TJ Farnsworth, founder and CEO of Sightline Health, is adamant about fostering a strong culture of customer service. But that dedication was put to the test when his father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer and became a customer.
As founder of Sightline Health, which develops high-end oncology centers, TJ Farnsworth had made it a mission to offer safer, more innovative cancer treatment options to those within the aging baby boomer population, who often aren’t aware of such procedures. After all, his mother, Cheryl Farnsworth—also a former Inc. 500 honoree—had helped popularize MRI technology with her company, TME, in the 1980s. But his mission hit closer to home one day in late 2008, when he received a distraught call from his father-in-law, who had just been told by doctors that he showed symptoms of prostate cancer, and would likely need to have his prostate removed.
"He was obviously nervous and anxious," Farnsworth says of his father-in-law, Jimmy Goode, now 66-years old. "It's an example of the scenario where an older gentleman would have undergone risky major surgery because he wasn't offered the types of facilities that we have."
Farnsworth immediately offered to fly Goode from his hometown of McAllen, Texas to Sightline's Houston-based center—one of four currently operating in three states—to be treated. Treatment included a new, nonsurgical, nonanesthetic treatment combination of intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) and image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT) technology. Faced with a future filled with side effects like incontinence and erectile dysfunction, Goode readily agreed.
"These local guys immediately wanted to operate instead of offering radiation treatment," Goode says. "I didn't want to wear a diaper for the rest of my life, so I thought, I ought to try this first."
Farnsworth and his wife, Margaret, welcomed Goode to live with them for two months, and accompanied him to each one of his 45 treatment sessions at Sightline. Today, he's cancer free.
"Having TJ really helped me out," Goode says. "He made sure the doctors were doing what they were supposed to do."
Upon his final round of treatment, Sightline's staff members handed Goode a medal, mortar board, certificate, and bouquet of flowers, and played the song, "Pomp and Circumstance," as he walked out of the doctor’s doors. "There was crying," Farnsworth remembers. But the 'graduation ceremony' wasn’t exclusive to Goode's conquering of cancer. Sightline commemorates every single patient's last treatment session with the same ritual, which is carried out at each of the company's locations.
"They're graduating from this worried phase of 'I've got cancer,' to a new stage in their lives where they can feel free of that," Farnsworth says. It's only one example of the company's unique brand of customer service, one that is less focused on standard professional pleasantries, and more geared toward establishing personal, long-term relationships with clients. While good customer service is generally thought of as a simple gesture that conveys a certain sincerity or desire to help—a warm demeanor when answering a phone call, or the coveted hint of a special sale price—Farnsworth realized early on that Sightline's line of work called for something slightly different.
"We have to help make an uncomfortable chapter of their life a little easier," he says. "The experience with my father-in-law just validated everything we were already doing."
The company's dedication to customer service is further evinced in the creation of a staff position at each facility called a "cancer navigator," who serves as a personal liaison between the facility and the patients. The position was initially created, not long after the company's founding, for tasks like making patient calls and answering billing questions. The position has since become more intimate and refined to include things like leading support groups, counseling families and acting as a confidante about things like treatment side effects. Sightline also hosts a "patient reunion," in which patients are invited to enjoy a live band, food, and drinks. Last year, more than 200 people showed up.
Farnsworth is convinced his strategy for establishing customer relationships is largely responsible for the company’s immense growth—2,678 percent in three years—and he's determined to continue to build on it. In September, he's dispatching what he calls his "SWAT Team," a group of the company's top-performing receptionists, therapists, and physicians, to each facility, to help reinforce the "Sightline Way."
"We regularly get patient referrals where someone's neighbor has been diagnosed with cancer, and they're told what a 'fantastic job' Sightline did," he says. Despite the influx of customer referrals, however, his father-in-law remains the company's biggest cheerleader.
"Now he carries around our brochures with him and hands them out," Farnsworth laughs. "No matter what's wrong with them, he's constantly telling people, 'Houston is the place to get treated for anything,' because he was treated here by us for his cancer."