If customer service seems worse these days, it’s quite delightful when good experiences do occur. I’ve had my share of awful experiences lately, and, based on the complaints of others, declining customer service trends seem like the new normal. When I do receive good customer service, I thank the person for being helpful, kind, knowledgeable, and efforts.
An article a few years ago stated 80% of customers would leave after more than one disappointing service experience. If that is true, many service experiences in dental offices have the opportunity to be or damaging to the practice. During dental visits, service comes from the front office, the dental hygienist, the dentist, and the dental assistant. If any of those interactions with staff is perceived as rude, uncaring, or dismissive, that could end a patient’s time with the office.
Dental Customer Service
Dental customer service provides a valuable experience to patients so that we can have the opportunity for repeated and consistent business, leading to the better oral health of a patient. Unfortunately, the saying that a person will tell 10 people if they have a terrible experience and only two if they have a pleasant experience is true. It seems customer service isn’t revered as it once was with businesses, so delivering good customer service can be a competitive edge.
According to Google, customer service is “the assistance and advice provided by a company to those people who buy or use its products or services.” Personally, for me, good customer service is when I already know I’ll go back to that place or person for repeated service by the time I leave a business. Bad customer service is when I know I will never return before I leave the business.
Customer service is viewed from the customer’s expectations. For example, I know people who tip better at a restaurant because their water is always filled, and the server is always checking on them. On the flip side, I also know some people who tip better with less service since they don’t want to be bothered often during a meal. Expectations are everything.
In general, people have unique needs and expectations that need to be fulfilled in order to feel good about an experience. In dentistry, bad customer service can be, for example, “the hurt of getting deep under the gums,” which can be viewed as enduring a torturous visit. On the other hand, good customer service can be “the hurt of getting deep under the gums to provide a good cleaning,” and the perception is of enduring an excellent cleaning.
A patient perceives certain impressions as good or bad service. Dental professionals can try to provide a top experience within reason.
Our days are all about time and the clock. Patients who arrive early for appointments obviously respect time ‒ theirs and ours. Patients who show up late for appointments, without a phone call, respect no one’s time. Some patients think that if they’re not seen a few minutes before their appointment time, we are late in starting the appointment. Others believe the appointment starts at the time they arrive, anywhere from five to 30 minutes into their given appointment time.
For good customer service, try to take every patient back just a little early, if possible, assuming you’ve taken care of your needs (a sip of water, bathroom break, instruments sharpened, etc.) If the patient is late, everyone in the office should be on the same page – what is considered too late to receive full treatment? For example, if a patient is more than 10 minutes late, do they only receive radiographs and/or periodontal charting and an exam with scaling taking place at another appointment? At times, bad service is taking the late patient and rushing through the appointment to get them out on time so that the next patient won’t be started late. Or, worse, making the next patient who had nothing to do with the previous patient pay the consequences of leaving late.
Making a patient feel rushed could feel like the service was subpar and sloppy.
Acknowledging the Patient
Acknowledging a patient is often layered. From the time they enter the building to the time they leave, they should be noticed and attended to. They are paying our payroll. Why not treat them exceptionally well. Greet them as if you want to see them. Some patients are easier than others for this but do your best.
When walking to the operatory, walk with them at their speed, not way ahead of them like it’s a race.
Before starting treatment, explain what is on the schedule for them today, such as radiographs, prophy, exam, and fluoride. Some will decline certain treatments (i.e., fluoride treatment), and they have that choice. Letting them have some control and say gives them comfort, but still explain the importance of recommended treatment.
If patients have any concerns, take the concerns on with a purpose as if they were your concern too. Rather than dismissing a concern as “Oh, that’s very common; it should go away soon,” make an effort to recognize the concern and show the value that we care about them. Do what’s needed to resolve the problem. If it’s a sore tooth, ask questions to know more about it, figure out what’s causing that specific tooth pain. Is the tooth sensitive to cold (recession?), hot, or sweet (decay into the pulp)? The answer may determine the cause and help guide you to the next steps, such as radiographs, percussion tests, bite adjustment by the doctor, or desensitization treatment, etc. The patient wants results, which is a specific plan for pain relief.
Some patients wait days before they come to the dental office for an issue. They try everything they can to resolve the issue at home. When these patients seek the next step, a solution is what they need. They don’t want to hear, “Take ibuprofen, avoid hard foods, avoid that area, try desensitizing toothpaste.” They’ve tried all that, and it obviously didn’t work, hence the reason they are mentioning it.
Some patients come in as soon as they feel any different sensation in their mouths, and they may need to try simpler and noninvasive treatment first, such as at-home relief. Just acknowledging a patient’s issue is valuable.
Making the patient comfortable goes a long way. At times this seems like a burden when the patient is high maintenance. However, it’s the little things that count. If they need a blanket, provide one. If they need a pillow, make sure they have it. If they need warm water, provide it or be aware of the areas and have them swish rather than blast cold water onto their teeth.
Make sure they’re comfortable enough in the position you put them in within reason. A little comfort can make the appointment move fast and smoothly, while discomfort makes it a long, brutal appointment for everyone. A comfortable patient can be really relaxed and almost fall asleep, but uncomfortable patients can be fidgety, anxious, grumpy, and can become a moving target as they try to constantly adjust their position, therefore prolonging the feel of the length of the appointment.
