Year: 2021

Lessons from Mayo Clinic

I first read Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic after an advisor recommended it to me a few years ago. I was somewhat skeptical about learning from a massive healthcare institution, but Mayo Clinic is not just any healthcare system. The book describes what makes the institution unique and how it excels for its patients.

If you don’t already know the name, Mayo Clinic is a US-based hospital system founded all the way back in 1864 and remains renowned today. Many of its core values connect to the founder’s two sons, who ran the practice in the late 1800s. These brothers were serious about healthcare; one even spent his honeymoon touring hospitals and clinics.

The book has lots of great detail about Mayo’s operations. For the purposes of this post, though, I want to detail the clinic’s careful attention to how their facilities, staff, and behavior send patients clues about healthcare quality. Even small concerns can influence how patients—or customers—view an organization. Below I outline 3 types of clues the authors describe and offer some ideas for how you can apply these to your own customer service.

About Clues

When customers interact with an organization they take mental notes. As the authors write, “Customers act like ‘detectives’ in the way they process and organize experience clues into a set of impressions that evoke feelings.” They tune into all sorts of things and the more variable, complex, or personal the service you provide the more important these clues become.

The authors outline 3 types of clues: functional, mechanic, and humanic, which connect and have their greatest impact when they align with one another. While functional clues influence our rational perspective, it’s the mechanic and humanic clues that build our emotional perceptions.

Functional Clues

The primary role of a functional clue is to strengthen a customer’s confidence in the reliability of what you deliver. Another way to think of them is that they signal your competence. We can often get lost thinking that these are the only clues that matter; if the answer is correct, what else matters? The answer is a lot, because customers often aren’t adept at evaluating technical competency.

Here Mayo’s team-based approach to medicine is its greatest advantage. By coordinating resources they give patients a clear sense that they’re getting the best possible care. Patients aren’t bounced between 3 different doctors with contradictory recommendations. They’re given 3 doctors who work together to figure out the single best course of treatment.

Each support team requires similar teamwork; your training material and best practices all have a role to play. Your answers need to be consistent, thorough, and well-researched. Customers may turn to you as the expert, but help them trust that’s the case and followthrough with clear, relatable answers. There’s a lot of repetitive work in support, but great team performance comes from doing those routine things in an outstanding manner.1

Mechanic Clues

These often define a customer’s first impression as they’re the sensory clues (physical, visual, auditory, etc.) that tell a customer what they can expect. What matters most is that their design both fits and supports the type of service an organization can (and will!) deliver. For Mayo Clinic, they know healthcare is stressful and work to create a reassuring first impression.

They place such an emphasis on mechanic clues that they travel to marble quarries to ensure stones have no natural patterns that would suggest disquieting human forms or disease. In their pediatric wing are 3 different heights of water fountains, rivers and animal tracks that guide children to exam rooms, and exam rooms that are free from 90-degree corners. Individually any of these things are relatively small, but collectively they make it clear Mayo pays careful thought to how children experience their clinic.

There are many analogues for mechanic clues within online customer support. Your contact form, email templates, documentation design, and more all send a customer certain signals. Do they fit together cohesively and imply a level of service you effectively deliver? Each element of your service can reinforce the values you want a customer to understand. But as Mayo shows, doing that well requires care, attention, and creativity.

Humanic Clues

Humanic clues range from dress to appearance, tone of voice, and more. While they’re subjective, they nonetheless have an emotional impact on people. And if you work within a labor-intensive or interactive service profession it’s these clues that are most important in exceeding customer expectations.

At Mayo Clinic this means that physicians wear business attire, nurses wear white uniforms, and the organization has clear standards for how staff act and communicate with patients. The structure is designed to put patients at ease and while some may find it rigid it’s all done with a purpose.

While we don’t all show up to an email conversation in business attire, there are lessons for us in this framework. It’s worth thinking about the clues your writing sends a customer. Things both large (style guide and tone) to small (email signatures and emoji usage) play a role in the customer’s experience and each is an opportunity to influence how they perceive your service. Think about what impact you want to have with customers and then how you can best convey those standards to team members.

Connection to Support

There’s clearly a ton that Mayo Clinic does right. And while we’re not all running massive healthcare institutions I do think there’s much we can learn from how they approach service. With that in mind, this was my favorite line from the book:

A service can be functional and still create negative feelings in customers because of how it is delivered.

That’s such a good reminder. Our responsibility in support doesn’t end at the technical accuracy of an answer as there are so many other pieces that we have to get right. But it’s often that technical accuracy that we spend the most time thinking about, training people in, and evaluating in CSAT scores and the like. Reading Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic is a reminder to step back and look at things holistically. To really understand each part of what builds into your customer experience.

As we start this new year, take a moment to go through each step of your customer experience. How does your contact form greet a customer? Does the confirmation email they get match the tone you strive for in replies? How does your team use greetings, email signatures, and more to create a consistent vibe? Just like the pattern in a slab of marble, these small details can be easy to overlook, but they’re clues that influence each customer’s experience.

  1. Hat tip to Ann Dunwoody for that sentiment. Read her excellent book, A Higher Standard.

2020 in Review

In 2018 and 2019 my annual recap focused on the books I read. Books still occupied a large space in 2020, but with so much change I wanted to widen the lens for a year-in-review.

The year’s biggest change was a sharp drop in travel due to the pandemic. Over the last 3 years, annual work and personal travel spanned 80+ days and 75k+ miles. In 2020 I stayed in Portland from late February on, which was a welcome change. It’s my longest work travel gap in a decade.

Morning light coming into Sagrada Família.
Sagrada Família, from a trip in January.

Prior to the pandemic, 2020 was on pace to be an even busier year and January and February meant trips to Barcelona, California, Washington D.C., and India. Staying closer to home left more time for local activity, with hikes on Mt. Hood and Kings Mountain, along with salmon fishing on the Columbia. It was also nice to have more time for cooking, from pot roast to cinnamon rolls and cake.

This lack of travel meant vast amounts of time for reading as I read 103 books across 2020, which is about twice my pace in 2018 or 2019. Most of those were print copies, a change from last year’s Kindle focus. Without needing the portability of a Kindle my long-standing preference for print won out (though shelf space is a concern at this rate).

In fiction I particularly appreciated rereading books, which brought a sense of the familiar back into a strange year. Of new novels I read, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future was my favorite, partly because it’s the first science fiction book I’ve read that directly deals with a near future driven by climate change. It was also fun to read Jane Austen’s work, in part for the reminder that people led rich lives in comparatively simpler and more geographically-constrained times.

Of the non-fiction I read, two books stood out. Chris Arnade’s Dignity is deeply compelling and uses a journalistic eye to bring moving stories of people to the forefront. If you add one book to your list I recommend Dignity. Bob Moesta’s Demand-Side Sales, which I shared notes from, is a clear handbook for how to keep the customer at the center of your company. I highly recommend it to anyone working in a for-profit business.

On this site I wrote more regularly about the craft of customer support and started a twice-monthly newsletter in late September. Posts go to both this blog and an email list, for which Buttondown provides just the right level of detail. I like the ability to add to my home on the open web and publish to a known group of readers. But it’s the act of writing and giving shape to ideas that I most enjoy.

2021 seems, more than most, like a year that will laugh at grand plans. My plans are simple: more reading, writing, and time close to home.