HOW TO PROFIT It's not the technology; it's how you use it!

March 1, 2002

by Lorraine Hollett and Patrick Wahl, DMD, MBA

There's an old story about a harried businessman who asked for a bagel with butter at a fast-food counter in a busy airport.

"Take it yourself," barked the woman behind the counter. "We don't have people to serve you."

Furious, the businessman walked out — and found another fast-food counter.

"I'd like a bagel with butter, please," he said to the person behind the counter.

"Honey," she said, "take the biggest, plumpest bagel. Put on as much butter as you want — it's down by the end of the counter. And do you want coffee or tea with that?"

The businessman buttered his own bagel with a smile.

When a patient calls your office seeking emergency treatment, your first response should be, "I'm so glad you called our office. I'd be happy to help you!"

Throughout every telephone conversation, assure your patients that you really want to help them by speaking in a caring and friendly manner. Most importantly, take the time to listen to your patient, take notes, and always begin your responses with a positive phrase.

Five-star service
Five-star service is not about hot towels, muffins, or coffee bars. All of these things can be helpful, but service is really all about how your patients are spoken to and treated by you and your staff. Patients can be treated like royalty without any amenities, and they can be treated like chattel no matter how grand the buffet in the reception area.

The telephone is the first piece of office technology that will allow you to improve service as you eliminate billing. The staff member handling appointments should ask, "When would you be able to come to our office to see the dentist?" If your schedule is completely full, the person scheduling appointments should advise the patient when you can work in an emergency visit. Always explain clearly that there may be a wait and that the dentist will see you as quickly as possible. Offer directions to your new patients to help them find your office without difficulty.

Take a minute to help the emergency patient by letting him or her know the fee for the examination and radiographs and the payment options you offer. The American College of Dentists' Ethics Handbook for Dentists advises: "Fees and payment options should be disclosed to patients and agreed upon prior to any services being performed. Financial arrangements for treatment are part of informed consent."

Your patients appreciate being prepared to pay so they can receive treatment immediately. They certainly don't like to waste their time by coming over to your office for a visit and finding themselves unprepared to pay for treatment. They want to know what's expected, so there are no surprises.

Simply have the staff member in charge of financial arrangements say, "If I may take a few moments of your time, I'd like to make your visit as financially comfortable as possible by letting you know the fee for your treatment and the payment options we have available to help you." Don't just blurt out your fees and tell patients they "must pay" or "have to pay" at the "time of service."

As an example, the staff person might present it this way: "You will receive a complete oral exam, which is $50, and the doctor will need a complete series of X-rays, which is $125. The total is $175. We ask that you pay this by cash, check, or credit card before you leave the office. Will the payment be comfortable for you?"

More than simply quoting a fee, your staff member has explained the method and timing of the payment ... and she did it all without putting off or offending the patient by reciting your "policies." She then should advise the patient that "immediately following the doctor's recommendation, I will go over the fee for the treatment and the various payment options we have available to help you." Now your patient understands and expects that after the dentist recommends treatment, a staff member will help find a way to make the treatment more affordable by explaining your payment options.

Welcoming the patient
When the patient arrives, greet him or her warmly. Compare a real welcome, "Welcome to our office. We're glad you're here," with a mere, "May I help you?" Most importantly, make sure the receptionist asks every patient the defining question of the practice: "Is there anything that I can do to make your visit more comfortable today?" She then should introduce the patient to the dental assistant: "Mrs. Smith, this is Kim. She is going to escort you (not send you back) to the operatory." The assistant shakes hands with the patient and says, "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Smith. Why don't you come with me?" Sometimes an emergency patient will have to wait for the doctor in the treatment room. At Disneyland, care is taken to make time spent waiting in lines an informative and enjoyable part of the visit. Today, the federal government has solicited Disney's advice in making increased waiting time in airport security lines less bothersome for passengers.

Technology allows any waiting time in the treatment rooms to be utilized much more wisely. CAESY's new DVD format (, for example, allows the team member to show a brief, interactive presentation about endodontic therapy with the touch of a button. Technology today even can help make treatment much more affordable for patients, and can get you paid instantly as well. Several companies would love the opportunity to help your patients make payments without you being "the bank." The patient's application is simple and, when submitted online, it can be approved in less than 15 seconds!

Emergencies are perhaps your best opportunity to be paid in full by a most appreciative patient. With today's payment options, you can get paid in full for ideal treatment — and the patient need not make any payment that day. offers to process the payment to your account upon the patient's approval, even before treatment begins. When you are paid in full, cancellations and no-shows become a thing of the past.

Some dentists use long consent forms for procedures like root-canal therapy. Robin Goldberg, a general dentist in Connecticut, does something that is simpler and more effective. She simply comments to each patient during her treatment presentation that "You know, not every tooth is amenable to root-canal therapy." She can continue on from there, depending on the patient's level of interest in how she finds about a 90 percent success rate, how some canals have curves we can't see on a radiograph, etc. That one simple sentence lets patients know that root-canal treatment is a therapy and not a cure, and that the treatment is not 100 percent successful. She's covered what's most important. for the patient to know about root-canal therapy.

It's not what you say, but how you say it
An assistant's well-chosen words also can comfort concerned patients. Dental Economics' Editor, Dr. Joe Blaes, wrote in the pages of this journal a few years ago that the clinical dental assistant "has more contact with the patient than any other member of the team, even the dentist." Reassuring phrases include, "Your comfort is our first concern," "I'll be here with you every step of the way," and "Call me with any questions. I'm here to help you."

After treatment, it's not the hot towel that makes the difference — it's how it is delivered. Compare the experience of an assistant shouting, "Here you go," as she throws you a towel and runs out of the room, with another assistant who says, "Please take this towel to freshen your face. Indulge." Similarly, a coffee bar won't help if it's less than pristine.

Hot towels are one great way to exceed the patient's expectations at the end of a tiring visit. Perhaps you've tried offering patients hot towels in the past, but it was too much of a hassle, or one was never ready when you needed it. The ComfortSpa™ from Sharper delivers a perfect towel instantly with the touch of a button. You'll want to give one to "wow" every patient.

Before the patient leaves the office, do not ask, "How was everything?" You will elicit much more information by asking, "Was there any way that we could have served you better?" Then, listen. Thank the patient for whatever he or she shares and promise an immediate follow-up on any complaint.

Customer service isn't about being fake or about being subservient. It's about the great feeling that comes from knowing and appreciating that of all the offices your patients could have chosen for their care, they chose yours. It's about building trusting relationships with patients. It's about loving what you do, and it's about the simple idea of treating every patient exactly as you would a guest in your home.

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