9 ways for dental front office staff to manage difficult phone calls from patients

How do you handle angry patients when they call into the dental office? You know by now not to take it personally. Here's how you can handle dental patients when they take out their frustrationson you.

Jun 23rd, 2016
Content Dam Diq Online Articles 2016 06 Calm On Phone

This article first appeared in Dental Assisting & Office Manager Digest. To receive enlightening and helpful articles for assistants and office managers in this monthly e-newsletter, visit dentistryiq.com/subscribe.

When you spend all day answering phone calls from patients, you may come across some hard-to-handle ones once in a while. As the front office staff, you’re the first person patients encounter when they want to complain, and this can be tricky.

I understand how hard it can be to know how to react, so I’ve compiled a list of nine methods you can use to respond calmly and effectively. Your aim is to resolve the situation without causing more frustration on either end of the phone.

1. Anticipate—Without being able to read minds, sometimes you can anticipate a tricky phone call. For example, if patients have been spending a lot of time in the waiting room before their dentist is ready, or if there is a long waiting list for appointments, then you might be on your guard for complaints. Be aware of the current situations in your practice and this may help you prepare to deal with tricky phone calls and enable you to readily empathize with patients.

2. Keep a clear head—The more you take care of yourself away from the front desk, the better you’ll be able to handle difficult situations when they crop up. The foods you eat can have a big impact on how you handle stress, so maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle. This will help you keep your head clear so you can approach a stressful phone call as calmly as possible.

3. Cover your back—Familiarize yourself with your practice’s policy for handling troublesome patients. Every office will have its own processes, and to protect yourself in the event of a problem it’s best to make sure you’re well aware of how you should behave in such circumstances.

4. Don’t raise your voice—Once you realized that the person on the other end of the phone is upset, keep a neutral tone. Being overly sympathetic could sound patronizing, and raising your voice will only add fuel to the fire. Most angry people want an audience to vent their frustration, and by raising your voice and alerting other staff members or patients of your heated discussion, you give angry people just that, an audience. Furthermore, shouting about a problem will give a bad impression to other patients, whereas a poised, thoughtful demeanour has the opposite effect. It is much harder to lose your cool if you’re keeping your voice calm, so try a few deep breaths and respond with total composure. This isn’t always easy, but it’s essential.

5. Acknowledge them—Feeling that they aren’t being listened to is sure to make angry people angrier, so demonstrate that you’ve been paying attention by acknowledging their complaint. Saying something as simple as, “I appreciate how frustrating this is” can go a long way in showing your understanding. You could even repeat back elements of the conversation to confirm you have all the details before moving on to a resolution.

6. The Atticus Finch approach—“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” This “To Kill A Mockingbird” quote is a great mantra for difficult phone calls. You never know what’s happening in someone’s personal life, and they may have phoned your office at a particularly difficult time. Of course, some people are just rude by nature, but not everyone shouting in the phone at you is. Consider this before reacting to their anger, and this will help you stay calm as you assist them.

7. Transparency creates trust—Even over the phone it’s easy to spot when someone is being less than honest. Therefore, it’s important to be as truthful as possible when dealing with tricky patients. Answer their questions sincerely, and never feign sympathy—people can see straight through this. If you don’t know how to answer a question, acknowledge that you can’t. Rather than placating someone with an uncertain response, state firmly that you don’t know but you will find out for them. Commit to this, and see it through. Such transparency will earn their trust and calm them down.

8. Seek help if you need it—Some patients are beyond reasoning, and in this instance don’t be afraid to ask a senior staff member for help. If you’ve tried your best to settle the situation calmly and reasonably, then the most appropriate action might be escalating the matter further.

9. You could be anyone—Never take something personally. An angry phone call would have been directed at whoever answered. As the front office staff on hand to answer any calls, you are inevitably in the firing line of angry patients. But you are simply their sounding board rather than the cause of their displeasure. Keep this in mind, and you can prevent difficult phone calls from affecting you when you leave at the end of the day.

Remember these simple tricks whenever you answer the phone and they will help you to manage even the most troublesome calls to the best of your ability. If you want any extra inspiration for keeping calm when dealing with tricky customers, learn more here.


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Matt Jones is the Assistant Media and Online Relations Manager for TollFreeForwarding.com.

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