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    How to Deal with Your Worst Customers

    All pharmacists have faced a bad situation with a customer. Here are some tactics for  turning it around—and what to do when you can’t.

    Every pharmacist and pharmacy technician has been there. The patient on the other side of the pharmacy counter has steam blowing out of his ears because you just told him there is a problem with the prescription. The customer is now questioning your intelligence, your integrity, your professionalism, and maybe even your parentage. Loudly. 

    Maybe a patient is having a tearful fit in the middle of your pharmacy. You had to tell her that the copay has tripled or that insurance will no longer cover the only medication that works well. 

    Then there is the patient who is a continuing source of aggravation. Month in and month out, she complains that you are overcharging, moans about your poor service, and is generally a “pain in the ass.”

    Or—in an even worse scenario—after you refuse to fill a questionable script for oxycodone, the customer says he may come back with his gun.

    Customer Relations 

    Patient/customer relations has never been more challenging for pharmacists and pharmacy staff. Problem patients—or those with problems—have always made their way into pharmacies. Pharmacists have to deal with them and, when possible, defuse the situation. 

    In an online survey conducted by Drug Topics, pharmacists were asked whether they feel that they were adequately trained to deal with “difficult” customers. Of the 95 respondents, roughly one-third answered no, a third answered yes, and another third mostly said that this kind of training came on the job. 

    Related article: If Your Patients are Grumpy on Sundays and Happy on Thursdays, That May be Usual

    The survey also asked where pharmacists received training in how to work with customers. Of the 55 who responded to the question, 18 said they learned on the job from other pharmacists, 34 said they learned from outside the pharmacy (such as in previous non-pharmacy jobs), and only 2 said they received training in pharmacy school. 

    Robert S. BeardsleyRobert S. BeardsleyIn decades past, schools of pharmacy may not have covered customer/patient relations in their curricula. Now, it is an important part of what a pharmacist’s education should be, said Robert S. Beardsley, RPh, PhD, Professor of Pharmaceutical Health Services Research at the School of Pharmacy University of Maryland in Baltimore. 

    Customer and patient relations may be addressed in a variety of ways in pharmacy education, Beardsley said. It can start with lectures. Then experienced pharmacists and patients will talk with students. It also includes role-playing activities, where pharmacists are confronted with different situations. 

    The skills needed to work well with patients evolve from professionalism, Beardsley said. “We need to keep this in the forefront of everyone’s thinking,” He added. “If pharmacists are not professional, we are not going to be supported as a profession.”

    Although the training may be similar in most schools of pharmacy, it may not always be labeled as “customer relations,” said Lakesha M. Butler, PharmD, BCPS, Clinical Associate Professor in Pharmacy Practice at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE). “Throughout the curriculum, we talk about things pertaining to customer relations, but we don’t title it or think of it as customer relations,” she said. “I certainly think that we should.” Lakesha M. ButlerLakesha M. Butler

    Communication with patients is specifically discussed, Butler noted. A lab allows students to role play with students from SIUE’s theater department, who portray angry, confused, or calm customers, Butler added. Students can then watch their performance on video. “They see what they could have done differently, said differently, or said in a way that ensures the patient is understanding,” she said. “This is a case of the students having to learn ‘How can I try to put out this fire? How can I calm this patient down?’”

    Related article: Race lesson in the pharmacy

    Such training was not always provided in pharmacy schools. “I got none whatsoever,” said Pete Kreckel, RPh, who has been a community pharmacist for 36 years and who now works at Thompson Pharmacy in Altoona, PA. He learned on the job and now trains pharmacy students when they work at his store during their residencies. Such skills have to be learned by doing, he noted. It is not something that a pharmacy student can be adequately trained to do, “but I think it is something that can be developed.”

    Up next: How to deal or defuse

    Valerie DeBenedette
    Valerie DeBenedette is Managing Editor of Drug Topics.

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