Mastering customer service

May 1, 1998
Excellent customer service is critical. It is no longer possible to build any high-level business that caters to specific needs without providing the ultimate in service. People simply will not pay for skill or knowledge. They want to receive service in a manner and in a setting in which they feel cared for. Customer service is as crucial to dental practices as it is to any other business.

A touch of class is not only sought by patients - they expect it.

Roger P. Levin, DDS, MBA

Excellent customer service is critical. It is no longer possible to build any high-level business that caters to specific needs without providing the ultimate in service. People simply will not pay for skill or knowledge. They want to receive service in a manner and in a setting in which they feel cared for. Customer service is as crucial to dental practices as it is to any other business.

Customer service is far more than being nice to people. It is designing systems that create an image for the practice and a level of treatment for patients. This image identifies you as providing higher quality care than other practices. Customer service provides the competitive edge.

For example, Hermes makes ties. The fact is that they are extremely nice ties, but priced well beyond most of the other nice ties available. So what is the motivation for buying Hermes ties? Status is one motivation. However, unless you wear a sign that says this is a Hermes tie, the status of the tie is not necessarily obvious.

When you walk into a Hermes store, it looks and feels elegant. You are immediately waited upon by well-dressed and well-trained salespeople who devote their attention to helping you make a selection. The printed materials from Hermes also are magnificent. Their catalogs are clever and look more like coffee table books.

To select a tie from a catalog, Hermes furnishes you with different cover sheets that look like sport coats and suits to help you make your selections. The models in the advertisements and photographs displayed throughout the store are devised to make you immediately feel as if you should wear their ties and clothes. The elegance is distinct, but the customer service is more than evident. Hermes simply makes a person feel good.

The future success of your practice is directly tied to customer service. Everyone wants to be treated well. Customer service must become part of your practice`s culture.

Customer service is a management system. Only by integrating customer service as a routine activity will you build the proper image for your practice. People pay you for far more than the technical skill or technical service they receive. They are paying for an experience. Patients must leave feeling better about themselves and perceiving a higher value for your service. You exceed expectations through advanced customer service. The way the patient is treated, level of education, appearance of the office, pleasantness of the staff and positive experience all contribute to exceeding expectations.

Advanced customer service begins with the telephone. The telephone is the lifeline of any public-service business. Although patients regularly visit the office, most have some involvement with the office via the telephone. The telephone is nothing more than a communication tool, and the way you communicate reflects the level of customer service you practice.

At The Levin Group, we have determined that the telephone should be answered after two rings. Answering after one ring makes it look as if someone is sitting around, waiting for the phone to ring. Answering after three rings has the caller waiting too long.

Most front-desk systems should be set up around the telephone rather than the reverse. A two-ring system often is indicative of the number of people needed at the front desk. In other words, if the phone is regularly ringing three, four or five times before it is answered, it means that the front-desk staff probably is overworked and distracted. This staff could not possibly be offering high levels of customer service to the caller, to the patient standing at the front desk or to other members of the dental team.

The new patient experience

A major component of customer service is the ability to immediately impress new patients. When a new patient calls, information should be given about the practice and the doctor. It should be a full exchange of information. Part of the front-desk person`s job is to educate patients about the practice. This helps create the image that this practice has the expertise necessary to treat this individual or family. This initial interaction begins to build the perception of the value commensurate with the fees that will be charged.

When a new patient enters the office, a sequence of events should occur. The front-desk person should recognize that this is a new family coming to the practice. An immediate greeting should be offered, making an assumption that this is a new family. If you are wrong, simply apologize and no harm is done. The front-desk person should also come out from behind the front desk and shake hands with the new patient or patients.

At this point, an overall orientation of the practice should begin. This might mean simply taking a few minutes to educate a patient about the services offered in the practice. Take the time to do an overview of the health history of the patient. In a dental practice, it also is appropriate to give a brief tour of the facility, as long as you do not feel it will create or increase patient apprehension.

The new-patient orientation is critical. It allows for that first impression of the office from a customer-service standpoint. Keep in mind that most people are not going to pay for the technical dentistry they receive, but rather for the way they are treated. If the practice is a "zoo," with everyone running around and looking extremely disorganized, the end result will be a sense of discomfort for the patient. These uncomfortable feelings often lead to a decrease in the perceived value of the services.

It must be understood that the patient is always right, and you must do everything possible to ensure a positive experience. The philosophies and strategies discussed here can quickly be implemented into your practice. Host a discussion about some of the following questions:

- How is our practice perceived from a customer-service standpoint?

- Do patients find it easy to work with our practice?

- Do staff members treat each other well in front of patients to demonstrate a level of "lateral" service?

- Do we go out of our way to make each patient`s experience positive?

- Do we greet each patient quickly and promptly and by name?

- Do we talk about convenient scheduling on the telephone?

- Does the dentist and staff use the name of the patient in routine conversations?

- What can we do that we are not doing now to better serve our patients?

