OLATHE, Kan. -- How's this for customer service?
A middle-aged man comes over to the Dillon pharmacy here to ask about an over-the-counter medication. He explains to Jean Baumhover, the pharmacy manager, that he's had a lot of acid indigestion and it just won't go away. Under Baumhover's gentle prodding, the man adds that he's been using Mylanta and asks if he should try another antacid.
Baumhover instead suggests that he go to the local hospital emergency room and "get checked out."
With some urgency in her voice, but not wanting to cause alarm, Baumhover stresses only that "the symptoms could be something else."
The man took Baumhover's advice and a week later returned to the pharmacy to thank the pharmacy manager profusely. He explained that he had spent the last week in the hospital after suffering a mild heart attack.
"One of the reasons that practicing pharmacy is so fulfulling is that it's not just a job," says Baumhover, a Dillon pharmacist for 12 years. "It's nice to get reimbursed financially, but what makes pharmacy so personally rewarding is being able to occasionally make a big difference."
Baumhover goes out of her way to answer customers' questions and offer advice, to make a big and a little difference in many peoples' lives, with corporate support.
What Baumhover says she likes best about working at Dillon is the chain's policy "to do whatever the customer needs." Dillon Stores, based in Hutchinson, Kan., with 43 pharmacies in its 65 supermarkets, is a division of Kroger Co., Cincinnati.
"Our goal is to take care of the health needs of our patients," says Jane Siebert, director of pharmacy at Dillon Stores. "We tell our new pharmacists that they should do what it takes to take care of customers, with the law being the only restriction," she explains, prohibiting unauthorized refills, for example.
When a 5-year-old girl with a broken leg needed crutches last March, a pharmacy technician here took a pair of adult-sized crutches that the pharmacy keeps available for free loan, and cut them down to fit the child.
The response of Dillon management was unequivocal: The pharmacy technician received a letter of praise from Bob Colvey, president of Dillon Stores, and was named store "associate of the month."
"Hopefully, customers can find here whatever they want," says Baumhover. "But if someone comes in and is looking for something we don't have, have never carried and probably don't want to carry, we'll order it." Items that are special-ordered include home health care needs, such as a walker or bedpan, and also OTCs.
The company's policy of satisfying customers also is manifested in how its pharmacies are staffed, with up to four pharmacists during busy peak hours, allowing pharmacists time to talk to customers. Counseling a patient on how to use a prescription medication can take from one to four minutes, says Baumhover.
"We've been fortunate here to have good support personnel," says Baumhover, including two technicians who between them have more than 20 years experience in the pharmacy. "We also have up to three clerks available to us who can run the register and answer the phone."
Weekly sales for the pharmacy here approach 10% of store sales, beating produce and routinely exceeding meat sales as well.
This has led to increased recognition of pharmacy by the store manager, Richard Cox. "My commitment to pharmacy is stronger now as time has passed and we've developed the pharmacy and the volume has come along," says Cox.
"Having a pharmacy is beneficial to the total store," says Cox. "It draws people into a store and gets a commitment from those customers."
The pharmacists and technicians spend a lot of time talking to customers about OTC medications, frequently going out onto the floor to do so. Questions about OTCs "are constant," says Baumhover. "It's more than a typical pharmacy, because they are here and we are available."
Cox adds that he likes to see the pharmacists on the floor talking to patients about HBC products. "It's very beneficial for customers. They have knowledge that the rest of us don't have," he explains.
Some questions border on the bizarre. One woman was looking for camphorated ointment to put in her young grandson's nose to relieve congestion, recalls Baumhover. "Fortunately, we had nothing with camphor that she could use. Instead, we suggested a saline solution that wouldn't burn the child's nostrils."
Baumhover and the others are quick to go out onto the floor to help customers select OTC products. "You may go out to talk to a customer about one question, but by the time you get back, they've asked you more than the original question," she explains. The 5-foot height of the OTC shelves also make it easier for the pharmacists to be seen out on the floor, and for them to look back at the pharmacy.
The OTC categories most often asked about are pain relievers and vitamins, she says.
Recently, Baumhover says, the pharmacists have been getting lots of questions about Aleve. Do people know what it is? "Not really," responds Baumhover. "They think it's the new miracle drug. We tell them that it's similar to Advil and ibuprofen."
Baumhover favors more products being made available over the counter, such as Zovirax and Tagamet, but would prefer that they be only sold in a pharmacy.
