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Is your front office staff welcoming or operating on autopilot?

Opportunity calls! Tips for building patient relationships over the phone

Nov. 17, 2023
When patients call in, is your front office staff welcoming them in or pushing them away?

A dentist friend of mine told me how excited she was when she hired a part-time periodontist so her dental practice could start offering dental implants. She spent a considerable amount of money and time developing and disseminating a marketing campaign that would attract people in the area who were interested in getting dental implants. But, after a couple of weeks, not a single implant appointment had been scheduled. The dentist was sure her marketing efforts were sound, so she asked me what I thought. I asked if she would mind if I listened to some of their incoming phone calls, and I heard the following…

Scheduling coordinator: Good morning, Sunshine ABC Dental, this is Brynn speaking. How may I help you?

Caller: Hi. I was wondering if I could schedule a time to come in for an appointment? I’m interested in getting a dental implant.

Scheduling coordinator: I’m so sorry, our practice doesn’t do implants, but I think [name of competitor] might be able to help you out. They’re close by. I can give you their number if you like.

Caller: Oh, OK, that would be great. Thank you.

Scheduling coordinator: [gives caller competitor’s phone number] Thank you for calling and have a nice day.

Caller: Thanks…[hangs up]

Related reading: 

Treat every dental patient like a new patient every time

To ensure dental patient understanding, say it. Then say it again, and again.

Are you asking the right questions to grow your dental practice?

That’s a lousy phone call, isn’t it? Not only did Brynn not know that her practice was doing implants, she pushed the caller off onto the competitor down the street and ended the call right away, rather than figuring out how to schedule the patient for an appointment to try to help him. Even if her practice wasn’t offering dental implants, they could have brought the patient in for x-rays, performed a new-patient appointment, referred him out for the implant placement, and then retained him after providing stellar guidance and services.

Calls like this happen all the time, several times a day, which is reason enough to monitor your incoming calls.

First impressions matter

From the moment a patient calls your office, you are cementing your practice’s reputation. It’s crucial to make a great first impression on the phone and create a relationship that will encourage the caller to schedule an appointment and then show up. But time and time again, many dental practices struggle with phone communication, and the consequences can be dire. Patients will likely go to another practice or lose complete trust in yours, which will have a negative impact on your bottom line.

I’ve listened to hundreds, if not thousands, of phone calls in my career as a dental business consultant and phone coach. I can confidently say that no matter how poor or successful your practice is, phone coaching is something that could benefit all dental practices. The only true way to know how your admin team is performing on the phone is to listen to their calls. Phone skills are just as important as any other skill in dentistry. If your admin team doesn't know how to answer a question about dental implants or an ad campaign, you’re wasting money and losing patients.

The key to a positive phone call is to create a relationship with the person on the other end of the line. Patients should feel excited and look forward to visiting your practice; the call should never sound transactional. So many times, I hear calls where the dental office admin person on the phone sounds like Sgt. Joe Friday from Dragnet:

  • What’s your name?
  • What’s the problem?
  • Do you have insurance?
  • Where were you the night of April 13th?
  • Just the facts, ma’am!

To the office managers reading this article, do you know how your team answers the phone? Do they sound robotic and machine-gun questions like the ones above? If they do, you’re going to lose patients. Guaranteed.

Since most people prefer email or text, consider it a small miracle that your phone’s ringing and treat it as such. Make sure your team is prepared to connect and build relationships with people.

Break it down

One way to turn your phone calls from transactional to relationship-based is to break the phone call into three parts:

  • The top part is the beginning of the call where you answer the phone within the first two or three rings. You should have a universal greeting that includes thanking the patient for calling, telling the patient your name, and asking how you can be of service. The tone of your voice matters, so speaks clearly and with zeal. We should be able to hear your enthusiasm and energy with a little uptick in your voice.
  • The middle part is where you find out more about the patient’s needs, but it’s also the part where people easily slide into data collection. To avoid sounding like you work for the US Census Bureau, ask questions that will change the call from sounding transactional. For example, rather than asking for the patient’s name and appointment request right away, ask them how they heard about your practice or what they’re looking for in a dentist.
  • The bottom part is where you wrap everything up, restate information, and set expectations for the patient. Make sure they have a great experience when they first arrive and don’t forget to thank them for calling.

Other tips and tricks

When you want to find out if this person is a new patient or if they’ve been to your practice before, ask, “When was the last time we saw you in our office?” The assumption is that everyone who calls has been seen in your office because you’re the best dental practice in the community. This takes care of the patient who dropped $10,000 the last time you saw them and who assumes you should know them by the tone of their voice. It also gives new patients the chance to respond, “Oh, I’ve never been to see you before,” allowing you to ask them new-patient questions.

