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Initial Communication Your Lifeline to Practice Success

A hidden practice killer is lurking in about 50% of the practices in dentistry. Doctors, what you don’t know may be killing your practice or severely hampering its growth. As my staff and I make hundreds of calls to dental practices in any given month, we wonder how some of them survive considering the way their phones are handled. Answering the phone and knowing how to handle conversations with patients or prospective patients seems like a no-brainer. It is, however, one of the most important tasks in the practice, as it sets the tone for how patients are treated after they arrive and how interested in patients and dentistry you really are. What first (and lasting) impression is your telephone making?
Shockingly, about one third of the calls we make to dental practices are answered electronically. While voice mail, answering machines, or answering services are fine for after office hours, patients need and want to speak with a live person when they make calls to their dentist. Many of these calls are urgent. It could be an emergency toothache or broken tooth, a quick call while the patient takes a 10-minute break at work, a fleeting moment remembrance of a busy mom with a lot on her mind, or a harrowed executive about to board a flight who needs personal contact with your practice.
In talking with potential clients who call our firm for advice after several years of slight or dramatic declining numbers, the first question I ask is, “Is your phone being answered promptly by a courteous staff member who has all the proper tones in his or her voice when doing so?” Most often the answer is, “Well, they are so busy at the desk, sometimes it goes to voice mail,” or “We’re a little short-staffed, so sometimes my front desk person doubles as an assistant...but we always get right back to the patients who leave a message.”
This, in my opinion, is the “kiss of death” to a practice. No other instrument in the practice is as important as the telephone. How it is handled is paramount to continued growth. Show me a practice that has declined steadily over a number of years, and I can show you a practice in which the telephone is not a priority. To the staff in that practice, the phone is a nuisance. My question is this: do the staff members know that if they don’t take care of people on the initial contact, they have no job? In some instances, they couldn’t care less. They are getting their paychecks no matter what the production level, and working harder for the patient and the owner is not part of their makeup. It is time for a change! And sometimes, if the attitude of the front desk person is not going to change, the staff person must be changed. As I have said many times over the past 26 years, the person answering your phone makes or breaks your practice.


Let’s talk about tones of voice, which are very important as well as revealing. If an intense person answers your phones, the tone is hurried and stressed. If your phones are answered with over-the-top or fake enthusiasm, the caller is annoyed and the entire practice appears fake. If you have someone answering your phone who sounds like his or her last job was at the city morgue or as the social director on the Titanic, who wants to come to your practice? Robotic voices appear routine and unfriendly. Call your own practice from time to time and ask yourself this question: if I were calling several practices for the first time wishing to find a new dental home, would this be the one I like best? In fact, many shoppers do just that. They call 3 practices within the same 3-number prefix of their own phone and check out the way phones are handled. Make sure your scheduling coordinator has all 4 necessary tones to bring that new family to your practice. Many people say, “Oh, we don’t like shoppers, so let them go elsewhere.” That elitist attitude could be missing some wonderful families who do this for all services when they relocate.