"It's a good trend of medications going OTC because it makes them more available. But I think it would be better if such products were sold only in pharmacies, rather than just having them out on a shelf where people can pick them up and maybe use them incorrectly or unnecessarily. With Tagamet, for example, I'm concerned that people will use a product like that for symptoms that could be heart-related."
She also worries about overuse of current OTCs. "We find some people overusing analgesics, rather than paying to see a doctor," she says. "If we suspect overuse, we'll ask what their original complaint was, and whether they are getting any relief from the OTC product. We may suggest that if they have to take that much, a prescription item might be more effective, and that a doctor should be consulted to see if there is an underlying problem."
Also, combination products containing analgesic and antihistamine ingredients often are not well understood or used appropriately, says Baumhover. "We'll see some people with Tylenol, plus a sinus medication containing acetaminophen, and also an antihistamine that has a decongestant in it. They've seen the products advertised on TV and don't realize that many contain the same ingredients," she explains.
The number of OTC products stocked in the general merchandise section has grown considerably over the last few years, says Baumhover. "The GM department is also trying to be more price-competitive, and that helps, too, although customers are not as price-sensitive when we're going out on the floor to show them something. Most people are real pleased when we recommend a product. We usually try to show them the least expensive or the best value for the money."
Baumhover counts many older people among the pharmacy's customers, many of whom live in three nearby
high-rise apartment buildings.
"We get new customers mostly by referral," says Baumhover. "We've had little old ladies bring in their friends and introduce them to us, and explain that we deliver their prescriptions, and answer their questions."
A part of the job Baumhover says she enjoys most is the variety of customers. Some older men, whom Baumhover once viewed as having a "gruff" manner, are now among her favorites, now that she has gotten to know them. "It's not that they are mean; that's just what they want their image to be, so we go along with it."
Indeed, for some of the store's older customers, the pharmacy offers more than just filling prescriptions. "It's kind of a little social life out in the store," says Baumhover. Customers will stop by and get their blood pressure checked or just chat, she says. "It's mostly older people, but also a lot of young marrieds with kids. They want us to ask them how they're doing." The pharmacists and technicians do ask, and the result is increased customer loyalty, adds Baumhover.
The store also delivers prescriptions, with the number of deliveries having increased steadily over the years. Deliveries typically run from 6% to 9% of the pharmacy's weekly sales volume, compared with 4% chainwide. The delivery service also has been upgraded, says Baumhover, to be nearly on demand.
Each delivered prescription includes an information sheet with the pharmacist's name. "We'll ask them to give us a call if they have questions. With most of the people we deliver to, we're in communication anyway. If it's something new, we will call them."
Baumhover is optimistic that pharmacists have a secure future as health information experts. "There will be a place for us because of the need for information," she says. Technicians will handle more of the dispensing function, freeing up pharmacists to be "information specialists," she predicts.
"It's real important that pharmacists continually update themselves with new information. Because that's basically what we're going to be needed for. Dispensing will be a minor part."
While there is more health information available today, much of it is confusing for a lot of people and leads to questions, says Baumhover. At the same time, customers are asking more intelligent questions, she says. For example, many know enough to ask if what they are feeling is a side effect of a medication they are taking, she explains.
Before joining Dillon, Baumhover worked at a local drug chain where she says she just filled scripts all day long, with no opportunity for customer interaction. "I enjoy filling scripts," she says, "but it's not as fulfilling as working with the customers."
Baumhover's first job after graduating from the University of Iowa was in an independent pharmacy that she says was more customer-oriented.
Initially, Baumhover recalls, she was anxious about going to work for a supermarket company, concerned that the setting would not be as "professional," a view that has since undergone a complete turnaround.
"When I first interviewed at a supermarket, I considered it to be a lower class pharmacy," recalls Baumhover. "I wasn't that much out of school and we thought of the independents as the true professional pharmacies.
"I feel almost the opposite now. Our customers are here sometimes three or four times a week, vs. a drug store, where they may come in just to get their prescriptions filled. Here we see our customers a lot more often and we get to know them better."
The result, says Baumhover, is "it helps us do a better job. Customers feel more comfortable with us. They will come over and talk to us about their medications, what they're doing on Sunday or whatever. They will ask us questions they might be inhibited from asking their doctor or a pharmacist they don't see as often."
Convenience, of course will continue to be a big draw for the supermarket pharmacy, and people are also looking for products that are reasonably priced, says Baumhover. "But most of all," she insists, "they are looking for information.
"Sometimes they are not sure that the doctor has made the right diagnosis, or that they should be taking so many meds. Sometimes patients aren't even sure of their diagnosis. They want information from a pharmacist to reassure them."