Customer Service: Treating Patients Right The First Time and Every Time

Just what does customer service entail for a dental practice? Unlike retail businesses, in the dental field we can’t offer 30-day return policies or hold store-wide clearance events. Yet we can implement tried-and-true – and out-of-the-box customer service practices learned from our corporate brethren.

Consider the customer service offered at Disney theme parks, or Nordstrom department stores. How about those companies who have made the 2011 Customer Service Hall of Fame? Trader Joe’s, Costco, Southwest Airlines, FedEx and Amazon.com are on that enviable list. And so are Apple retail stores.

If you’ve never been in an Apple store, it can be an impressive experience. Stores are neat, clean and free of clutter. Plentifully staffed, employees are friendly, highly knowledgeable and strive to make immediate contact with visitors. There’s no pressure to make a purchase, because employees are taught not to sell but to “help customers solve problems.” One training manual states that the role of the sales associate is to “understand all of your customers’ needs — some of which they may not even realize they have.”

Apple’s policies are simply stated in the acronym “APPLE”:

A – Approach customers with a personalized warm welcome.
P – Probe politely to understand all of the customer’s needs.
P – Present a solution for the customer to take home today.
L – Listen for and resolve any issues or concerns.
E – End with a fond farewell and an invitation to return.

Dental offices can be more like Apple Stores. Or we can learn from Zappos.com, the highly successful on-line shoe department store which recently was purchased by Amazon.com. In his book, “Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose,” by Zappos founder Tony Hsieh, (Hsieh, T. (2010) Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, And Purpose . New York: Business Plus), Mr. Hsieh outlines values that he and his employees live by, including “Delivering WOW Through Service.”

Mr. Hsieh describes “delivering WOW” as surprising and delighting the customer. For example, Zappos’ policy has been to not charge for shipping upon ordering OR returns. For frequent customers, Zappos will sometimes surprise them with an upgrade to priority overnight service. This means a customer can order shoes as late as midnight and have their order delivered by 8am the following morning, when they may be expecting three-to-five business days. WOW!

We’ve come up with our own acronym – DENTIST – that like Apple, can be employed in any dental office.

D – Deliver positive experiences
(Every interaction with a patient, from the first phone call, to every visit, to the pleasantness of the reception area, to the communication with staff, assistants or the doctor, actual treatment and care, to filling out forms, to confirmation techniques, to billing statements – should leave a lasting positive experience).

E – Employ high achievers
(Every team member should be on the customer service bandwagon of your practice and want to excel at providing it. The positive energy radiating from you and your staff will positively affect the relationship your practice has with its patients).

N – Network in the community where your practice is located
(Getting involved as an office or by yourself in community events, charitable work or with local youth sports teams either as a sponsor or a participant makes for fantastic PR with far-reaching results).

T – Take the extra step
(Fresh brewed coffee or a selection of teas, or even water bottles with your logo in the reception area? Warm blankets in the operatories? Ensure your patients are comfortable and at ease).

I –  Identify and anticipate the needs of your patients
(Listen to your patients! This can be the most powerful customer service policy employed in your office. Patients want good feelings and solutions to problems above anything else your practice provides.)

S – Surprise your patients with thoughtful service
(Do something radical and deliver the WOW– send flowers to a patient’s workplace at the end of their treatment. Make an impact with that patient’s co-workers. Secure a ride to an appointment for an elderly patient. Make a difference).

T – Throw in something extra
(Have your patients leave with something after every visit, which could be as simple as an informational brochure about treatment you’ve recommended, to a coupon for teeth whitening, or even a gift card to a local business. The reciprocal reward from partnering with other local service-oriented businesses such as coffee houses, massage spas, or health clubs could be tremendous).

Simply taking the time as a team to brainstorm ways to improve service to your patients will bring forth a great return on your investment. Make it a priority to treat your patients the way THEY want to be treated.

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