How to win in this economy with great customer service

When I ask dentists, "What sets your practice apart?" at my seminars, the responses are generally the same — ...

by Roger P. Levin, DDS

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When I ask dentists, "What sets your practice apart?" at my seminars, the responses are generally the same — my service mix, my facility and location, my clinical skills, my experienced team, and my customer service. While these can all be important differentiators, it is often this last one — customer service — that has the greatest impact on growing your patient base.

Why is customer service so important?

In today's global economy, the world is becoming smaller and more homogenized. For example, you can order a Big Mac in 119 countries on six continents. Standardized experiences are becoming the norm. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be harder to stand out from the crowd, especially if you and the business around the corner are offering similar services. This is the dilemma most dental practices face.

As businesses become more and more similar, the public can purchase the same items or services just about anywhere. This means that people's buying decisions often will be based on how much something costs. Businesses can still stand out, but it takes more than just a quality product — it requires outstanding customer service, too.

Dentistry — The last frontier

Dentistry is one of the last industries where customers have a personal relationship and feel a close loyalty with providers. However, in tough economic times, patients will certainly think more about how often they will go to the dentist, how much they are willing to spend, and whether they will stay with practices that don't accept their insurance. Recent Levin Group data indicates that production in dental practices has dropped anywhere from 5% to 18% during the last 12 months.

The changing face of customer service

Many of you will assume you understand customer service. However, customer service is about more than being nice to patients. I hope to surprise you in this article with a very different approach to understanding what customer service means in the best practices.

I recently had the opportunity to spend time with a number of our clients that produce more than $1.5 million in their general practices. In a roundtable discussion, we talked about what makes their practices different from others. Some of the key points included:

  1. These doctors have regularly changed their practices and services over time.
  2. They have spent a great deal of time and money training their teams, including the use of outside consultants to impart the highest level of knowledge to the team so the dentists can focus on growing the practice.
  3. They upgrade their systems on a regular basis, realizing that steady growth requires updated systems, even if these systems have only been implemented within the past five years.
  4. They have strong internal marketing and communications programs that educate patients about all available services.
  5. All staff and doctors have excellent interpersonal skills to interact with patients in a positive way and develop excellent relationships.
  6. Case acceptance is very high. Not every dentist in this group claimed to have a superlatively high number of new patients, but they all enhanced their ability to present treatment and have it accepted on a regular basis.
  7. They offer a variety of payment options, including outside financing from a company such as CareCredit®, to make treatment affordable.
  8. The patient experience in the practice is simply superior to the experience patients have as consumers in most other businesses or practices.

Stage III Customer Service™, which these high-end general dentists utilize, is not simply about being nice to patients or even wowing them. The days when that is enough to differentiate a business are nearing an end. In a difficult economy, like the one we are experiencing right now, cost is a major consideration. Yet, many highly successful practices are still doing better than expected, despite the current downturn. What they have recognized is that the customer service of just a few short years ago is no longer sufficient.

Stage III Customer Service™

Stage III Customer Service™, plain and simple, is all about the patient experience. Thus, from a customer service standpoint, it is not about the clinical dentistry, the staff's appearance, nice language, or even the use of superior scripting.

Think Disney World. Think an Apple store. To be successful in today's business environment requires more than the ability to provide excellent clinical dentistry. Yet, as doctors, we believe that if the clinical result is superior, then patients will get what they need, pay what the doctor deserves, and be extremely appreciative.

The only problem is that this model never worked at all. Dental patients are consumers who do not fully understand what they are buying. As I have often mentioned in the approximately 100 seminars I give throughout the country each year, “Patients do not understand clinical dentistry and are not interested in the technical information — they are focused on the benefits they receive!” Of course, outstanding clinical care is critical, but almost every dentist is an excellent clinician.

Today, it is all about the patient experience, and this has to be carefully orchestrated like a ballet. For example, Levin Group teaches clients 71 steps involved in a new patient appointment. Each step is thoroughly analyzed from the standpoint of achieving excellent clinical dentistry, but these steps also create an outstanding in-office experience.

There are challenges in achieving Stage III Customer Service™. For example:

  • Most dental staff members appear to be staying in offices for three and a half years or less. This means that as these staff members rise to the highest level of expertise, they tend to leave the practice. Most dentists recognize there is a significant challenge in identifying staff members who can grow quickly with the practice, master technical skills, and understand Stage III Customer Service™.
  • Doctors themselves will need to reorient their belief systems. Most doctors believe that if they are excellent dentists, they will be successful. While we always need to meet or exceed the standard of care, the patient is paying more attention to the experience than anything else.
  • Everything has to come together at the same time. The physical look of the office, the excellence and expertise of the systems, the clinical experience, the appreciation for referrals, the convenience of payment options, continual staff training, practice leadership, and a host of other factors must be in place before Stage III Customer Service™ can ever be achieved. Practices with inconsistent systems will never achieve Stage III Customer Service™.

Getting started with Stage III Customer Service™

The first place to begin with Stage III Customer Service™ is to review the steps of your systems. Do not wonder whether patients are happy. Analyze every system to figure out how to make each step more effective. Keep in mind that the absence of complaints is not the presence of Stage III Customer Service™.

The next step is to review all verbal communication. How does the staff talk to patients? What are the answers to their frequently-asked questions and objections? How helpful are staff members when they receive routine questions and how helpful are they when they receive nonroutine questions? When treatment is presented, are patients informed about all payment options, including outside financing?

The next step is to support every patient in the most effective way. You should be able to tell patients that your practice will provide an outstanding experience and support them all the way through treatment. Then you have to live up to it!

This means continual staff training, ongoing exposure to customer–service education, and refinement of customer–service skills. When the practice appearance, doctor, team, and systems all come together, you can achieve Stage III Customer Service™.

Since identifying the value of Stage III Customer Service™, Levin Group has spent decades helping dentists successfully implement it into their practices. We believe that Stage III Customer Service™ is as important as any other system in the practice. The more difficult the economy, the more likely patients will choose offices that provide the highest levels of patient care and customer service.

Practices that have Stage III Customer Service™ are still appreciated and have a greater opportunity for growth in this economy. They offer a variety of payment options to make treatment affordable. These practices have a higher level of patient satisfaction despite a changing economy.

Can you implement Stage III Customer Service™? Absolutely! It is not an overnight process, but you can do it. Many other practices have!

DE readers are entitled to receive a 20% courtesy on the Levin Group"s Total Practice Success™ Seminar for all general dentists. The seminar will be held May 28—29 in Nashville. To register and recieve your discount, call (888) 973-0000 and mention "Dental Economics&trade" or send e-mail to customerservice@levingroup.com with "Dental Economics™" in the subject line.

Roger P. Levin, DDS, is founder and CEO of Levin Group, a leading dental management consulting firm that is dedicated to improving dentists' lives. Since the company's inception in 1985, Dr. Levin has worked to bring the business world to dentistry. Levin Group may be reached at (888) 973-0000, or at www.levingroup.com.

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