Is the customer always right?

Aug. 1, 2007
The answer to this headline is both yes and no. Customers are not always right, but they are always the customers even when they’re wrong.

by Mark Radler, DMD

The answer to this headline is bothyes and no. Customers are not always right, but they are always the customers even when they’re wrong. Too many practices have rigid rules and “policies.” How many times have you heard the answer “this is our office policy”? This can only be described as rigidity. Every situation calls for some flexibility and leeway. By making your staff adhere to rigid rules, you prohibit them from providing customer service that will benefit your practice and image. You also repress their ability to make decisions without constantly asking you for advice - which is how doctors end up micromanaging their practices. You may even be one of them.

“Policy” should not be set in stone

If a patient asks why something cannot be done, your staff should not state that “this is office policy” and leave it at that; they should offer an explanation as to why something cannot be done. This is often enough to satisfy patients, yet rigid policies are common flaws in many professional offices. Solving patients’ problems is an essential part of customer service.

Where do we get our patients? They come from all sources - phone book ads, other professionals, friends and neighbors. Most should come from your existing patients - satisfied customers who feel comfortable recommending their family and friends to your office.

I am not putting down the value of advertising, i.e., phone book ads or “value packs” that come in the mail. I ask you though, when was the last time you personally chose a health-care professional in this manner? You asked colleagues and other professionals or friends about the professional you needed to contact. This is also how your practice should develop, and your staff is invaluable in this way.

The attitude that should prevail in a premier practice is that patients are the ones who pay the bills - and the salaries. Patients are value conscious, but they are also quality conscious, and can vote with their feet by going someplace else if they are unhappy.

Staff training is essential

The dental staff should be trained to understand customer service. The key to determining what patients want is to listen to them. Listening is different from hearing. Listening skills are about 75 percent to 80 percent of communication. By understanding the desires of patients, we as health-care professionals can help guide them to the services they need. Training staff on customer communication is essential, and dentists should not rely solely on sending staff to management courses. In order to compete in the marketplace with many other practices, the staff must be focused.

The “zones of service”

Phillip S. Wexler describes four zones of service - the Rigid zone, the Safe zone, the Progressive zone, and the Indulgent zone. The Rigid zone is doing everything “by the book” and adhering strictly to company policy. In the Safe zone, everyone is courteous, but everyone gets the same service. The Progressive zone offers exemplary, creative service; boutique style. Policies are flexible and used only as guidelines. The Indulgent zone continues with the same philosophy as the Progressive zone, but without consequence to the costs of providing these services.

Our practices should fall into the Progressive zone. Most dental auxiliaries and office staff unfortunately are not hired with this in mind, and training in these areas is not readily available. Unlike large corporations that hire job coaches and customer service representatives, the dental practice as a small business is not able to do this. So the question becomes how to incorporate this training into one’s practice.

Don’t be afraid of hard questions...or their answers

Another question should be: Once the customer service attitude is initiated, how can it be sustained and keep the staff motivated? One of the best ways to begin the process is to survey your existing patients. Ask how they feel about the office, services, waiting time, convenience of appointments, fees, resolution of problems, and more. The feedback will be invaluable and should be done anonymously and randomly. Surveys can be handed out in the office with a self-addressed stamped envelop for ease of return. Patients should be told not to sign them. Do this for several weeks and assess the results - good, bad, and ugly - at a staff meeting. The results will help you and your staff to formulate different approaches to problems. These can be great brainstorming sessions for the staff and will get them involved in the process immediately by taking ownership of problems and challenging them for solutions.

The ultimate objective is to improve the practice. Improved customer service will eventually lead to a happier staff, less stress, and improved production. A happier staff will generally create an atmosphere of relaxation in the office, which will definitely be perceived by patients. Give your staff reasons to take pride in their work and you can avoid high staff turnover, which indicates that the practice is operationally driven instead of people driven.

Everybody pay attention!

Every patient is looking for quality service. The attention paid to their needs is what will set your practice apart from others. Patients also want extra value, and they want their problems solved as they arise. In this way, you not only manage, you exceed your customers’ expectations. These are the “keys to customer service.”

Your staff needs to tune out their personal worlds when they come into the office and tune into the world of your patients, who also have lives, personal problems, families, jobs, and bills. Making their visits less stressful by listening to them and being empathetic can go a long way toward gaining their respect. When the dental staff listens and maintains eye contact, patients know they are being focused on exclusively. If the staff is preoccupied with their own issues, they cannot provide great customer service.

Most dental practice software has the capability of adding “sticky notes” to patient files. These are helpful alerts to issues that may arise with treatment, family issues, finances, and milestone events. The more in tune with patients the staff is, the more our patients will believe they are important to us. If they feel you consider them just another interruption in your day, you will not keep these patients no matter how well you perform dentistry. The “just take a number” attitude will not produce a quality practice.

Develop a customer service program

Developing a good customer service attitude starts with accepting it as a means to developing a quality practice. Instituting these attitudes within your staff is a little more difficult and requires a serious evaluation of who your employees are and how you hire them. Devote a whole staff meeting to this discussion and role-play everyday scenarios. An office retreat away from the office with a guest speaker to address these issues is also a helpful way to start the process. Not everyone grasps change easily, so starting a customer service and patient satisfaction program should be gradual and incremental.

An office with a happy staff is the best mechanism for developing a customer service program. The most effective means of internal marketing occurs from our staff. If we treat our staff well, they in turn will treat patients well. Employees who are not treated well generally will not treat the other employees or patients well.

Long-term staff members who are well compensated, challenged, and educated are the best source for maintaining a quality patient base and recruiting new patients. It is imperative not to overlook the relationship between the staff and patients.

Many practices use the slogan “new patients welcome,” but it is important not to overlook “old established” patients. These patients must feel “welcome” too. If too much effort is placed on cultivating new business, the established patients will feel they are no longer important.

Is the patient always right? I will reiterate the answer “yes and no.” It is all about how they are treated by everyone in the office.

Mark L. Radler, DMD, is a private pediatric dentist in Little Silver, N.J. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Dentistry and Temple University, he is an assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at Drexel University College of Medicine. He is a frequent lecturer on practice management and transitions and president of Merlin Consulting, LLC. E-mail him at [email protected].

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