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Improvisation in mental healthcare: good customer service practice

There’s a nice example from Marion Janner in her latest post over on the Bright Blog of how a bit of imagination and improvisation can improve the customer experience no end – in this case by overcoming boredom and lethargy, a constant problem in any institutional setting, with the spontaneous help of a paper plate adapted as an indoor Frisbee to lift the spirits of a group of patients in an acute mental health ward.

Here’s what Marion wrote:

“Two of the things that impressed me most were improvisations. One of the dynamic HCAs who is an activity co-ordinator…described how there was a rather lethargic atmosphere on the ward one day. Spontaneously she found a paper plate and suddenly there was an animated game of indoor Frisbee!

And a ward with a kitchen which has no oven (excessively risk averse planning, presumably) hasn’t stopped the creative ward manager from regular cooking sessions for patients. They use a bread-making machine, make microwave and freezer cakes and harness the relaxed sociable potential of communal meals there.”

This use of improvisation and initiative isn’t trivial: it’s vital. And it’s often cost-free. Read Marion’s latest post to see how the culture of improvisation she describes is an integral part of the overall culture of extremely good customer care the hospital she was visiting operates, and how it centres on allowing frontline people to take the initiative to enrich people’s lives.

Leaving customers sitting around bored is probably one of the worst things you can do. It’s exactly what Easyjet did to me a couple of weeks ago: crammed all of us into a small departure lounge with stairs leading to no plane (we could all see there was no plane, but they crammed us into the tiny departure gate area nonetheless), many people having to stand because there weren’t enough seats, and the gate staff walking backwards and forwards among us doing important things with tickets, doors, phones, and other procedures without for a moment thinking their job might include talking to the customers and giving us a clue as to what was going on – or even a clue that they noticed we were there. We just sat – or stood – there for half an hour till the plane arrived and we were told to board, with no explanation or apology.

At Southwest Airlines the gate attendants have a stock of pipe cleaners under the desk. If a plane is delayed for any reason, rather than keeping people waiting with no messages or interaction from the gate staff whatsoever, they take out the pipe cleaners, hand them around and offer a prize for the best pipe cleaner figure customers can come up with. Maybe you don’t want to play: but it’s better than being ignored.

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