What dentists can learn from Apple Stores about customer service

Aug. 19, 2011
Why does everything seem clearly different and exciting when you enter an Apple Store? Dr. Henry Pinkney analyzes customer service in the dental office against customer service with Apple. Find out specific ways you can improve relationships with your patients.

By Henry Pinkney, DDS

As I mentioned in my article that ran in Tips & Tricks on July 26, it is my contention that dental offices need to be more like Apple stores. Apple's hugely successful model actually translates relatively well to a model dentists can adapt in running their offices.

Let’s focus first on customer service. Every business pays lip service to the idea that they value customer service. Every dental office does as well. They why does everything seem clearly different and exciting when you enter an Apple Store?

Apple takes customer service above and beyond anything you see in a retail environment. An employee warmly greets you upon entering the store, even though it is crowded with customers. He or she asks what product you are interested in and works with you personally to either answer your questions or hand you off directly to someone who is an expert about that item. You receive personal attention from start to finish. If you decide to purchase a product, the employee can swipe your credit card on his or her own iPhone without even having to wait for a cashier. The process is seamless and efficient.

How then does this translate into the dental field? How do we stand out from other offices that think they have mastered customer service?

The first element is instilling the proper mind-set in the staff. Our front desk staff's role is to be facilitators whose job is to get patients what they want. Too often we think we know what patients need, and the staff may function as a roadblock rather than as patient advocate.

If a patient calls with a problem and wants to be seen, we don't ask how much it hurts, how long it has been hurting, what kind of insurance they have, or tell them how much money to bring. We simply offer the patient a time to come in that day. If that is acceptable, we are finished. We are there to help them solve a dental emergency, whatever their problem is, and everything else is secondary. If the caller asks about the cost, we tell them we will assess their problem before any work is done and let them know in advance. If they ask whether we accept their insurance, we will find out their benefits during the phone call. Having the front desk triage emergencies to see if they are "real" is like having a bouncer stand in front of Best Buy deciding if customers have enough TVs already or if they are entitled to enter the store to buy another one.

We leave time in our schedule to accommodate these emergencies. Most problems can be assessed and solved in a few minutes. If we have time, we may do definitive treatment. If necessary, we may get the patient scheduled with a specialist, usually the same day.

Customer service doesn’t stop with emergencies. It means having systems in place for all critical patient contact points. It means never scheduling an appointment without telling the patient what the procedure will cost or how much the co-pay is in advance. It means staying on schedule. (Patients are given two movie tickets if we run more than 15 minutes behind.) It means calling patients in the evening after a difficult procedure. It means answering the phone after two rings during all business hours.

Customer service means being innovative. When a patient emails us through our website after hours to request an appointment, the message goes directly to my Blackberry. It may be 10:00 at night or on a Sunday. These are patients who don't need immediate attention; they only wish to know someone is out there and that they will be seen the next day. I immediately text them back that we will call them first thing in the morning. Some of them have left numerous messages with other offices in their attempt to reach a dentist and have not heard back. They see us because we respond.

Customer service means correcting our mistakes. We had a new patient in for an emergency and he could only pay $80 on a debit card that day. We said that was fine, but mistakenly put the full $140 charge through. The patient went to the pharmacy after his appointment to fill a prescription and his card was declined. The patient called us, angry at the mistake we made. Our office manager promptly went to the pharmacy, paid for the patient's prescription, and gave him money for gas. The patient came back the next week to follow up on the treatment plan. Instead of being upset with our mistake, our patient was amazed at how well we handled the problem.

Ultimately, customer service means hiring the right people and giving them the freedom to solve problems on their own to satisfy the patient. Our team members know that every patient interaction must end on a positive note. They are empowered to problem solve without being second-guessed. They feel good about working for our patients, who are the ones who ultimately pay their salaries.

Author bio
Dr. Henry Pinkney is a 1977 graduate of the University of Michigan and has a private practice in Canton, Mich. He can be reached at [email protected].