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7.25.08 Issue #333 Forward This Newsletter To A Colleague

Belle DuCharme CDPMA
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Small Fires of Discontent to Raging Infernos of Anger:Complaint Call Strategies

“I personally think we developed language because of our deep inner need to complain.” —Jane Wagner

Who is most likely to bear the burden of patient complaints? The Business Coordinator, Dental Assistant, Dental Hygienist or the Dentist? You’re right if you said the Dentist. With email and cell phones, it is easy for patients to reach the Dentist after hours and pummel him/her with a rant of how they were unfairly treated by one of the team.

Nobody likes to be the recipient of an emotional tirade no matter how important it is to the deliverer. Most dentists apologize and tell the patient that it will be taken care of immediately. A scenario may play out like this: One morning Dr. Smith says to Jane, the Scheduling Coordinator, “I need to talk to you, Jane. I was interrupted at dinner last night by Mrs. Armbuster. She said that you were rude to her and she wants an apology. What do you have to say?”

Now Jane is on the spot to explain why Mrs. Armbuster is so angry. “Dr. Smith, I told Mrs. Armbuster that we no longer extend credit to our patients. She said that she was insulted and that we have always billed her for her services. I told her that was the new policy and she stormed out the door.”

Dr. Smith is now in the middle because he had the financial policy changed but did not see this coming. Embarrassed, Dr. Smith responds, “We need to tell her something. Just make an exception for her and tell her you are sorry and that you didn’t mean to upset her.”

Long-term patient loyalty and retention equals success for the dental practice. It’s imperative that a personal complaint call strategy be developed and scripted for the entire team. Many people do not like change and are suspicious of the person they perceive as the instigator of change. However, any change—including a change in a staff position, adding an associate and changing your hours or patient billing policies—will bring on complaints and resistance from long-time patients. It is common to be caught off guard by a disgruntled patient phone call and it is worse when you have to wing it with an answer. The following is meant to guide you to developing a…

Complaint Call Strategy

Step 1: Be Prepared

  • Understand that any change in the practice can cause complaints.
  • Inform your patients of upcoming changes to the practice.
  • Anticipate which patients will most likely complain and prepare them ahead of time for the change or changes in the practice.
  • Script responses to the complaint without personalizing the response.
  • Be understanding.

Step 2: Listen

  • Be empathetic.
  • Take notes.
  • Provide encouraging feedback.
  • Avoid distractions and hear what is being said.

Step 3: Build Trust

  • Tell the patient that you want to help.
  • Ask questions to clarify key points.
  • State the practice’s commitment to service.

Step 4: Define the Complaint

  • Is it policy?
  • Is it a person?
  • Was there an error committed?

Step 5: Agree on a Solution

  • Within reason, what will satisfy the patient?
  • Consider sending a written confirmation.
  • Assure the patient that you will follow through.
  • Document the exchange in the patient’s chart.

It is very difficult to have a policy in place and then make an exception for certain patients. If patients are informed of changes in the practice they are usually cooperative; it is the surprises that they don’t trust.

To avoid those evening complaint calls to the doctor, remember that the primary responsibility for handling complainers in a professional manner rests with the Business Coordinator or Scheduling Coordinator—the first point of contact to the practice. Think of yourself as a bridge between the patient and the problem. If a patient storms out of the office or threatens to call the doctor, expect the phone call. Don’t ignore this behavior. Be proactive and call the patient using your Complaint Call Strategy steps.

Unfortunately, there is no guaranteed method to prevent patients from calling or emailing the doctor. Consider discussing in advance who will have the authority to handle patient complaints. That way, the dentist can say to calling patients, “Please call the office in the morning and speak to Betty, the Business Coordinator; she will take the complaint and we will address it immediately.”

Put out the small fires of discontent before they become raging infernos of anger by developing a Complaint Call Strategy today.

For more information about McKenzie Management’s Advanced Training courses, email, call 1-877-777-6151 or visit our website at

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