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The art of customer service: No getting around it, dental patients return for the 'service'

Dec. 13, 2016
Elicia Lupoli, RDH, discusses the importance of customer service to dental patients.

By Elicia Lupoli, RDH, BSDH

Customer service is defined as "the provision of service to customers before, during, and after a purchase. The perception of success from such interactions is dependent on employees "who can adjust themselves to the personality of the guest."

While marketing to obtain new patients is considered critical to most dental practices, keeping the patients you have is just as important. Word of mouth is the best referral source and can also be the worst negative review.

Dental insurance policies are frequently changing. Patients are leaving their dental homes after years of service because of new insurance plans, or lack of any plan. Is it financial, or is it that they didn't feel their quality of care was enough to remain loyal? Learning and applying the art of customer service can guarantee that if a patient leaves it is not because of you.

One of the barriers between the public and their opinions of dentistry is us; we (the entire office) make dentistry a profit center. While all of health care is a business model, we are in the customer serving business first and foremost.

Think about what customer service means to you? Anyone who has worked as a waitress or bartender knows the meaning very well. Excelling in the art of customer service challenges us to perfect our "people skills." When you are in a job where your income is dependent upon tips, you tend to learn people very well.

Since I started practicing dental hygiene, I have always been successful with patient relations. I accomplished this by making patients my number one focus. Having great people skills always begins with the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would have them treat you. In most instances, the hygienist whose patients adore him or her has more job security than the hygienist who produces extra revenue, yet has many patient complaints.

A key to patient compliance

When it comes to patient compliance, we must first learn that we cannot make them feel or do anything they do not want to do. When patients arrive disgruntled or with a chip on their shoulder, how many of us take it personal or become internally defensive? We are not powerful or important enough to cause patients that much stress and anxiety during those first few minutes when they sit in the dental chair.

Do not expect every patient or client to be compliant and follow your recommendations and instructions. You will set yourself up for failure. Does that mean we are not good at what we do or we should give up? Absolutely not! What is does mean is to put your best foot forward and relax knowing you did your job well and move on to the next patient. Some people are not willing to change or alter habits at that specific moment-maybe next time, when you will try again.

Although I'm in sales, I can sell anything when I believe in the product and the patient has at least speck of willingness (which is absolutely necessary). Nine times out of ten my patients get a power brush, but not always at the first or second visit, and not always from my office. I know the product well enough to be confident; my enthusiasm infects the other person. If you have no confidence, they won't have any in you either.

The other side to patient compliance is that I understand that one size does not fit all. If my office sells one type of power brush, that does not mean it is the only one that will work best for patients; I remain completely open to discussion with the patient. I may have "lost" the practice $50 in revenue that day. I also achieved trust and confidence from a patient that will transition into revenue down the road.

In online forums, some dental hygienists advise troubled colleagues to "quit" or "find a new place to work." This approach prompted me to write this article. Not everyone has the financial stability, as well as moral standards and work ethic to "just quit." It is much more effective to provide solutions that are reasonable and attainable when offering advice on social media.

Customer service resources

A plethora of information is out there about attracting patients, including sales/revenue, social media, SEO, and website overhauls. It can be a rat race to beat the next dental office to the top of Google's search results. Customer service is a great place to start.

For example, if reactivating patients and performing chart audits is on your list, I strongly suggest staying away from typed, generic letters that merely suggest something such as "come back and receive 20% off." That will attract the people who solely care about the money, or it may suggest desperation. This method is considered impersonal to many patients we are trying to contact. Try to phone them if they haven't been to the practice in a while or have missed their appointment. They may have a good reason, such as a loss in the family or a medical challenge.

Avoid having anyone other than their providers make the phone call or write the letter. One of the providers involved directly with their care is ideal. If the patient's absence is due to an illness, I print out material on the medical ailment and its relationship to oral health, which portrays care and concern while helping them protect their dental investments.

Phone calls or handwritten letters reveals effort. What other customer service tools can we use?

Try to learn how to read (get to know) your patients. One of the best ways is to ask questions. Most people love to talk about themselves if given the chance. If you don't believe me, stop talking and start listening.

