A lesson in service from ducks

Dec. 1, 2004
At the recent ADA annual meeting, in Orlando, I had the pleasure of staying at the Peabody Hotel. A lovely property, the Peabody is known for two things � exceeding customer expectations and their ducks.

by Janet Hagerman

At the recent ADA annual meeting, in Orlando, I had the pleasure of staying at the Peabody Hotel. A lovely property, the Peabody is known for two things —exceeding customer expectations and their ducks.

First, the ducks. The tradition started more than 70 years ago, at a sister property, the Peabody Memphis. Apparently, the manager and a friend had returned from a hunting trip, placing their live duck decoys in the hotel fountain, as a joke. The ducks were a big hit and became a hotel tradition. Now, at 11 a.m. daily, their descendants march down a red carpet to the orchid-adorned, marble fountain, while John Philip Sousa's "King Cotton March" accompanies the parade! The lobby is crowded with onlookers and the whole process reverses at 5 p.m., when the ducks return to their "duck palace." Naturally, I was one of the picture-snapping onlookers.

The hotel's marketing division has incorporated the duck theme throughout the hotel. Ducks adorn everything from coasters to bottles of shampoo. Cocktail napkins recount the history of the ducks. The main hotel restaurant is called Dux. (Incidentally, none of the hotel restaurants serve any duck!) Bath soap is even shaped like a duck! The gift shop is full of duck merchandise, including a myriad of floatable rubber duckies. Needless to say, the ducks at the Peabody Hotel are unforgettable!

Also memorable is the seemingly effortless way that the staff exceeds guest expectations. For example, one evening as I arrived to dine alone, the maitre d' noticed the book I was holding, and escorted me to a table with adequate light for reading. On another night, the concierge made dinner reservations and went one step further by writing down the restaurant's name and phone number. This was quite handy the following day, when I had to cancel those reservations. These small details impress people, make them remember, and want to return.

My experience made me think about dental customer service, which is one of my favorite topics. As clinicians, you may tend to focus only on the clinical aspects of your care. Indeed, clinical competence is a basic necessity. However, your patients are unable to determine clinical competency. Your patients won't notice if you have left calculus, if that sealant was improperly placed, or if you missed those 5 mm periodontal pockets. What they will notice is how you treat them. Like it or not, your patients judge you by the service that they will or will not receive from you.

• Are you on time?
• Are they addressed by their name?
• Do you make them feel pampered, cared for, and special?
• Do you ensure that they are comfortable during their visit?
• Do you anticipate their needs ahead of time?
• Do you pre-appoint all of your patients, assuring them of ongoing care?
• Do you contact patients after difficult procedures (SRP) to see how they are feeling?

With the advent of cosmetic and want-based dentistry, pampering patients and five-star dentistry have become buzz words in our industry. However, you don't need a "spa"practice to exceed your patients' expectations and to reap the rewards of patient longevity and loyalty.

Years ago, the Rockefeller Foundation did a study to determine why people leave one business and patronize another. I find their results remarkable. Among the usual reasons of competition, lower prices, location, and unresolved conflicts, the overwhelming majority had changed because of "no special reason." This tells us that no one was paying attention to keeping their customers.

We can learn a lot from this and how it pertains to dentistry, particularly in hygiene, where we are supposedly committed to "ongoing care." What do you do to ensure patient retention? What is your patient retention? The dental industry averages a 30 percent re-care rate. How many of your patients are active at any given time? Active means that they have a restorative or hygiene appointment. Taking care of your patients means keeping them in your dental "family" continual care cycle, and not letting them fall through the cracks.

Pampering customers and exceeding patient expectations does not come easily. The Peabody service that I experienced wasn't merely happenstance, but the result of conscientious determination, requiring focus and preparation. Staff meetings are mandatory to:

• Create your own vision of exceptional patient care.
• List specific examples of how to exceed patient expectations.
• Commit this to paper in your practice manual.
• Train all team members.
• Role play using scripts to reinforce, so it seems effortless.

With preparation, focus, and practice, exceeding patient expectations will eventually become part of your office culture. Continuing with the duck theme, a dental office can be compared to a swimming duck.

In other words, your patients should experience smooth and seamless pampering throughout their entire appointment experience, much like a duck seems to glide smoothly and effortlessly across the water. What you don't see is the duck paddling furiously beneath the water in order to sustain his motion. The often intense team interaction necessary to maintain fluid dental schedules is something the patient should never be aware of during the office visit. Rather, the patient's perceptions should be of an oasis-like sensation of pampering and calmness, smooth sailing, like the duck gliding along the water.

Here is a partial list of how to exceed patient expectations:

• The doctor calls new patients to welcome them to the office before they ever walk in the door for the first time.
• Acknowledge each patient within eight seconds of entry.
• Minimize time in the reception room to five minutes or less.
• The office schedules all specialist appointments for referred patients.
• Provide massage pads and comfortable neck pillows for each chair.
• Record the patient�s blood pressure on the back of your office business card for the patient to keep.
• Call every patient after a difficult hygiene procedure, as well as any requiring anesthesia.
• Provide warm, moist towels so they can freshen up after messy procedures.

What can you add to the above list?

As I left the Peabody Hotel, the valet asked where I was going and then offered to give me directions to the airport. Indeed, his instructions were much simpler than what I had found on Map Quest.

Another need had been anticipated and met. Then, as I waited for my car, yet another valet asked me the same question. After I explained that I had already been provided with this information, he asked if I would need to gas up my rental. Now, this is something that I never think about until I'm already on my way to the airport. I loved the fact that he had anticipated my need, and directed me to a nearby gas station along the way.

You may not have ducks in your office, but you can exceed your patients' expectations and generate loyal, raving fans.

Janet Hagerman, RDH, BS, is a speaker, writer, and the director of dental hygiene for Coast Dental. She can be reached at [email protected].