.

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