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Customer relations

Dec. 1, 2011
You are not only the clinician; you are the concierge. No one warned you how significant this part of your job would be.

Your role in customer satisfaction

by Lisa C. Wadsworth, RDH

You are not only the clinician; you are the concierge. No one warned you how significant this part of your job would be. Unless you want to create a new answer for every situation that comes up between you and your patients, let’s review six points that will ensure you are building relationships and not simply providing a service.

Take a moment to contemplate how you perceive “customer service” versus “customer relations.” Are they the same, similar, or not connected? Of course they are connected, but critical thinking commands a front row seat in separating the two and successfully developing your ability to handle both.

Customer service is defined as “an activity, performance measurement, and philosophy.” The website that I visited for this definition,, said that there is no real definition for customer service. As implied, it is an activity, performed with a goal and a philosophy.

As dental professionals we must plan, execute, and deliver our specialty. Depending on our skill levels, interest in our profession, and number of years in practice, we can imagine how the definition of customer service could shift due to our internal influencers. Customer service creates a feeling of accountability and acceptability, whether the patient is involved in a five-minute ordering process or in ongoing hygiene appointments. Therefore, your ability and interest in supporting patients at all times no matter what the situation is always under scrutiny.

Examining the word concierge

In the opening statement of this article, “You are not only the clinician; you are the concierge,” was not intended to be derogatory. My definition of concierge is someone who takes care of my needs and makes me feel important and pampered. These are people who support our overall well-being, happiness, and ability to enjoy life.

To my surprise, the definition of concierge on is “a person employed (as by a business) to make arrangements or run errands.” Again, this is not what I had in mind. I view those of us who work closely with patients as the support system for patients’ dental as well as mental support, not as errand girls or “tooth scratchers.”

In search of a definition that would support my view, I googled the words “medical concierge” and found something closer to what I had in mind. A contraction of the definition is “doctors who improve their quality of care by limiting the number of patients they see, and increasing the time they spend on preventive medicine so that less medical treatment is needed.”

Besides the medical consultation and care, the medical concierge provides patients with responses and support via e-mail, links to blogs, and direct communication to the physician or physician’s assistant via phone or Skype. Helping patients focus on wellness is the driving force behind the medical concierge physician. It should be noted that while some concierge practices do not accept insurance, all of their patients are encouraged to carry health insurance for services used outside of the practice.

The practice of dental concierge

After reading about the medical concierge, I focused my search on the dental field and was pleasantly surprised to find dozens of sites that used the words dental concierge. Society and the media have placed
dentistry high on the list of professions that need to expose a softer, safer side to how we manage patient care. Website after website lists dentists that claim to practice in the style of a dental concierge, or that employ team members that ensure a pleasant patient experience.

Good to know that the definition of concierge is not all bad. Armed with this information, my job was to look at the difference between customer service and customer relations.

We established that customer service is the act of completing expected services in a professional and pleasant manner. Customer relations is building, reconstructing, and providing benefits to patients in a way that creates value, credibility, and loyalty. Two words that help us understand the definition are appreciation and validation. In this case validation means that we as professionals stop giving advice, and take time to just sit back and listen. If we stop talking it is amazing what we will hear.

Customer relations means building brand or practice loyalty by responding to your patients’ needs before they know they have needs. Patients’ needs and choices change as the science and services within the field evolve. Relationships in the dental profession, just like in our personal environment, are built with integrity, loyalty, and a profound sense of empathy, all within a secure, trusting environment.

Building customer relations and fostering long-lasting relationships with patients is paramount. Savvy patients are looking for honesty, integrity, and just the right amount of personal attention to fit their personalities.

What sustains a relationship?

In “How to win customers and keep them for life” (Leboeuf, 2000), an explanation offers five reasons why patients fail to bond with a practice:

  • 1% die
  • 3% move away
  • 68% because of indifference toward customers by staff
  • 14% are dissatisfied with the product
  • 9% because of competitive reasons

The one I find most troubling is the high statistic regarding the patients that leave the practice because of perceived, and I stress perceived, indifference toward the patient from the staff. The staff includes the dentist too! With this statistic so high I ask, what is indifference? To answer this, the whole team should examine every step of our process.

The office experience starts before patients walk in the door. How? With the telephone conversation. A smile can be heard through the phone. Some consulting firms suggest hanging a compact mirror in front of the team member who handles the phone. Each time the person makes or receives a call, he or she should look at their image in the mirror and if they look distracted, they are distracted.

We all know the power of one’s tone of voice. As an aside, the new reality show “The Voice” is beating “American Idol” in the ratings. Why? Because the judges are choosing the winner on voice alone, not the entire package — just the beauty, clarity, and meaning coming through the microphone.

To place a positive spin on the topic of indifference, let’s discuss how the team can enhance the patient experience without feeling as though we’re putting on a show. However, remember that every day is showtime! We are providing a service for our patients. To keep the relationship strong, the visit must remain patient-centered; if you are having an off day or are in pain, do not share this with your patients! Your weaknesses do not give them confidence in your professional services or a stable foundation for a professional relationship.

