Dental patients are like 5-month-olds: Lessons in great customer service

Working in high-end retail and then dentistry for the better part of my career has taught me a thing or two about customer service. But even with all that experience, some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned about customer service have come in the five months since the birth of my son. 

I know what you’re thinking – it’s a bit extreme to compare adult patients with a 5-month-old. But I think it can be an amusing way to realize how often grown people act like babies. So let’s take a look at how to offer amazing service to the important people in our lives – patients, kids, or spouses – to make everyone happy.

Here are the top five things I learned about customer service from my 5-month-old:

1. They want to be the center of your world.
My son doesn’t really care about what anyone else has going on. When he needs something, or, let’s be honest, even when he doesn’t need something, it’s all about him. Just like an infant, every patient wants to feel important. No one likes to feel like they’re second fiddle. They don’t understand that a dental practice is a complex machine that has many moving parts, and they may become upset if they feel like they’re not the only person who matters.

The best way to make patients feel like they’re important and receiving sufficient attention is to be proactive about it. Tell them that they’re important to you and that you appreciate their business. Ask about how to make their experience the best it can be, and ask what is most important to them. When you know how to give them attention in the way they like most, you can be more efficient and effective. Develop skills in your business to treat people like VIPs and they will love you for it.

2. They are impatient and want their needs met right away!
When my son needs something – whether he’s hungry or just uncomfortable – he doesn’t have much patience. I can try to reason with him, but it doesn’t matter, he just becomes irrational and upset. He’s not doing this on purpose or to be mean, it’s just a natural reaction to feeling helpless. It’s the same with patients. They feel like the world should revolve around them, and they want their needs met right away. Make patients feel special, and when you serve someone, make the person feel like they’re your best client. For example, I like to use the 24-hour rule with follow-up phone calls and emails. Even if you’re still in the middle of resolving a problem or getting an answer for a patient, you can still call them and let them know you’re working on their issue. I guarantee they will be grateful.

If you don’t follow up with dental patients in a timely manner, many will feel ignored and forgotten. But if they feel their needs are being addressed in a timely and proactive manner, they won’t have much cause for complaint.

3. The more you tell them ‘no,’ the more they want it.
There is nothing more appealing to my son than to take my iPhone and shove it in his mouth. The more I tell him “no,” the more he wants to do it. It’s like he’s drawn to the phone by magic, and my protests only fuel his determination.

It’s the same thing with patients. If you tell them you don’t have an appointment slot for them or you can’t do something because of your "office policy,” they’re going to want it more. So instead of saying they can’t have something, use the trick I do with my son – offer a replacement. I take the phone away quickly and offer something in its place. He’s happy with the replacement and we both win. Let’s say a patient wants a Saturday appointment and you don’t offer those. Instead of saying, “We don’t offer Saturday appointments,” you can say, “I can offer something during the week that will accommodate your schedule.”

4. Sometimes you can do everything to help and they will still be upset.
There are times when my son is upset and I have gone through all the steps to calm him down. There are times when even the most seasoned parent runs out of tricks and has an inconsolable child.

You have to realize that sometimes even customer service ninjas will do everything they can to win over a customer, and the person will still be unhappy. If you’ve gone through all the appropriate and reasonable steps to address someone’s needs and they’re still unhappy, sometimes there’s nothing else to do.

Instead of trying to fix the problem right away, often just being there for a person is enough. If you can practice empathy with your patients and realize that someone isn’t upset with you but with the situation, they will gain a huge amount of trust for you.

5. Happiness is totally worth it.
I can tell you that there is nothing more satisfying than to see my son happy. Those special moments are worth their weight in gold. It feels like a huge accomplishment when I put in a great deal of hard work and patience with my son and I get to see a happy smile and a laugh from him.

It’s that way with customer service as well. If you set things up right from the beginning and treat patients well, they will develop a trust and loyalty to you and your practice that they will tell others about. Patients like these will stick around for a long time.

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