Sidestepping Caller ID

Oct. 1, 1997
A staff that`s committed to communicating the availability of excellent dental care won`t get relegated to the answering machine

A staff that`s committed to communicating the availability of excellent dental care won`t get relegated to the answering machine

Daniel Bobrow

One of the simplest ways for a dental practice to increase production is to improve its rate of success with patient recall and reactivation. Note, however, that "simple" does not mean "easy." To be effective, there are a number of tasks that need to be performed in a consistent and timely way. There also are a number of interpersonal skills which must be mastered by doctor and staff. Finally, the work environment must be efficient and organized, yet supportive of all personnel.

In general, the chances of a dental practice`s success are maximized when everyone on the team perceives a personal stake in reaching the practice`s goals. You can help ensure that your team operates at its peak by establishing a rewards system which ties team members` compensation to the achievement of predetermined goals.

The doctor must create an atmosphere of trust to make sure the work environment is more efficient, profitable and enjoyable. Trust fosters communication, which is the key to problem-solving, and encourages the staff to offer valuable suggestions. In such an environment, the stage is set for success.

Once success criteria are outlined, the doctor must impart the necessary skills. Success at patient recall and reactivation requires your team members to put on their "salesperson`s hat." Be aware that there is enough potential for rejection and monotony that many people have a natural aversion to the task. Clearly, some people are better suited to this type of assignment than others. However, nearly anyone who is sufficiently motivated and exposed to the right tools can perform this task competently.

To be successful, the caller must have complete and accurate information on the patient (name, telephone number - both work and home, best time to reach that person, and a reason for the call - treatment presented, but not accepted; treatment diagnosed, but not presented, or recall). The caller also must have timely access to the information. Computers are a big help here, but it is not necessary to be computerized to have a successful recall program. Your staff also may need to commit to working after regular hours to contact people at home.

If you are computerized, ask your technical support person if your software supports remote scheduling and access to patient records. If so, your staff members may perform this task out of their own homes.

Your staff must commit to consistent performance of the plan. Owing to the nature of the assignment, many people devise ways to rationalize not making the calls. The bottom line, of course, is that the calls must be made and made consistently, or no amount of training and preparation will make any difference.

Listening for the `buying signal`

The key is finding people with the right mix of motivation and talent. Specifically, this means someone who possesses the interpersonal skills, i.e., the recognition that how you say something is just as important as what you say. It also means someone with a good understanding of the patient base and pertinent clinical procedures. Commanding the skills for handling patient objections to returning to the office, as well as identifying "buying signals" which indicate the patient is ready to schedule an appointment is also very important.

A number of groups and individuals offers assistance on staff hiring, training and motivation. Your colleagues or local dental society can probably help get you in touch with the right people.

The most daunting task might be the "digging out" of a large backlog of patients who need to be contacted. We offer two suggestions for addressing this challenge. You can parcel the calls out over time, at what is a reasonable number of contacts to make, or you can hire an outside firm to help you get caught up on your patient calls.

Next, decide how you will motivate your staff to perform the tasks required for your successful recall and reactivation program. One approach is to develop internal incentive programs. Set up goals for the staff. Create each goal with several factors in mind. First, clearly define goals so you know what to expect and the employee knows what is expected. Second, set goals that are attainable in the short term, but which form steps that fulfill a long-term goal.

For example, set a daily goal for bookings of recall or inactive patients. Another example is to set a maximum "no show" rate as a percentage of total appointments. Set goals for each week, each month, every six months and each year.

For example, if you want to see 200 reactivated patients over the next two months, and calls are made five days per week, the daily goal should be five per day (200 patients divided by 40 calling days). In this way, you are able to keep track of the program`s performance. If, by chance, after 10 days, 45 appointments have been made, your program is "under budget" by five appointments (45 made vs. 50 expected). This means that, to get back on track, five more appointments need to be made (e.g., six per day for five days). Be realistic and understand that you may need to revise your long-term goals occasionally, or your program might serve only to discourage your staff.

Once the goal system is determined, you need to develop the rewards program. There are two general types of rewards for performance: monetary and nonmonetary.

Monetary includes anything that requires the doctor to either directly or indirectly spend money on an employee. A few examples include salary increases, bonuses, increased insurance coverage, or days off.

Nonmonetary rewards include the staff`s satisfaction with a job well done, and the creation of an environment where innovation is encouraged and constructive criticism is balanced with "catching people doing something right." In short, offer rewards that are commensurate with the goal that has been achieved.

A good way to determine this is to discuss it with your staff. Let them tell you what motivates them and what they think an appropriate reward would be.

An order of calls to make

A description of each activity follows:

- It is important to schedule the next appointment at the time of the last appointment. If the patient does not know their schedule, agree to make a tentative appointment for which the patient will call to reschedule if there is a conflict with her schedule.

- The `friendly reminder` should include patient`s name, date and time of appointment, and request that he/she call if he/she needs to reschedule.

Some practices have an answering machine that does not accept messages. If the caller wishes to cancel, he/she is advised to contact the doctor directly at home or via pager. There are other methods to deter unnecessary rescheduling and cancellations as well.

- The reminder call should take place a few days before the appointment. The caller should state that this is a courtesy call following the reminder notice that was sent earlier. If the caller reaches the patient`s answering machine, a message should be left indicating that the office looks forward to seeing the patient for his/her scheduled treatment, and the office would appreciate being notified if the patient should need to reschedule.

- After the patient`s treatment is completed for that day, another appointment should be scheduled.

- If the patient does not keep his/her appointment, a call should be placed expressing concern. As a member of the practice`s family of patients, the doctor and staff wish to know if there is anything they might do to assist.

Effective recall reactivation system

The following table can help to track follow-up activity, especially if your office is not computerized.

Chronological order of tasks:

- Schedule next appointment

- Mail reminder

- Call to remind

- Date of appointment

- If no show, call expressing concern, otherwise schedule next appointment.

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