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How Interactions Set Expectations
Julia Bickerstaff
There is a concept in economics called Perfect Information. It means that consumers have all the information they need to quickly evaluate the quality of a product or service before they utilise it. In other words, consumers know absolutely what to expect.

There is a concept in economics called Perfect Information. It means that consumers have all the information they need to quickly evaluate the quality of a product or service before they utilise it. In other words, consumers know absolutely what to expect.

It’s not hard to see the flaws in this argument. Think about the last time you made a purchase for the first time. Did you feel fully equipped with the detail of how the service would be delivered or how the product was made to allow you to make a good assessment of its quality? Probably not. As consumers, we rarely know what to expect of a product or service.

Curiously however, as small businesses we often think customers do have ‘perfect information’. We have such a deep understanding of our own subject matter that we lose our beginner’s mind. We can’t remember what it’s like to not know. We believe that our customers have a much greater understanding about the quality of our offerings than they actually do.

So there exists an ‘information gap’ between what small businesses communicate and what consumers need to know, and this gap leads to customer dissatisfaction. When customers are uncertain about the quality of a potential purchase it causes them stress: Am I making the best purchase? Should I choose an alternative? Am I paying too much for this? Will it work?

Signalling to customers

Good businesses work hard to close this information gap, and alleviate their customers’ stress. But they don’t do it through telling customers. They show them. Customers like to see evidence of excellence in a business and, without consciously realising it, they glean this through some simple signals the business sends. Here are four of the more common examples:

  • Process – if the business has a clear process for delivery of a service, customers infer excellence. Well-defined processes make customers feel comfortable.
  • Frequency – if the business has obviously delivered the service many times, customers presume it to be excellent. In theory, multiple repetitions of a service iron out issues and enhance its quality.
  • Promotion – if the business regularly calls attention to a service they offer, customers believe it must be top quality, assuming that a business wouldn’t promote something in which they do not excel.
  • Enthusiasm – when the business is passionate and enthusiastic about a service it delivers, customers believe it must be good.

You can see these signals at play in many retail environments – we will review some pharmacy examples later in the article.

  • ‘Behind the scenes’ videos and ‘How we do it’ brochures are common ways to illustrate ‘Process’
  • ‘Number of customers served’ posters are a popular example of ‘Frequency’, such as the ‘1,000 Happy Feet’ sign in a local children’s shoe shop
  • Signage such as ‘We do styling advice’ in a furniture store, reiterated by its retail staff (“Do you know we can also style your home?”), is a simple example of the ‘Promotion’ signal
  • Enthusiasm can be hard to get right in the retail environment but Apple sets the standard with the passion of its staff working its Genius Bar.

Where health and retail services meet

When it comes to health service delivery, we’d like to think that patients develop their expectations in a more sophisticated manner than that outlined above, but they don’t. It’s basic human behaviour. Whenever we’re making assessments of quality in a world of imperfect information, we use the same signals that consumers use to evaluate quality in a traditional retail setting.

In the pharmacy, then, we need to incorporate these signals into our interactions with patients to help them form appropriate expectations of our health service delivery.

In practice, incorporating the signals into the interactions between pharmacy staff and patients is not hard to do, but it’s often overlooked simply because, as seen in the small business environment, we quickly forget that patients have a very limited understanding of health service delivery – what we do and how we do it.

Pharmacy sending the right signals

So what interactions could work well in a pharmacy setting? A useful way to think about this is to start by applying the ‘Four Signals’ to the particular areas of health service delivery that you believe are the most underutilised by your patients. In its simplest form, you could cover the four signals for, say, flu vaccinations, with:

  • A ‘How we do it’ leaflet on the vaccination process (who gives the vaccination, how long it takes, where in the pharmacy it’s performed)
  • Providing flu vaccinations to our local community since 2012
  • In-store posters promoting the availability of the flu vaccine
  • Pharmacy staff chatting with patients enthusiastically about the benefits of the flu vaccine.

These interactions are easy to initiate. The challenge is to maintain them. It’s useful to have a plan of interactions for three-to-six months ahead, thinking about the different types of patients you have and their health service needs. And you don’t need to address all areas of health service delivery concurrently, it’s more powerful to cycle them through, but always be highlighting at least one element to demonstrate excellence.

Helping patients develop expectations of health service delivery will become increasingly important as pharmacies expand their remit in the primary healthcare sector. The information gap is real and we need to use simple tactics, like the four signals, to bridge it so as to achieve maximum patient care and optimal health outcomes for our local community.