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Keys to customer service

Dec. 1, 2006
Dentistry has become a multimillion-dollar industry. Yet, what sets practices apart in any community is customer service.

Mark L. Radler, DMD

Dentistry has become a multimillion-dollar industry. Yet, what sets practices apart in any community is customer service. The quality of services offered by any dental practice is extremely important. However, the patients’ perception of the practice and doctor are more centered in customer service and the way they are treated by the doctor and staff.

When dentists graduate from their professional schools, they have a great void in the area of business models to follow. They are professionals, but also business people who have the day-to-day obligations of wearing several hats within their practice domains. Every day, this business person must be the CEO, CFO, head of HR and benefits, and doctor. Dental school does not prepare students for these roles. Students are often left to hit-or-miss mentoring as an associate, continuing-education courses, or a “fly by the seat of the pants,” trial-and-error approach to business.

Further, hiring and training of staff is a foreign concept. Too often, staff members are hired because they are the only ones who answered the doctor’s classified ad in the local newspaper. Many clinical staff personnel have been through the “revolving door” of dental practices - not staying very long in any one place. The question is, why? And why should you hire someone with that employment record? Business staff personnel often are hired without a thought to their communication skills - or lack thereof. These are your front-line employees who represent you to the public.

Before a customer service program can be developed, it is essential for the practice to have a written office manual that outlines the policies and procedures of the practice. This manual is the business model and mission statement of the practice. It says who you are and clearly states your objectives. Without this resource, your staff will be lost in a sea of ambiguous policies that are not consistent. The office staff needs to be fully informed of your business policies and objectives in order to effectively follow your lead. This can only be accomplished if there is a written plan with sound financial and business policies in place.

Customer service is not an abstract concept, but rather a philosophy on how we treat people. The easiest way to describe this is to ask yourself how you like to be treated. Suppose you went to a restaurant that is noted for its excellence in food preparation. After a long wait, you are seated - even though you had a reservation. The server then treats you as if you are interrupting his day; like your presence is a big inconvenience. Service continues to deteriorate and your needs are ignored. The question is: would you return to this establishment? The answer is: probably not. The same parallel can be drawn in your own business of dentistry. Your patients are your biggest source of referrals. If you and your staff treat them well - like they are important to you - then they are more likely to recommend you to their friends. If they are not treated well, they will more than likely tell many more friends about their bad experience at your office!

Customer service is a concept that must be patient-centered, with the awareness that patients can always take their business elsewhere. To keep your patients satisfied does not mean overindulging their every need, but rather establishing a system of communication that informs and educates them. Having your staff sense what patients want and anticipate their needs is a top priority. The patient’s comfort should be of utmost importance. Treating each patient as the most important person of the day should be the goal.

Stand out

By recognizing the importance of customer service, the dentist and his or her staff can stand out as a premier practice in the community. The dentist and staff should review all aspects of patient management at regular staff meetings. Customer service begins with the telephone and the way it is answered, and extends to the way patients are greeted and how they are discharged from the office after treatment.

How do you judge the effectiveness of your customer service? By its results. First, if your employees are happy and if they derive satisfaction from their jobs, they will feel they are an important part of the practice. Staff morale will be high and this is conveyed to your patients, creating confidence and feelings of well being. Second, if your patients are satisfied, they will recommend your practice to their family and friends. This should be monitored monthly. Finally, if you are satisfied and happy in your practice, there is less stress and better production.

In today’s e-commerce society, many practices have developed Web sites to allow patients to view their offices and staff. These sites convey a message before the patient even arrives. They can be effective in setting the tone for new patients, as well as an opportunity for them to become familiar with you and your practice.

Many site designs are interactive, allowing prospective patients to ask questions and complete registration forms online. These can be a great introductory mechanism for new patients and also keep current patients informed about what’s new in the practice, including any expanded services or CE courses recently taken by the doctor and staff.

The use of high-tech tools is important, but the ultimate goal is to have a cohesive, efficient, and talented staff that enjoys their work, because patients can sense this very early on. They will sense a very low stress level in the workplace, which puts them at ease. How we hire and treat our employees is an essential element toward our goal of effective customer service. The end result is a more productive practice.

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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 Assistant Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at Drexel University College of Medicine. Dr. Radler is a frequent lecturer on practice management and practice transitions. He may be reached via e-mail at [email protected].

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