Front office can help remove 'just a cleaning' image from the minds of dental patients

This dental office team member wanted to know why patients were suddenly not scheduling their recare appointments as they left. It's because they were hearing "just a cleaning," and figured their next appointment really wasn't that important.

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Our office recently experienced a breakthrough in getting our patients scheduled for recare appointments. It’s hard to get patients to schedule this type of appointment before they leave the office. They were saying, “I’ll have to call you later to schedule. I don’t know yet what I’m doing four or six months from now.” It took us a while to identify the real problem that was getting in the way of scheduling those recare appointments. But it was such a huge epiphany when we did figure it out, and made such a difference in our ability to schedule before patients left, that I want to share what we’re doing differently now.

First, let’s take a moment to review why it’s so important to get that follow-up visit scheduled before patients leave the office. In short, patients are difficult to catch once they’re no longer standing there with you. There are two reasons for this:

1. Patients mean well—They really do intend to get back to you about scheduling that appointment, but other things get in the way. Think of all the things that come up in your life that keep you from getting to everything on your to-do list. Before you know it, it could be weeks or months and you still haven’t gotten that one thing done. It’s just not a priority.
2. Many patients avoid the dentist, even if they won’t admit it—People just don’t like coming in for dental work. They see it as inconvenient at best and painful or annoying at worst. Thus, they don’t want to commit to coming back anytime soon. If they get a call or email from you reminding them that it’s time to schedule their appointment, they’re not going to get excited about it. Instead, their response will be, “Ugh, has it been six months already?”

For these reasons, you want to make sure that the next appointment is scheduled before a patient walks out the door, so that all you have to do later is send a reminder and confirmation. So, let’s get back to the issue our office was having and how we overcame it.

You want to make sure that the next appointment is scheduled before a patient walks out the door

Normally, our approach to patients who say, “I’ll have to call you later to schedule my next appointment” was to urge them to schedule now, even if it needs to be changed later. We tell them that we want to get them into the schedule now, with the incentive that they’ll be able to get a preferred time of day or day of the week by doing so. Typically, that’s enough to get patients to schedule an appointment before they leave.

However, during one particular time period, this approach wasn’t resolving the issue for our office, so I investigated. I listened to the assistants and their hand-offs to the front desk at the end of appointments. They were handing the patients off appropriately, letting the front desk employees know that a patient was all done with their restorative treatment. But I noticed that the assistants were saying to the front desk, within earshot of the patients, that the next appointment was “just a cleaning.”

That was the problem, right there. The assistants were devaluing the upcoming appointment by calling it “just a cleaning.” Doesn’t that sound like something unimportant and routine that you could blow off with no consequences? Does it sound like maybe you could come in later, maybe in eight or nine months, or maybe only when a true dental problem develops, instead of bothering to show up in four to six months for maintenance?

Our problem was that we were giving patients permission not to take the next appointment seriously, so they didn’t. So we instilled one small but significant change in the hand-off procedure. The word “just” no longer comes from the mouths of our assistants. Now they say, “Please get Mrs. Patient scheduled for her next preventive appointment. She is doing really great and it’s important to keep it that way with regular cleaning appointments.”

Notice that in addition to removing “just,” we also changed the tone and approach of the hand-off. What the assistant says to the front desk staff isn’t focused on the scheduler’s needs; it’s aimed at the patient and is designed for one specific outcome—getting that next (very important) appointment scheduled right away.

Laura HatchLaura Hatch is the founder of Front Office Rocks, a leader in online front office training. Laura has worked with her husband, Dr. Hatch, to start and grow two extremely successful dental practices (one in Baltimore and a current office in San Diego) to million dollar, fee-for-services offices that focus on exceptional customer service and average 80 new patients per month. As the leading authority on dental front office training, Laura has developed training methods that consist of established ideas and practical training that can be easily implemented into any office. She can be reached at Laura@FrontOfficeRocks.com.

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