How Selling Bras Made Me a Better Provider: The Lost Art of Customer Service in Medicine

Let’s rewind a bit…I was 18. Having just graduated high school, I was on the hunt for my first real summer job. Feeling determined to find something ‘glamorous’, I landed the all-important job of selling bras for someone named Victoria who had a secret, if you get my gist. I laugh now, but at the time I sure was proud of my black blazer, first set of high heels, and pretending to be an expert in all things feminine.


Despite the minimum wage, inconsistent hours, and somewhat annoying supermodels starting down at you with condescension from their black and white posters, I can tell you in all seriousness that my years selling intimates have made me a better medical provider.

bras1I worked at “VS” on and off for the next five years through my undergraduate days. The wages did not get much better and the hours were still sporadic, but in addition to feeling suave in my black blazer and heels, I learned a few things about customer service. Certainly, the art of customer service could have been learned elsewhere, but when you deal with women, breasts, bra size, insecurity, and vulnerability, you better be careful with your words, be a good listener, personalize each client’s experience, and treat every woman (and the occasional man) with respect.

Let’s fast forward now to present day. My days of selling bras are long over. I have worked in healthcare for the past 10 years in various locations and facilities and truth be told, when it comes to customer service, “VS” takes the cake…easily. To put it simply, our healthcare system is at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to prioritizing a customer’s experience.

Buying a bra can be downright stressful and even sometimes scary, but going to the doctor can take fear to another level.

Maybe it is just a check-up, but you are terrified of the scale or if the doctor is going to notice that 10 extra pounds. Maybe it is one of those “preventative procedures” we all dread—pap smear or colonoscopy, anyone? Maybe you are awaiting results that are going to dictate your future livelihood. Maybe you are going to disclose your history of trauma or abuse.

And yet when we are at our most vulnerable, we continue to encounter:

  • Long wait times
  • Confusing paperwork
  • Not feeling listened to
  • Poor communication
  • Unnecessary errors
  • Overworked staff
  • Lack of transparency
  • A lack of empathy
  • Sterile office environments
  • Feeling rushed through an appointment

doctor's officepatient

This would not be tolerated at “VS” or any customer service industry. Could you imagine these characteristics describing a restaurant? A hotel? Real estate? Okay yes, maybe the airport. Oh- and the DMV. Point is, most businesses would fail if they operated this way!

It is important to know that many wonderful, well-intended, and extremely knowledgeable providers work in our mainstream healthcare system. I can relate. Many of them are frustrated and disillusioned, but feel stuck. Many of them know that things can be done better, but feel overwhelmed by bureaucracy, which of course makes it hard to feel inspired and passionate, which ultimately impacts patient care and customer service.

It is not the people that are the problem, but the system. In mainstream healthcare, it is not the patient that is the customer, but the third-party payor (your insurance), which is dependent on billing codes that dictate severity and therefore, what the healthcare facility is being reimbursed. Therefore, the patient is not actually the customer, but rather the entity from which reimbursement and codes are derived from. Personally, when I worked in mainstream healthcare, I had far more communication with the billing department than I did with anybody involved in patient satisfaction and in our team meetings, billing, documentation, and insurance dominated the conversation…not customer service.

On the other hand, team meetings at “VS” were serious business. We would role play, troubleshoot, and brainstorm process improvement. We talked about how we greet customers, communicating as a team, our body language, putting aside judgment, and following through. Sounds so applicable, yet so sadly distant from healthcare.

Truth be told, in the midst of other revelations, my years selling bras contributed to my departure from conventional medicine. I had had a glimpse of what prioritizing customer service looked like and I was eager to emulate that personalized experience as a medical provider.

An experience that included:

  • Prompt communication with me. Not a medical assistant, not the nurse, not the receptionist, me.
  • Prompt scheduling.
  • Transparency and true informed consent. We talk about side effects. We talk about options. It is ultimately the client’s decision.
  • Goals are not defined by a standardized rubric, but are designed to meet the circumstances and needs of each client.
  • Being seen on time.
  • Eye contact. Eyes on the patient, not a screen.
  • Reflective listening.
  • Empathy.
  • Holistic care that considers all aspects of wellness.

There is no ‘right way’ to practice medicine, but the art of customer service is too frequently overshadowed by reimbursement and payors. Certainly, there are exceptions out there as some facilities have been compelled whether by reimbursement or patient demands to innovate and truly prioritize the patient experience.

Every healthcare provider is on their own journey. Many providers are still committed to the mainstream model and that is OK especially if they can feel they can thrive not only financially, but professionally and emotionally. For now, I am embracing my journey, happily applying the lessons of my bra selling days, and looking forward to continuing the art of customer service one unique client at a time.

Thanks for listening everyone.

With gratitude,2017-09-09 Audry VanHouweling Headshots (2 of 2)

Audry Van Houweling, Owner & Founder, She Soars Psychiatry, LLC

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