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Ground rules for WOW customer service

April 1, 2004
If you are committed to offering 'WOW' customer service to your patients, you must live by 10 ground rules.

by Dixie D. Gillaspie

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Customer service depends on the attitude of the entire organization. You may choose to have one person who is your customer service expert. In dentistry, we usually call this employee a patient coordinator. But no matter how good that one person is, he or she cannot create excellent customer service unless the entire team is on board. More importantly, organizations always look to their team leaders to set winning examples.

If the team leaders treat customer service as their No. 1 goal, then there is no excuse for the rest of the team to not follow suit. But if the team leaders are reluctant to put customer service first, then team members who don't care to go the extra mile will feel justified in not doing so, and those who do go the extra mile for patients will feel underappreciated by their leaders.

A lot of businesses believe that customer service centers on the items they give patients (such as toothbrushes and floss), rather than the things they do. The real basis for customer service is how well your customers feel they were served ... and that begins with the people who serve them. If you are committed to offering "WOW" customer service to your patients, you must live by the following10 ground rules.

1 There are no bad patients, only bad relationships. Every practice has a few patients — typically from 2 percent to 10 percent — who really do look for a way to take advantage of anyone they can. The rest of your patients are good people who sometimes behave badly in your office. Work to build a more comfortable, trusting relationship with these patients and they may become some of your favorite people.

2 "Good enough" is never good enough. Your patients can get "good enough" anywhere. Also keep in mind that what is good enough in your book may not qualify as good enough for them. You will only create a "WOW" experience for your patients if you exceed their expectations.

3 Your tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language will be remembered long after what you said has been forgotten. Patients may hear what you say, but they interpret what you mean by the non-verbal signals you send. What you mean is a lot more important to your patients than what you actually say.

Listen to yourself and to each other. Use a tape recorder at staff meetings and analyze how your voice sounds when you are not on your guard. Watch for defensive or closed body posture and keep a smile on your face.

4 Make a good impression on the phone. Have you ever talked to a company representative who was so pleasant and helpful that you wished you could talk to that person every time you called for service? You probably don't get to talk to someone like that very often, but the "feel good" effect of that phone conversation carries over to your perception of the company as a whole.

When a patient is on the phone with someone in your practice, that person determines the patient's perception of your practice. Each team member's phone skills can make a patient look forward to coming to your office ... or dread keeping the appointment.

5 Never let them see you sweat! Have you ever heard the advise, "be like a duck, calm on the surface and paddling like hell underneath?" Your patients want to be able to come to your practice and think, "It's all about me now." If they perceive that you are rushed or that the office is in a state of chaos, it makes it impossible to believe that you are "all about them."

6 Images are worth a thousand words; always look the part. Before you speak a word, the patient has already created a perception of you. If you look like a top-notch business professional, you will be perceived as capable and trustworthy when it comes to money and contracts. If you look like a competent, caring dentist, you will be perceived as someone patients can trust to deliver high-quality dental care. If you look like a highly trained doctor, you will be perceived as someone knowledgeable about all that dentistry has to offer. And, if your own smile is healthy and attractive, you will be perceived as someone who values healthy, attractive smiles.

7 Printed materials should support conversation, not supplant it. Attractive printed materials that project a professional image are important in any business. Nevertheless, the written word is no substitute for caring, face-to-face conversation. Make sure you discuss anything you really want your patients to know. Don't just hand them a brochure or a form and tell them to read it.

8 Don't forget the power of touch. A handshake, a light pat on the shoulder or on the back of a hand are things that make us all feel cared for and included. Touch must be kept appropriate or it can become threatening, rather than comforting. Nothing says "I'm on your side" more clearly than touch. To create the same effect without physical contact, make sure you look patients in the eye during your conversation.

9 Take time to find out what patients want before you try to sell them on what you know they need. Never assume you know what the patient wants. Patients are individuals with different values, tastes, and perspectives. One factor that is pretty universal is that they all want to be respected as individuals. That is why you should never argue with a patient! Listen and repeat what the patient says to you. Let patients know that you hear what they are saying. Then, and only then, can you explain your perspective without coming off as argumentative. Patients need to know you will always give them what they want if it is possible. You should only refuse to give them what they want when it violates your ethics, your other patients, or their own best interests.

The "Golden Rule" says to treat other people the way you want to be treated. Keep in mind, though, that the way you would want to be treated may not be what your patients want. We call it the "Platinum Rule" — treating other people the way they want to be treated. Once you find out what patients want and deliver the treatment they want, they will be ready to trust you when you tell them what they need.

10 Never take your patients for granted. Patients don't pay less for your services just because you are having a bad day. In fact, giving a customer a discount when things aren't going right — without taking the patient's complaint seriously — is one of the worst things you can do. It may be appropriate to take some money off of their bill, but only if you also assure them that you will address the problem so that it will not happen again. Patients have choices about how they spend their money. Make them feel they get more than the fair market value for your services when they choose to spend their money with you.

When you are confident that the attitude of your practice ensures a "WOW" experience for your patients, then you may consider value-added services and perks. They will be that much more meaningful because your patients see that you go the extra mile because you care, not just because a consultant told you to do it.

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