Dental Speed Dating: The Four DOs and DON’Ts of New Patient Calls

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Your first point of contact with a new patient is likely to be by phone. Those few minutes are the most valuable commodity you have to attract someone to your practice and establish a new relationship. Think of it a dentistry’s form of speed dating. If you handle the call appropriately, you can lay the foundation for a meaningful relationship. While people who triage these crucial calls understand this, they often struggle with how to handle them properly.  At some point in the call, things go south and the potential is lost. This has become more obvious lately since I have been helping a number of practices hone their phone skills.  With the assistance of recorded inbound calling, we have had the advantage of listening to some of these calls, analyzing what went well and where the team could improve. It is a valuable coaching tool that I encourage every practice to consider. (Personal Note to Staff: this tool is not designed to “spy” on you – it should be used to help you become better at what you already do.)

Let’s deconstruct the initial phone call and I will introduce you to some ideas that will help you become more successful with those patients looking for a new dental home.

First, it’s important to remember that every call has money attached to it.  People usually find your practice because of some kind of marketing. Be it from a billboard, web site, search engine, the newspaper, a patient referral or some other advertising source, the dentist has invested money in attracting these new patients. Whatever they saw, heard, or read was enough to encourage them to pick up the phone and call you. Keep in mind that when someone calls your practice, she is predisposed to liking you. She wants you to be the right place and she is hoping that you can help her with whatever the reason was that she called. If she has called the right place and you do the right thing, she will easily become your patient. If the call ends without an appointment, the practice has lost money.

There are four things you will want to focus on during each call.

1. Thank them for choosing to call your practice
I’m not talking about your standard salutation; “Thank you for calling Smile Valley, this is Jennie, how may I help you?” That is not a true “Thank you” – it is merely the way in which you choose to identify the practice. I’m talking about the point at which the caller has had an opportunity to share why they called and you respond to that initial information. This may seem obvious but I rarely hear a genuine “thank you” at this stage in the call.  Just remember that they have a choice of who they call and you were that choice. Let them know how much you appreciate it. Believe me, this is rare.

2. Be intentional
Avoid being mediocre or ordinary by devoting 100% of your focus and attention on the caller. When the phone rings and you are available to focus on the call, pick up a pen when you pick up the phone. Listen intently. Take notes verbatim (to transfer to their record later). Find out the caller’s name and address him by his name.  Acknowledge and empathize if you hear emotion (anxiety, frustration, pain, concern). This extra effort quickly becomes obvious to the caller and he will recognize your commitment and desire to help.

3. Find out WHY they are calling now
Why would someone call a dental practice in the first place? When people are well cared-for and everything is fine, they will not have a reason to call or make an appointment to see you. Something happens to shift someone from not wanting to see a dentist to wanting to see a dentist. What might that be? A problem develops that is compelling enough that they have been motivated to contact a dentist. That problem could be many things and sometimes it is not as obvious as we might think. It is your job to suss that out.

For example, if someone calls with a broken tooth and wants to see the dentist, you may assume that the problem is clear: you immediately consider them an urgency patient because you assume there is pain associated with it. However, that condition could create a variety of other problems as well: it might cause pain, but it might also make chewing difficult, or it may be visible and look bad, or the person might not have any of these problems but has a concern that the rest of the tooth might break or it will begin to be painful.

Let that drive where you take the conversation. This is the foundation of triaging a call so you can best determine if you can provide the service they require and you can find the appropriate time in the schedule to help them.

Speak to the obvious – only that which has been said. For instance, if the caller says “I broke a tooth! I need to see the dentist right away!”,  don’t guess about what is happening.   Instead of responding with “Are you having some discomfort?”, try “It sounds like you are concerned…Let me see if I can help. What’s going on? ”

Let them tell you their story then ask appropriate questions to fill in the blanks. If their issue is not so obvious, ask them to “Tell me what’s going on today” or “Tell me what concerns you have and what you will want the doctor to pay attention to”  instead of “What is your chief dental complaint?”.

4. Find out why they called YOUR practice
How did they choose your practice to call? What do they know about you?  Chances are that whatever they learned about you from advertising or a personal referral will be useful information about what they value. For instance, if the reason is because they work in the same office building, proximity and convenience may be important to them. If they heard from a friend that the dentist was gentle, it is likely that is high on their list of priorities. If they aren’t quite sure about another dentist’s diagnosis and recommendation and they learned you provide second opinions, trust is likely an issue. Ask them to clarify or confirm what you have heard. For example, “It sounds like location and convenience is important to you, Hank. Is that the case? Aside from that, are there other things of importance that you would want us to know?”.

What you must NOT do:

1.Don’t make the patient jump through hoops.
Try your best to make it as easy as possible for the caller. Convey to the patient how you can help instead of telling them about the obstacles they must overcome to become your patient.
For example, if you don’t have an appointment on a certain time or date, you might phrase your response by saying “I CAN find you something comparable on a different day – how does Tuesday sound?”

2. Don’t use negative phrases or words. Steer clear of “You have to…” “You need to…” or “Our policy is…” kind of statements. Instead of “No, we don’t take that insurance”, you might say, “Let me tell you what we CAN do for you”.

3. Don’t answer the phone if you are not prepared to devote your full attention. I know. Many dentists get annoyed when they hear the phone ring more than two times but it is sometimes better to go to a carefully-crafted voicemail message than being answered by someone whose focus is on something else. If you would like some suggestions on effective voicemail triage and messages, contact me and request our white paper; VOICEMAIL GUIDELINES

4. Don’t put the caller on hold for long periods of time. While your “voice on hold” recording may be very compelling, no one wants to be on hold for more than 30 seconds. Simply offer to call them back in a timely manner.

There is an art to establishing a relationship with a new caller. It requires your full attention, a curious nature, and a helping spirit. If you devote yourself to taking these steps, you will naturally experience a higher rate of success with new callers. You will also discover that you are more aware of the patient’s needs and more prepared to help address their problems when you meet them for the first time.

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