When I have a new patient, I immediately make my entire world about them. I find out what they like and want out of the office and, more specifically, me. "If I could do anything for you right now to make you happy and comfortable, what would it be?" They usually suggest something nondental, and then, "Oh, you mean my mouth?" The conversation starts based on humor.

When patients express a wish about their mouths, your answer should always be, "You can have and do anything you want!" "You can have a brand new smile and set of teeth that will never decay, if you want." The answer is always yes!

I add, "As long as you have the money to pay for it," continuing a relaxing banter while letting the patient know they are my current priority. Patient rapport is critical. Whether you are new to an office or have been treating the same patients for 30 years, anyone can develop relationships and trust quickly. It is a matter of perception and listening, but most of all a desire to want it.

Financial considerations

Please allow me to address a statement that often places fear or frustration into the minds of many hygienists: "Treat the patient, not the insurance." Why are dental providers hung up on this gentle reminder? The wording may be different, yet it is the same thing our dental hygiene education taught us-learning how to provide patient care, hence "treat the patient." Did you learn dental benefits and insurance in hygiene school? Were we told how and when to discuss finances? Let go of the fear that you are diagnosing along with the idea that patients cannot afford prevention or treatment. It is our job description to provide the public with oral health recommendations that will keep or get them healthy.

If the dentist is onboard and the patient won't comply, start by asking the patient why. By asking the patient, you are starting a dialogue and inviting them to own their own dental health or disease. Once you are absolutely certain the patient truly understands their current oral state, then you can decide on your plan of action. Do not assume it is insurance and financial until the patient confirms or denies. I have too often been the provider and let others handle scheduling during their financial coordination and was told the patient cannot afford it. Six months later, I resume discussion with patients who then go ahead with treatment.

Frequently, I read that hygienists struggle with patients' compliance with periodontal therapy. A common case is when the patient was seen six months ago (or even every three months) and not told they needed therapy. The dental hygienist may have felt too new to the patient or to the field. A shared interpretation is the dental hygienist feels as if they didn't complete their job well six months ago. Whatever the case may be, accept it, move on and make a fresh start.

The patient may ask, "How did I get this in six months?" Use your basic knowledge of periodontal education: "It is multifactorial and episodic in nature."

For accuracy, ask patients if they have any questions and then proceed to schedule their therapy before they leave you. If you do not, you may walk them up front, and, if they are confused with all the information that has been given, they may say they will think about it or may get turned off during the fee presentation. Anything can happen when patients leave your treatment room.

Walking the patient to the front is proper, and don't be afraid to shake their hands-traditionalists and baby boomers appreciate this.

Some dental hygienists get frustrated when patients won't comply to achieve or maintain oral health. Instead, they will schedule a $600 appointment to whiten their teeth. The public often does not understand what a "healthy mouth" means. In customer service, you give them what they want first. Oral health will be brought up again when you explain how to keep that "white" smile. RDH

Lesson from my first job

I was a new graduate and, of course, learning about the time crunch. I had asked an assistant to help me by taking x-rays of a patient whose appointment was supposed to start 10 minutes before. Being a young, new hygienist may have been the reason why she didn't help. Another strong possibility is that she may had been neglected by others who were lazy and didn't actually need the help.

Regardless, the dentist later asked why I was running late. I explained, and he inquired if I had asked the assistants. I said I had tried in the past and didn't want to make waves.

He immediately called a meeting, and I was fearful that everyone would hate me. However, what he taught me along with everyone else on that day was this: "Everything we do is for the patients and not ourselves. If you help her or him, you are actually helping the patient and therefore helping my business and your job security."

So what does this mean? While we all have our own job titles and descriptions, it is up to every team member to be proactive in patient satisfaction.

Elicia Lupoli, RDH, BSDH, is a Fones School of Dental Hygiene graduate. She is the owner of a small LinkedIn group called "Dental Mentors." She attributes the start of her writing journey to Shirley Gutkowski, RDH, BSDH after meeting her at CAREERfusion 2016. To contact Elicia, send an email to [email protected].