Now more than ever, dental practices have a golden opportunity to shine over the phone. According to a 2020 survey by Arizona State University, “customer service is worse than ever, and more people are enraged about it.” Inattentive, unhelpful, impolite interactions are becoming the norm, making it much easier for thoughtful, caring businesses to truly stand out. There’s no better place to start for dental practices than with every new-patient call.
An increasing number of people may be embracing apps, email, and texting to make appointments or answer their questions, and you can hardly blame them. However, patients still want to talk to a human being. That’s good news because texting is highly inefficient. One study says that humans speak at about 125 to 175 words per minute and can absorb up to 450 words per minute, while an average typist can only manage to peck out about 40 words per minute—and that’s on a full-size keyboard! Clearly, you can accomplish a lot more a lot faster on a call.
So, how can you take advantage of the low bar for telephone customer service these days? Simple. Try to knock it out of the park on every call, every time. If that sounds like a very lofty goal, it’s not. A new-patient phone call takes about the same amount of time and effort for your team, regardless of whether it’s done with genuine empathy and enthusiasm or utter indifference.
It might be tempting to slack off a bit in times like these when anything better than bad is good. But so many of my clients have demonstrated that a little extra effort, consistently applied, can help blow away patients right from the very first interaction. More importantly, it’s the first step toward getting them to tell their friends and family about your practice.
Plus, if you’re an independent dentist, you might want to consider this: DSOs and large group practices are consolidating their operations, and an increasing number are investing in specialized call centers run by professionals and staffed by trained representatives. The good ones know what they’re doing, so it’s worth putting in some time and training to ensure your practice is better.
Luckily, it’s not rocket science. While there is a framework for how a successful call is executed, as well as best practices within that framework, you can give your team lots of leeway to make calls personal. I suggest encouraging them to be themselves and inject their own personalities into patient interactions. It’s a sharp contrast to the stiff, rigidly controlled pseudo-conversations that characterize bad call experiences. Let’s touch on some basic tips:
- Answer the phone by the third ring. It demonstrates attentiveness and enthusiasm on the part of your practice. Let it ring for too long, and you risk the prospective patient hanging up or thinking your practice is overly busy or disorganized (which, frankly, is true of a lot of businesses these days).
- Smile! Studies suggest that smiling releases serotonin and endorphins, and that helps people add sunshine to every call. If that’s the case, why not train your team to treat calls as if the patient were actually standing in front of them?
- Introduce yourself and give your name. Sounds simple, but it’s often overlooked. Doing this helps forge a personal connection with the caller right from the start.
- Welcome the patient (“I’m so glad you called; you’ll love it here!”), gather information (“How can we help you? How did you hear about our office?”), and offer reassurance (“We can definitely help you with that. Dr. Jones has extensive training with x.”). Listen carefully and repeat the patient’s information back to him or her to demonstrate that he or she is being heard.
- Use the patient’s name throughout the phone call. Do this for the same reason you introduced yourself at the start of the call, to help make a personal connection.
- Record the caller’s information on a phone sheet. A phone sheet can also serve as a guide for every call, so you’ll always remember which questions to ask and in what order to navigate them. This is one way you can focus more on listening and less on remembering which information you need to get.
- Communicate the anticipated length of the appointment. If patients have no idea how long it will take, then it’s completely subjective whether the appointment took too long, and patients are more likely to be disappointed (after all, for some people, 2 minutes spent standing in line at the grocery store is an eternity). If you clearly state that they’ll be in the office for, say, about 90 minutes, you’ve set a clear expectation.
- Make sure they know where you’re located. Don’t assume that even patients who are local know where they’re going. Talk them through the directions, and be sure directions are also on your website so you can include a link as part of your new-patient information.
- Let the conversation flow naturally. The last thing you want during a patient’s initial contact is to make him or her feel rushed or like he or she is just another number. Be flexible and go with the flow. Some patients enjoy a little small talk to put them at ease, while others like to get right through the process.
- Be aware of inflection, pace, and tempo. The tone of your message is as important as the message itself. Delivering the right words the wrong way can undermine your efforts.
- End every call on a positive note. Confirm the patient’s information, and then express how much you’re looking forward to seeing them.
Here’s what a very basic call might sound like. You’ll likely want to allow extra time for small talk, questions, and anything else that happens organically.
OFFICE: “Thank you for calling Jones Dental! This is Kay. How may I help you?”
CALLER: “I’d like to make an appointment for a cleaning.”
OFFICE: “Great! When was the last time you were in to see Dr. Jones?” (Note: We use this phrasing to clarify whether you’re talking to an existing patient or a potential new patient. You do not want to offend any of your existing patients by asking, “Have you been here before?”)
CALLER: “I’ve never been there before. This will be my first time.”
OFFICE: “Welcome! I’m so glad you called. You’ll love it here! May I ask how you heard about our office?” “Are mornings or afternoons more comfortable for you?” (Note: Always offer 2 appointment times.)
CALLER: “Mornings are better for me.”
OFFICE: “How about next Tuesday at 10 am?”
CALLER: “That will be fine.”
OFFICE: “Okay, Mike, and your last name is?”
CALLER: “Smith, and that is spelled S-M-I-T-H.”
OFFICE: “Great, and the best daytime phone number to reach you, Mike?”
CALLER: “(555) 444-1234.”
OFFICE: “Okay, Mike. You’re scheduled with Debbie, our hygienist. She is great and very gentle. You’ll be in great hands. Do you need directions?”
CALLER: “No thank you. I drive by your office all the time.”
OFFICE: “Well, Mike, again, my name is Kay, and we look forward to meeting you. We’ll see you next Tuesday at 10 am.”
Notice the scheduling coordinator did not ask the patient questions regarding insurance, health history, or the date of their last dental exam and cleaning. In my experience, clients have enjoyed more success by getting the patient in the door first and impressing them with their “wow” factor. However, some clients feel differently, so you have to choose which approach is right for you.
I also suggest scheduling a follow-up welcome call from the doctor to a new patient before the appointment. Ideally, this should be done within 48 hours after the initial contact. Doing so will increase patient satisfaction and make it more likely that the patient will keep the appointment. And don’t worry: We know doctors are busy, so leaving a voicemail is fine if the patient doesn’t pick up.
A welcome call from the doctor might go something like this: “Hello, Mike, this is Dr. Jones, your new dentist. I saw you recently spoke to Kay and scheduled your first visit with us for Tuesday, December 28, at 10 am. I’m calling to personally thank you for choosing our office and to see if there’s anything we can do for you to make your first visit with us more comfortable. If there is anything you need or you have any more questions, don’t hesitate to give us a call.”
A patient’s perception is reality—especially in today’s world of social media and online reviews. Setting the right tone for each patient’s new visit is some of the best marketing you’ll ever do. That’s why it’s worth the effort to do it right. The payoff is increased loyalty and retention, as well as better word of mouth, which is not only free advertising but also the most trusted kind.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ms. Huff is Benco Dental’s practice solutions ambassador, bringing more than 40 years’ experience as a professional coach specializing in business systems, team motivation, leadership, and profitability. She is one of Dentistry Today’s Leaders in Dental Consulting. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclosure: Ms. Huff reports no disclosures.