Just an hour or less with some patients can wipe you out for the day. So providing the best comfort as possible can be good customer service not only to the patient but to yourself.
Inform them of their situation. Let a patient know if an area in the mouth needs more attention or is at higher risk for an issue. Show specific spots in the mouth through intraoral pictures, radiographs, or a mirror and explain the results if it worsens. Rather than generalize a condition, individualize the situation and provide them control and responsibility to improve it.
I know this sounds like what we should be doing or are already doing, but to keep the treatment patient-specific is easier for the patient to comprehend. Rather than say, “If you don’t floss, you’ll get gingivitis,” show where inflammation is present. Explain that if this area doesn’t improve through certain home care procedures, there will be consequences such as recession or bone loss, and bone and gingiva don’t grow back.
Demonstrate certain home care aids and techniques so the patient knows how to specifically take care of themselves—saying “floss more often” does absolutely nothing, especially if it sounds like a dental motto. If they’re not cleaning interdentally effectively, then what’s more ineffective flossing going to improve?
This may come from a selfish point, too, as the better the patient takes care of themselves, the easier our jobs are. Taking a few minutes to provide certain techniques for a patient saves time and hand pain every time they come in for treatment, and is well worth it.
Waiting for Exams
When the wait for an exam is longer than desired, make sure the patient is aware that there will be a wait. Sometimes we really don’t know how long the wait is going to be when the dentist is with their patient. It could be five minutes or, in some cases, end up being closer to 30 minutes.
Keep the patient posted and comfortable. See if the patient wants to stay lying back or if they prefer to sit up. While it’s hard to make small talk with some patients during the wait, check in on them often to let them know they are not forgotten.
Again, some patients don’t mind the wait, while others are instantly agitated if they wait more than a few minutes. Respecting a patient’s time can mean a lot to them.
How many times have you heard a patient say after a crown is diagnosed, “The dentist must need a new car.” Overtreating can be a sure way to be perceived not only as bad customer service but untrustworthy. No one wants unnecessary treatment, as it’s a permanent alteration to a tooth, especially when it costs money and time. I’m hearing more frequent stories of patients being over-diagnosed. I briefly worked in an office that functioned on those protocols, where everything is a crown and non-surgical periodontal therapy.
When a patient arrives at a new office and is surprisingly “notified” about how horrible their home care is and they’re about to lose their teeth is not only shocking but depressing. Then add insult to injury with a humongous bill. For example, according to the office, they are no longer a prophy but now need non-surgical periodontal therapy, laser treatment, oral irrigation, and antimicrobials ‒ possibly quite confusing if they’ve never been aware of this condition. Or, they need crowns when they barely have any restorations.
Many offices promote production over patient care. It’s uncomfortable to walk out of a situation with the mind bewildered and perplexed due to an extensive treatment plan. With dentistry being such a small community, we are aware of certain dentists who are good and who are not so good, and we are aware of dental organizations who have reputations of overtreating.
Respectful diagnoses and good customer service are what’s best for the patient. The reputation of trustworthiness, competence, friendliness, and simply the patient’s view of not perceiving like they’ve been taken advantage of during an appointment are qualities of good customer service.
Dismissing the Patient
At the end of the appointment, walk the patient out. Dismissing them to find their way to the front desk can make them feel abandoned. Plus, making sure they make it to the front desk ensures they will schedule any future appointments or pay any bills.
Let patients know it was good to see them and that you look forward to seeing them at the next appointment.
Money is a deal-breaker. If a patient isn’t warned about the cost of a procedure, it can make a patient very unhappy. Although the patient is responsible for knowing their insurance and asking about the cost of procedures, the perception is that the dental office was sneaky, dishonest, or deceitful. When explaining fees, outline the options that the cost may be more as sometimes the course of treatment can change during the procedures. Generally speaking, this is the front office’s territory. The clinical staff should be just that – clinical.
I had an issue with a dermatology office. I talked with them beforehand and received a proposed fee for the copay. They told me it would be the cheaper copay as my insurance at the time had three different copay amounts. Before I made an appointment, I stated that I was looking for an office under the lower tier copay rather than on the higher tier copay, as it’s a $60 difference. They ended up billing my husband and me under the highest amount tier copay. Costing us an extra $120 was exactly what I was trying to prevent. And then they charged for a procedure that wasn’t even done. Needless to say, I found a different, more ethical dermatologist.
The Patient’s Perception
What we consider good customer service may not be perceived the same way as a patient. When a patient is diagnosed with multiple issues, they may look at it as “every time I come to the dentist, I always need work done.” The dental professional’s perspective is often, “Come in more often or have better home care, and you won’t always need work.” It’s preventable in our eyes, but the patient may not see it that way. To explain treatment in a way that isn’t blaming or faulting anyone can make it a trustworthy experience.
People want to feel as if their own specific needs were taken care of rather than the goals or the needs of the office. What I mean by this is to provide treatment for what the patient needs or can benefit from, not what the insurance covers or making the daily financial goal.
In the end, if the patient feels well taken care of and respected with their oral health, time, and money, they will return. Good customer service is when the patient returns for each appointment. They have a choice about where they can go, and they choose your office. That’s a compliment.