(1) Friendliness. The person answering your telephone should sound friendly. They do this by saying, “Thank you for calling Dr. _____’s practice. This is Sarah. How may I help you?” Giving a first name personalizes the call from the first moment of contact. Giving one’s name also prompts the caller to give his or her name. The absolute worst greeting, which we still hear occasionally, is this: “Doctor’s office. Hold (click).” It will be necessary to place callers on hold from time to time in a busy practice. Knowing how to do this effectively is key. Caller No. 1 should never be on hold more than 60 seconds. When line 2 or 3 rings, the caller knows you have more than one line to answer. Saying to caller No. 1, “Mrs. Barkley, I have another call coming in. Please excuse me. I’ll be back in less than 60 seconds.” Answer the other line. If it is a quick answer to a simple question or statement like “I lost my card and can’t remember if my appointment is at 10 or 10:30 tomorrow,” then that can be handled in 2 seconds. If, however, it is a lengthy ordeal like “My daughter has a loose filling, and I think it’s the tooth Dr. _____ filled last month. And while I have you on the phone, I need to check and see how much we paid Dr. _____ last year. I’m working on my taxes and need a total.” This response will take time. Say to this caller, “Mrs. Davis, I need to pull your daughter’s chart and review it with the doctor. I also need to review your records to give you the total. May I please call you back in 10 or 15 minutes?” Make a note and return the call, but get back to the first caller promptly.
(2) Knowledgable. It amazes me how many people answering the phones in a dental practice sound as green as grass when it comes to answering patient calls. Nothing annoys a caller more than to have someone say, “I don’t handle that, and Susan’s busy (not here today).” Or the patient may ask, “Where did Dr. _____ go to dental school?” If the staff member has no knowledge of the history of the practice or dentist(s), how embarrassing is it to say, “Oh, I’ve been here 2 years, but I’ve never heard him or her say.” Worse still is the staff member who does not have the dental knowledge he or she needs to talk intelligently to patients or referring dentists. This truly diminishes the value of the services provided and the dentist providing those services. Clinical cue cards and in-office monthly role-play sessions would make sure every person in the office is “singing from the same sheet of music” in terms of verbal skills. What a difference this makes when answering the telephone or talking to patients within the practice.
(3) Enthusiastic. Callers can tell in the first 30 seconds of calling a professional office just how happy the person answering the phone is to be there. How happy does the person answering your telephone sound to the outside world? First impressions are lasting. A good test is to go across the parking lot with your mobile phone and call your own practice, disguising your voice with a handkerchief or napkin. Discover how enthused your scheduling coordinator sounds. Ask a few questions to determine how much they know about you, your practice, or dentistry. Then pretend you are calling to cancel the major treatment on tomorrow’s schedule to see how broken and failed appointment calls are handled. (If these calls are not properly handled, this is the reason some practices have more than their share of broken and changed appointments.) That’s another article in itself!
As I said above, too much enthusiasm is worse than none at all. In my lectures, I ask everyone to write down the number indicating their level of enthusiasm when answering the phones. The number 1 is no enthusiasm, and 10 is off the scale. If they write down 1 to 5, they need help making their voices more enthused. Numbers 6 to 8 are perfect, and 9 or 10 is overly enthusiastic and comes across fake. Getting your staff to a 6 to 8 level and keeping that enthusiasm is important to practice growth. Remember, if the person answering your telephone doesn’t sound happy to be there, the patients or prospective patients won’t want to be there either.
(4) Empathetic. In some practices, I have heard the resemblance to “Hilda the Hun,” or as one office aptly named its scheduling coordinator, “the Barracuda,” answering the telephone. These people are no-nonsense, have no soft spots in their hearts for others, don’t like children or animals, and probably ate their own firstborn! They also have no business sitting at the front desk of a dental practice that wishes to be known as a patient-centered facility. Talk about a conflict of interest! In a practice I witnessed years ago, a gentleman called the practice with an emergency. The person taking the call said, “We’re all booked up, but if you are in pain, come on in, but you’ll have to wait.” With no other option, the man arrived with a huge, swollen face, obviously in a lot of pain, and was greeted with “Have a seat, and we’ll get to you when we can.” He was left sitting in the reception room (doctor not even aware of his state of emergency) for more than an hour. Finally, a female patient came to the desk and said, “Look lady, I hate to see a grown man cry. Give him my 4 o’clock appointment, as the way you just treated him, I won’t be keeping it, and I won’t be back!”


What is the level of empathy in the person’s voice handling your telephone and greeting your patients? This goes such a long way in growing a practice. While I believe in external and internal marketing, I am often reminding others that if you handle the phones in your practice properly, you may never have to spend a dime on marketing again. As Tom Peters said in his book, In Search of Excellence, “Businesses in this country are spending millions of dollars to market and advertise, but they haven’t spent a nickel training their employees how to treat the consumer who calls or walks through the front door.” After recently calling hundreds of practices to update our database with clients’ current e-mail addresses, I say, “Amen to that!”

Ms. Miles is CEO of LLM&A and brings exceptional growth to dental practices worldwide. In her 27 years in business, she instinctively understands the business and people side of dentistry. She is the author of Dynamic Dentistry, the No. 1 text for taking a practice from ordinary to exceptional. She’s the founder of the highly acclaimed 2-day Dental Business Conferences and the Speaking/Consulting Network, which is in its ninth year. She can be reached at (800) 922-0866 or by visiting DentalManagementU.com.


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