29 Oct 2018  •  Practice Management  •  10min read By  • Les Jones & Nigel Jones

The patient journey – part two

Les: Hi Nigel, so we’re here to pick up from our first blog on the patient journey. If you remember,

last time, we talked about building your reputation as a dental practice, your marketing and your website, and referrals. All the types of things that get a patient into the practice. So to move along the journey some more it would be good if we could discuss the first time a patient gets in touch with the practice in response to some of that marketing material.

Let’s just start with the patient’s first contact which could be a couple of ways I suppose. Firstly, a telephone call or email and then possibly actually calling into the practice. In fact that initial telephone call is extremely important in terms of whether that enquiry turned into an actual patient in the chair or it kind of just drifts off in the breeze somewhere.

Nigel: Yeah, absolutely. And we’re already touching on one of my favourite hobby horses, which is around the importance of measurement, because implicit in the sort of question or point that you are making is the fact that the call has been answered. When, actually, in a number of cases the call doesn’t get answered. So it’s not just that the opportunity’s gone or how the call was handled, it just never really materialised because you lost it. I think a lot of practices don’t necessarily realise how many callls they’re missing and that for me is quite a crucial point when you start thinking around what’s the value of a potential new patient. So, measurement is important because a level of missed calls is going to happen, but it’s whether or not it’s an acceptable level and if you’re not measuring then you wouldn’t ever know.

Les: Definitely. And there are tools that can help you measure that stuff aren’t there?

Nigel: There are some really good systems out there that can interface with your telephony systems and give you all sorts of useful intelligence. It might be anything to do with letting you know the number of calls that went unanswered and the times of day when they occurred. At least it would then give you a clue as to whether or not you need to change your resource levels at your front desk to suit particular times of the day or week. It can also double up and do lots of other things which I’m sure we’ll come to, like call recording, and become a useful training tool to help enhance a conversation when you do get to have one.

Les: So a good friend and colleague of ours, Mr Simon Tucker, who talks about the front desk and the telephony function within practices will very often say, that the most important person in any dental practice is that first person, not just in terms of welcoming people into the practice, but taking that initial phone call. Because, well, first of all they are the guardians of the first impression, but how they handle that call will determine whether that patient, or prospective patient, goes on to make an appointment or doesn’t.

“Mr Simon Tucker, who talks about the front desk and the telephony function within practices will very often say, that the most important person in any dental practice is that first person, not just in terms of welcoming people into the practice, but taking that initial phone call.”

Nigel: Absolutely. The person at the end of the phone has to embody all the good things you want about the practice. That person has to completely reinforce the perception that has been created by your website, your literature, the person who suggested that they get in touch with the practice, and the initial call has to be a continuation of that. The words that are being used, the manner in which someone’s dealing with you, sets the tone for what they think they can expect from the practice. And if a call is handled badly, it could result in someone deciding not to go ahead with an appointment, but also what you’re doing is shaping the patient’s attitude before they even walk through the door. So that person is in a very powerful position to tee the patient up and make them feel relaxed and at ease even before they set foot in the door. It’s a really important call.

Les: Yeah. It’s about striking rapport isn’t it? It’s about getting on the same page as the person on the end of the phone and making them feel relaxed, making them feel that they’re in the right place and giving them the right gut feeling. Is the vibe I’m getting down the phone giving me the confidence that I should go ahead and book the appointment, or is it in some way putting me off because it’s a bit cold or a bit sharp.

Nigel: Your point about it being a bit cold is really valid. The prospective patient doesn’t want to feel like they’re a functional thing that’s got to be dealt with; they want to know that you are interested in them as an individual. The danger of the first call is that you can lose some of the intimacy and look self-interested because you could just come across as trying to get a paying customer in through the door. It’s a really, really important moment.

Les: And I suppose to be able to do that properly there’s no way you can answer those kind of calls and give the right amount of time and attention to it if you’re taking that call on the front desk. If possible, get the phone into a separate room where it’s quiet and try to man it in a way that people can have the right amount of time and concentration to take that call in the correct manner. It’s also great to have a loose crib sheet and I don’t mean a script or something that you go through like some kind of robot. But would at least give you the prompt to ask the right questions and to get the right information from the patient which means that firstly, you can put them at ease and secondly, you can answer questions in a way that gives them the confidence to come in.

Nigel: Completely agree. You ideally want to get people to the point where it becomes natural for them to take the call and not need a crib sheet. But certainly in the early days you can start off with something to get into the swing of it; the more natural you are with the patient, you’ll do a better job of building the rapport and confidence and putting them at ease.

Les: So how do we feel about emails?

Nigel: I think a lot more people are choosing to email practices and I think the thing to bear in mind here is that they expect you to come back really, really quickly. So you’ve got to be all over that. Your inbox isn’t something that you check once a week; you’ve got to be really, really punctual with them.

Les: Okay, so some interesting points there.

“I think a lot more people are choosing to email practices and I think the thing to bear in mind here is that they expect you to come back really, really quickly.”

Nigel: I should just say this though, I think we have to recognise the practical constraints that a lot of dental practices have got in terms of the space in the building. So I think an awful lot of people that I’ve spoken to sort of get the theory of separating the telephone from the front desk, but actually just lack the space to do it. So then I think it’s about being creative and thinking through very carefully, ‘Okay, what is the value of the business opportunity I’m potentially losing by mishandling a call? Or mishandling someone that’s stood in front of me? Can I therefore create a business case to justify more resource or should we look to outsource it?’

Les: Okay, so let’s just think about this situation for a second. A few years ago I was genuinely looking for a new dentist for myself and my family. I’m married and I have four children, so I was a six-patient package if you like. I decided to go into three private practices in my local area and present myself at the front desk. I can honestly say that all three of them were absolutely useless. They didn’t ask me my name or get any details from me. All they did was hand over a pack of information. All three of them lost me as a patient. Now I don’t think that a prospective patient, as a lead, gets any hotter than me standing in the practice saying, ‘I’m looking for a dentist.’ All you’ve got to do is convince me that you’re the right people and you have my business, but not only that, another five people in my family.

Not one of them converted me there and then, and none of them were able to follow up either. If I was the dentist or owner working in surgery and I found out that that stuff was going on on my front desk, I would be absolutely horrified, yet it happened one after the other in three different practices.

Nigel: At the risk of sounding apologetic on behalf of the three practices that you went into, I think that what can happen is the resource constraints mean that they’re under so much pressure that actually you become an irritation because you’ve disrupted the day by turning up in the way that you have done.

Les: It did feel like that.

Nigel: Yes, I bet it did and I think that’s wrong. I can understand how practices get themselves in that situation, but I think an awful lot of it’s a false economy. Because, as you said, you were a six-patient package. You could fund an awful lot on that many patients, which is why I think measuring is important. I think it is very easy to focus on reducing costs by actually reducing the number of people maning the practice. But actually you don’t necessarily realise that it is a false economy. I love what you said about it being a lead that couldn’t get much hotter. I mean half the, if not 90%, of the challenge is getting them through the front door. So you’re already there. It should’ve been absolutely ideal.

Les: Absolutely. We’ve covered quite a bit of stuff here Nigel and we haven’t actually got to the stage where a patient actually turns up for an appointment. Let’s do that in our next blog

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