Show empathy. If a patient calls with a toothache and they’re in excruciating pain, they’ll know they called the right place when they feel like they’ve been heard and that their concerns truly matter. I’ve heard so many phone calls where the dental admin person sounded disinterested and uncaring. Would you follow through and trust that a practice to get you out of pain when the person on the other end of the phone sounds like an operator? Respond with something like, “I’m so sorry you’re going through this. We know how dreadful that can feel,” and then reassure the patient that they’ve made the right decision in calling your practice, that your doctor is the absolute best, and that you can help them. This builds trust and makes the patient feel like they’re in the best hands. 

Get the patient’s name early in the call and use it often throughout the conversation and at their appointment. When you use someone’s name, it creates an instant connection and familiarity.

Make sure everyone in the office knows what specials or new services your practice offers. In fact, you should ask everyone on the team to recite them back to you each day so there is zero confusion. I can’t even begin to express how often a practice will decide on a special or a new service that only two or three team members know about. Everyone on your team needs to know every single thing you offer, so that when patients call, they know where to direct them, how long an appointment will take, and what the patient can expect.

When offering appointment times, communicate the value of the appointment to the patient. Remind them that you are “reserving” one hour of Dr. Amazing’s time specifically for them, emphasizing that you’ll take care of their needs during this appointment.

Use language like, “Can you commit to that appointment time?” to reinforce the importance of their attendance.

Maintain control of your schedule by providing a few appointment options, and avoid asking open-ended questions like “When would you like to come in?” When you’re wrapping things up, make sure you confirm the appointment time and how long they should expect to be at your office. 

Explain your new-patient paperwork process and encourage patients to complete it beforehand to ensure a smoother visit. For patients who might not be tech-savvy, offer them the option to come 15 minutes before their appointment to complete the paperwork in the office. 

Finish the call by repeating your name and be sure to tell them how excited you are to meet them. Consider introducing them to other admin staff they meet on their visit.

At the end of the call when you’re setting expectations, you want to confirm the patient’s understanding of where your dental office is located. Even if they tell you they know where it is, it’s still important to provide clear landmarks. I’ve listened to so many calls where the patient says they know where the practice is, but they end up calling five minutes after they were supposed to arrive asking where you are. When you provide clear and specific directions, such as “We’re located near the Starbucks next to the Wal-Mart,” patients will have a better idea of where to find you. Additionally, letting them know of any tricky parking issues that might exist around your location can help avoid obstacles that day. Your goal is to get them to schedule the appointment and remove all possible roadblocks that might prevent them from arriving on time.

Every bit of this call should be about what you are going to do for this patient—not what you aren’t going to do or what you can’t do. Instead of saying, “We don’t have an appointment available until March, which is two months from now,” you might say, “Our next available appointment is March 3rd. We can also put you on our VIP list and call you if we have any changes in our schedule. How does that sound?” When you use this language, you convey the same message but in a way that removes obstacles and doesn’t paint a picture of doom and gloom.

If your phone system has the ability to record calls, use it. Turn on the recorder, and then set aside some time for you and your administrative team to listen to the calls together and review each other. Apply some of the above tips if the calls sound robotic or transactional. The more you listen to your phone calls, the more likely you are to improve and change the way you greet new patients. If you really want to ratchet up your customer service skills and schedule more people, consider hiring formal phone coaching.

Phone communication is a crucial aspect of patient engagement. By creating a relationship with patients from the moment they call, you can improve their experience and avoid losing them to another practice. Don’t underestimate the importance of phone skills and consider phone coaching for your admin team. When you follow these tips, you can create a better relationship with your patients and cement the reputation of your practice.

Joanne Miles, MAADOM, is one of Production Dentist Academy’s investment-grade practice business advisors, sometimes referred to as the Swiss Army knife of dentistry. As an experienced dental practice growth leader with decades of experience nationwide, Joanne is passionate about sharing proven methods that help dentists and their teams grow. In addition to business operations, she focuses on team-building, patient experience, and leadership development. Joanne is a lifetime member of AADOM and received her mastership distinction in 2021.

About the Author

Joanne Miles, MAADOM

Joanne Miles, MAADOM, is one of Production Dentist Academy’s investment-grade practice business advisors, sometimes referred to as the Swiss Army knife of dentistry. As an experienced dental practice growth leader with decades of experience nationwide, Joanne is passionate about sharing proven methods that help dentists and their teams grow. In addition to business operations, she focuses on team-building, patient experience, and leadership development.  Joanne is a lifetime member of AADOM and received her mastership distinction in 2021.