Help the administrative team stay abreast of any health challenges your patients are facing. Keep these discussions private; in fact, this is the first reason for holding the daily huddle.

I do not care if your huddle is at the end or the start of the day; huddles provide the framework for developing successful relationships. I will not belabor the point that the daily huddle alone can transform your practice. I could write an entire article about the importance of this practice growth tool. If you have questions or suggestions, call me.

Taking the relationship to the operatory

We have already discussed the meaning of a relationship. Now let’s look at subtle changes we can incorporate to provide the most successful dental visit possible.

• Medical history evaluation: All team members should feel comfortable asking patients about changes in their medical history at each visit, even if they were just in the office two days ago. The medical evaluation provides the setting for true empathy, expression of understood privacy, and a chance to help patients manage dental concerns caused by any medications.

It is surprising what information patients will volunteer during this conversation. Many will tell you how they are disappointed or frustrated with their primary care physicians. Write this down, in shorthand. We can learn from these telling points of view. Comments you will hear are — they always run late, the doctor does not listen to me, I am always repeating myself, and I often come away with the feeling that he or she did not hear me. Take this info and learn from it!

• The personal information sheet: Warning! This may be the most important intake sheet you add to a chart, but this is a page for you and your team only. If you are not yet paperless, it should be the last page in the chart, easily accessible, and a color different from the others. It should be easy for you to find and use. Notes on this page should specify the needs, wants, celebrations, likes, and dislikes of the patient.

Why is this important? This information will allow you to stop speaking in generalities with each patient, and to become more personal. It will serve as a reminder of stressful situations you may want to avoid discussing, such as a divorce or illness.

Most operatories are fairly private, but to ensure that you and the patient are the only two hearing your conversation, I challenge you to be totally present during your medical history evaluation and walk back into your operatory. After seating the patient, take a seat yourself. Sit facing the patient, and try to make full eye contact. Ask a patient how they are, and how you can help them today.

At first they may question you: “What do you mean what can you do to help me? I’m here to have my teeth cleaned.” You may respond, “Yes, but how can I make you more comfortable? Is there anything else that would be helpful for me to know to make your visit more beneficial?” Pause, and wait for their response. A lot of personal information can be gleaned from this one question.

Creating a confidential environment also means that team members must not invade this space. Be sure to set boundaries that your teammates follow, including the dentist.

Meeting expectations

Meeting expectations means being present and listening to your patients’ concerns. One of the primary reasons relationships end is that one member feels unheard or unimportant. To this concern, learn the art of active listening. Many books, online courses, consulting firms, or personal coaches can help you learn the art of active listening. Active listening means to verify and clarify what you’ve been told. Ask any questions that will help you understand.

Empathy and understanding go a long way to cementing a relationship. This is not to say you must agree with your patient; it just means they know you heard and acknowledged what they said.

An example of this was provided to me a few weeks ago. A friend knew that a statement made by a colleague was not correct. Instead of arguing the point, she simply stated, “You might be right.” Might was the operative word and allowed for further investigation, saving the face of her colleague and keeping the integrity of their relationship intact. I find this to be really useful in many aspects of communication.

Remember: even when a patient is completely wrong, they might be right!

Keep your eyes and ears on the patients and treat them as you would like to be treated. Most patients are accustomed to minimal communication with their health-care providers, so when you practice simple listening techniques, they’ll feel assured that you care about them and your relationship.

The topics covered in this article ensure that you’re practicing customer relations and not customer service. Should you need clarification or want to share a story or practice that has worked for you, please feel free to write or call me.

Happy relationship!

Lisa C. Wadsworth, RDH, is a lecturer, coach, and president of Lisa C. Wadsworth Inc., a company focused on the integration of implant dentistry into your practice, and communication skills that lead to the acceptance of technical treatment plans. In her latest lecture series, Lisa brings life lessons to support the importance of “Ergonomics”for all of the dental team. Lisa can be reached at (215) 262- 6168 or [email protected].

Rules to live by

  • Never be alerted verbally about the arrival of your next patient in front of your current patient, ever!
  • Never discuss another patient in front of your current patient, ever!
  • Never break a confidence, ever! (Unless it is a legal abuse issue).

The egg treatment

The egg treatment includes all parts of good communication and management of expectations. Simply stated, never leave your patient unattended once he or she is seated in your operatory. This is their time, not yours. Be ready with all instruments, papers, requests; everything you need so that your time with the patient is seamless. A warning here — the first few times you try this, you will be amazed at how often you’re not completely prepared to give your undivided attention to the patient.

Once your visit is complete, do not hand a patient their chart and set them free to find their way to the administrative area. Escort your patient to the administrative assistant and present the patient to this team member. This practice is an engaged hand-off and is worth all the extra time it takes. Turning your patient loose after taking off the bib resembles that of letting a dog off a leash. Provide as much attention to their exit as you did to their entrance.

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