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Troubleshooter: Who gets priority at the front desk of the dental office—caller or visitor?

June 14, 2021
Every office assistant has experienced not knowing whether to tend to the person on the phone or the one in front of you. The experts we consulted have different opinions and solutions—see which might work for you for those busy times.

Nearly everyone has problems and concerns on the job, and sometimes you're just too close to a situation to solve something yourself. Share your concerns with us, and we'll examine the issues and provide guidance. Send questions to [email protected]. To view more Troubleshooters, visit and search "Troubleshooter."

QUESTION: This is an ongoing problem in our office: A patient is at the front desk checking out and the phone rings. Who should get priority service, the person standing at the desk or the person calling? Why?

ANSWER FROM TERESA DUNCAN, MS, FADIA, FAADOM, speaker and writer at Odyssey Management:

Juggling is one of the many talents of a receptionist. The patient in front of you is watching closely to see what you decide. Ideally you would have backup from team members who know you need to check out a patient and schedule the next appointment. When a patient is at the desk, the team should help by answering the phone and either handling the situation or taking a message.

However, in many offices, extra bodies are a luxury. As the receptionist, I would quickly whisper to the patient approaching the desk, “I’m just going to ask for their number so I can call them back.” When you answer the phone, let the patient know that you’re experiencing a rush at the desk and that you’d like to call him or her back within 15 minutes. The key is to be firm and gentle. If the caller persists, let the person know that you will be happy to discuss the issue when you return the call. The patient in front of you will see that he or she is the priority patient, and the patient on the phone will still feel that their call is important.

ANSWER FROM DIANNE GLASSCO WATTERSON, RDH, BS, MBA, professional speaker, writer, and consultant:
An excellent business assistant will not ignore anyone. If she’s on the phone when the patient approaches the desk, the business assistant will acknowledge the in-office patient with a smile and nod. She will quickly end her phone conversation or put the caller on hold or offer to call back, and take care of the in-office patient. I believe the in-office customer takes precedence over the caller because the in-office customer has traveled to be there, whereas the caller has exerted little effort other than placing a phone call.

ANSWER FROM LINDA MILES, founder of Speaking Consulting Network:
This is always a problem in a busy office, with one person doing check out AND answering the phone.

I feel that the patient in front of you knows it is also your job to answer the phone, and people hope the phone is answered in a timely fashion if they are the caller. But I don’t think you should answer the phone and talk for several minutes, keeping the person in front of you waiting. The phone is your practice’s lifeline to the outside world, and when it rings it is often business or possibly an emergency. The phone must be answered, but this is how I would suggest handing this situation:

The patient in front of you is ready to check out and may be in a hurry. The phone rings. Say, “Excuse me for a moment Mrs. Davis, while I answer the phone.” If it’s a quick question such as when is my appointment tomorrow, you can deal with the call in less than 10 seconds. If however, the caller needs more of your time, say to the caller, “I need to check your chart, ask the dentist, or review your payment record. May I call you back within three minutes or do you mind holding?” Take care of the person in front of you, and then get right back to the caller. Allowing the call to go to voicemail is the kiss of death in my opinion. Some of these issues can be avoided by having two people at the front desk. If an office has two, one handles check-in (scheduling coordinator) and the other handles checkout (financial coordinator). The three main duties of the scheduling coordinator are answering the phone, engineering the schedules, and greeting patients warmly as they walk in. The three main duties of the financial coordinator are presenting the fees and collecting the money, data entry for treatment performed today (if not entered chairside), and handling all insurance discussions.

Again, the telephone is your lifeline to the outside world. It’s the most important instrument in the office and tomorrow’s paycheck!

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Don't be shy! If YOU have a tough issue in your dental office that you would like addressed, send it to [email protected] for the experts to answer. Remember, you'll be helping others who share the same issue. Responses will come from various dental consultants, as well as other experts in the areas of human resources, coding, front office management, and more. These folks will assist dental professionals with their various issues on DentistryIQ because they're very familiar with the tough challenges day-to-day practice can bring.

Originally posted in 2013 and updated regularly