Hold the phone


How can an independent pharmacy survive in the face of competition from the mega-chains? Here's a clue.





My athletic career in school was undistinguished, brief, and for the most part completely forgettable. Try as I might to become the next Johnny Bench, I realized sometime in junior high that if I was ever going to be able to feed myself, I needed to put away the baseball glove, pick up a book, and pretty much forget about my athletic endeavors. And that is what I have done, by and large, until about five minutes ago, when a memory from the athletic field came crashing through the walls of time.

I once had a coach whose favorite saying was “little things make champions,” and I heard his voice, just now, inside my head. It set me to wondering where he has his prescriptions filled, because as I write this I’ve been on hold with one of the major chains for an eternity.

Please hold

My call started with a robotic voice that thanked me for calling. It showed its gratitude by immediately putting me on hold and keeping me away from any human contact.

Before I began to write I had been surfing the web, where I came across the same company - the one that had just assured me my call was very important - boasting of its upcoming MTM expansion plans and fervently describing the future of pharmacy and the bold, cutting-edge programs that will be this company’s contribution.

I have to admit, it can be scary stuff for someone operating one little store to see. My first thought was “What can I do to compete against this?”

My second thought was “They can’t even answer the phone.”

Your call is very important

It has been 20 minutes now. I wonder what would happen if I were someone calling to ask what to do if Grandma just accidentally took too many amitriptyline tablets.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been in a holdfest while trying to talk to a pharmacy, by the way. Unfortunately, it increasingly has become the norm. I have had this experience with every major chain in every part of the country, day or night, weekend or weekday. If I didn’t know better, I might think that the forces that control our profession just don’t care about taking their patients’ calls.

That can’t be the case though, as the robotic voice periodically assures me that my call is very important.

Perhaps this company just isn’t very good at taking care of what it claims is important. I have now waited for over half an hour.

Public relations disconnect

The inability to master Telephonics 101 (Put the Call Through) doesn’t seem to keep these folks from planning to execute bigger and better things, though. I’m back on the webpage that extols those cutting-edge MTM plans, and by golly, the enthusiasm is almost infectious. Except ... I’ve been on hold for over 30 minutes. It’s as if this company is excitedly planning its trip to the Super Bowl when it has forgotten how to put the ball on the tee to start the game.

That old coach of mine was smarter than I ever realized.

By the way, every word on that web page talks about cost savings. Not one letter is devoted to how the company’s MTM plans will improve patient care. Its silence on the subject of improving the quality of care given to its patients, coupled with the complete silence at the other end of the telephone line, speaks volumes about this company’s priorities.

The entrepreneur strikes back

My plan to go up against this - to hold my own against the giant operators who use the ideas of the big thinkers in our profession to develop algorithms to put into high-powered PowerPoint presentations to display their strategic plans for the future - involves a 1990s-era answering machine.

The answering machine is hooked up to the incoming phone lines at my store, but its answer-message is not the first thing you hear when you call. The machine is set to pick up after the third ring, and my staff knows they are expected to never let that happen.

I’ve been here six months now, and that answering machine has gone off exactly once. With one exception, every call made to my store during business hours has been answered, by a human being, in three rings or less.

Little things make champions. I get it now. I only wish that old coach of mine were here. I’d like to think I’ve finally made him proud. 

David Stanleyis a pharmacy owner, blogger, and professional writer in northern California. Contact him at drugmonkeyrph@gmail.com.

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