Customer service is the key to success in almost every business today. It is important to recognize that most people do not pay for the actual service or product they receive, but more for the way they are treated and the level of positive experience they have. People are becoming far more discriminatory about what they will pay for and the level of quality they expect to receive. Put your practice on a plateau with the best and work diligently to keep it there.

Tips for telephone use

* Answer the telephone after two rings.

* Greet the caller pleasantly. For example, "Good morning. This is Dr. Walker`s office. How may I help you?" Or, "Thank you for calling Dr. Walker`s office. This is Mary. How may I help you?"

Be sure to define exactly how you want the phone answered. It should be consistent regardless of who is answering the phone, and it is important to put enthusiasm into your voice. I always encourage people to pretend that their favorite movie star is on the other end of the line. This example points out that, if you knew your favorite movie star were calling, you certainly would put a lot of energy and enthusiasm into answering the telephone. When answering the phone becomes routine (and it quickly does), the voice begins to sound dull, which the caller perceives as a lack of interest.

* Front-desk individuals should always gear themselves to answer the telephone on a positive note. The first salutation is of primary importance in setting the attitude for the caller. Use one of the phrases taught by the world-famous Ritz Carlton Hotel chain: "My pleasure," "Certainly," and "No problem."

The Ritz Carlton teaches its employees to always include one of the above quotes in a conversation with a customer. The same should hold true for your office. For example, suppose someone calls with an emergency. It may not be a true emergency, but it is perceived to be important by the person who is calling. Instead of explaining to the patient how busy the practice is and that the doctor`s schedule is full, the front-desk person should simply say: "It will be my pleasure to get you in today. Let`s see if we can find a convenient time."

After all, you know you are going to schedule that patient. However, every so often, we make patients feel as if we are doing them a major favor rather than letting them know how much we care about them and that we intend to take care of their needs.

Get in the habit of regularly using "my pleasure," "certainly" and "no problem." This can make the difference between an ultra-positive telephone call and a neutral one. It also is a good idea to use the same phrases with patients when they are in the office.

* Use the word "convenience" at least three times when scheduling patients over the telephone. Because you cannot see the person who is on the telephone, this lets that patient know that you are going to make his or her scheduling experience as easy as possible. By referring to "convenient" or "convenience" at least three times, you essentially are telling the caller that you are going to make this an easy and pleasant experience. For example: "Mrs. Jones, we need to schedule your appointment for next April. Let`s try to do it at the most convenient possible time."

Statements like this mean a great deal to the patients, even if they cannot see you. This tells them that you care and that your level of customer service is very high. It also says that you believe every patient is special, that you recognize how busy the patient may be, and that you want to make the patient`s life as easy as possible.

* Always speak slowly and courteously. This is such an obvious statement that no one will be surprised to read it. However, we rarely realize how rushed we are when picking up the telephone in a busy dental practice. Our voice accelerates and sends a message that the caller is more of a hindrance than a help. Be certain that every patient feels as if he or she is unique and special and that you have more than enough time to respond to all of his or her needs and concerns.

* In each contact with the patient, answer all questions and go out of your way to summarize the conversation. A summary of the conversation ensures that both parties clearly understand the discussion and decisions made in that conversation. This avoids confusion later regarding the time, date or other information pertinent to the telephone call.

* At the end of the conversation, let the caller know how much you appreciate the fact that they called. People always are delighted when they hear something to the effect of: "I`m so glad you called. Have a wonderful day." This sends a positive and caring message to patients regarding the person answering the telephone in your office.

* If the caller has any concerns or problems, be sure that you get back to the patient with the information requested. It is never productive to have a conversation and not answer the patient`s major concerns or solve the problem. If the person answering the telephone is unable to solve the patient`s problem, he or she needs to get back to that patient with the information or have someone else return the call.

Customer-service strategies

There are many ways to provide customer service. In the long run, it will help you create a practice that is in demand and highly regarded. Try some of the following:

1. Make evening telephone calls. Calling in the evening those patients who have had extensive treatment demonstrates caring. The telephone call will be remembered long after discomfort from treatment is gone. People talk about these telephone calls and develop significant levels of appreciation because of them.

2. Reward children during their visits. Offering all kinds of gifts and bribes to children is a terrific idea. No child should ever walk out of your dental practice without some small prize. Children love this and parents appreciate it. It is amazing how such little, inexpensive items can make a difference in a child`s experience.

3. Do everything possible to make appointments convenient for your patients. All too often, practices run their scheduling book (or computer) based on their needs and ignore their patients` needs. The scheduling coordinator should keep in mind that every patient is potentially inconvenienced by these appointments.

4. Take a personal interest in your patients. Create a personal information sheet about every patient who comes through the practice. This is critical to knowing your patients. The more personal information you have about each person, the better the relationship will be.

5. Use the patients` names. Use the patient`s name at least three times during each visit. People enjoy hearing their names repeated, and they like the fact that you know their names. They do not want to feel as if you are just trying to get through the procedure and get them out.

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