How to Avoid Six Common Customer Service Mistakes in the Dental Practice
Lee Ann Brady, DMD
In some ways a dental practice is a business just like any other, which means that customer service is key to retention, profit, and professional satisfaction. But unlike many businesses, assessing the primary outcome of a customer interaction is even more challenging considering the stresses of healthcare and the demanding expectations set by patients.
It is impossible to parry every single potentially negative impression formed in a patient's experience, and there is no way to guarantee their willingness to show up-both literally and emotionally-to an appointment. A dental practice can, however, create as many safeguards as possible to minimize inefficiencies while promoting a positive environment.
Cultivating dynamic, effective customer service takes trial and error. It requires paying attention to the pitfalls unique to the dental practice in question. It is not enough just to make the office visually attractive, hire "nice" people, and provide quality dental services. How patients perceive the ease and continuity of their relationship to the practice, from the point of making the appointment to completing treatment, is what leaves a lasting sense of "good" or "bad" in their mind.
Here are six common customer service mistakes made in dental practices and tips for how to sidestep them:
1. Letting the Phone Ring
Letting the phone ring may seem innocuous enough; after all, the front desk person has to take a break at some point. Phones do get left unattended (more likely during lunch hours), and during that time the practitioner/owner can anticipate missing a few calls from patients.
These calls, though, could carry a litany of concerns or intentions. They may include questions about scheduling, inquiries seeking clarification or confirmation about an appointment, or simply queries from either existing patients or potential new patients about the practice in general. The thought process is that these individuals will call back, and many probably will. However, what an unanswered phone signals to a patient is far more important than the lack of information itself.
Some practices may have an automatic answering service that does its best to prevent the need for live interaction with an employee. Yet still, at the end of all the automatic prompts, there is usually an option to speak to a real person, which may be the preference, especially with older patients.
If the phone is not answered, it tells patients that the practitioner and staff are unavailable and unreachable. They become frustrated at not having been able to meet the goal of whatever their phone call was about. Moreover, the frustrating experience gives patients a small but memorable indication that the dental practice is not really "all about the customer."
To resolve this problem, the practice may benefit from staggering lunch hours so that someone is always available to answer the phone, and at no point does the phone go to voicemail.
2. Putting Someone On Hold Immediately
Phones carry many pitfalls. One of the most annoying from a patient's perspective is being put on hold. People don't like to have their phone call answered only to be placed in limbo where they are made to feel that they are not a priority.
If the front desk receptionist is fielding so many calls that he or she has to put patients on hold consistently, it may be time to take a closer look at how effectively other resources like the practice's website or Facebook page are answering basic questions. Effective use of online resources may alleviate this problem to some extent.
3. Neglecting to Welcome Patients by Name
People like to feel special, especially in medical settings where they may seem vulnerable and generally have high expectations. When hygienists or assistants bring a patient back to the operatory from the waiting room, it is critical that they always welcome the patient by name. This conveys to patients that the practice knows who they are and that they will be well cared for. Plus, it is easy and simple to do.
4. Failing to Pass Off Scheduling Effectively
At the end of an appointment, the dental team member who last sees the patient should accompany them back to the waiting room. It may seem like this wastes unnecessary time, but it helps ensure that the transition from middle to end of the appointment does not feel impersonal.
This approach is also beneficial because the team member can tell the front desk person how and in what time period the patient should be scheduled. This takes the burden off the patient to determine the best next step.
5. Not Sending an Automatic Courtesy Reminder
People lead busy lives, and it is easy to be forgetful about an upcoming dental appointment. This can especially be the case if the appointment was made six months ago or longer. Rather than being pushy or annoying, a practice can send out a reminder automatically two or three days before the appointment. Patients will likely appreciate the gesture, and it also lets them know that the practice team is awaiting their arrival.
6. Allowing Long Waiting Times
Nothing is worse for a patient than dutifully arriving on time for an appointment, only to wait ages in an uncomfortable, generally somewhat boring waiting room. No magazine browsing, daytime television viewing, or scrolling through social media can preoccupy a person forever.
Making patients wait is disrespectful of their time, and they will consider it as such. The common excuse for perennial lateness is that the conditions of dentistry and making a living require stacking multiple patients during the same time slot in case of no-shows. When all of the patients show up, however, the practice is left struggling to fit everyone in.
The reality is that if the practice needs to do this or the team is always running behind, the practitioner/owner should instead put the onus on the practice and not the patient. It might be time to re-examine how things are done and consider asking a few tough questions. Do more team members need to be hired? Are easier appointments being scheduled early when everyone is fresh, or is the team getting bogged down with complicated cases too soon in the day, then lagging? Perhaps a team meeting is in order so everyone can assess the situation together.
Good customer service is something a dental office should take pride in. It is not just about keeping patients from being upset or abandoning the practice. It is also having a generous mindset and considerate set of processes that contribute to making patients feel safe and appreciated. Good customer service is part of the total package of comprehensive healthcare.
About the Author
Lee Ann Brady, DMD
Owner, Private Practice, Glendale, Arizona;
Director of Education, The Pankey Institute;
Founder and Lead Curator, Restorative Nation (restorativenation.com), a learning community for dentists