Dealing With Patient Complaints: An Opportunity In Disguise

(Dentists, Please Share This With Your Teams)

dealing with patient complaints

We’ve written before about how getting positive online reviews can enhance web presence and is a strong “conversion factor” that turns website visitors into patients. With patients being able to complain online as well, we have a double-edged sword. A negative complaint can be seen by who knows how many people! Dealing with negative online reviews is a whole discussion in itself.

This article focuses on dealing with face-to-face patient complaints. However, if you get a negative online review, you can sometimes call that patient and use this same process. We’ve seen situations where the patient has taken the negative review down once their complaint was satisfied.

Naturally, if complaints are handled wrong, you can lose patients. More importantly, patients that complain are also more likely to be loyal patients and refer others if the complaint is handled well. If someone is dissatisfied they will probably tell others. I have heard over the years many different statistics on this, but you can assume for every complaint you hear there are other people who hear or voice the same complaint. Complaints are sort of your “canary in a coal mine” for patient relations.

Our statistics show that the typical dental practice loses about 12% of its patients per year. Probably about half of those lost are due to something the Doctor or staff did. The other half are due to factors beyond the practice’s control, like the patient moving or insurance changes.

Remember this six step process:
1) Prepare
2) Listen
3) Build Rapport
4) Develop A Solution
5) Confirm & Close
6) Follow Through

1) Prepare

Maintain an alert and upright posture. Pen in hand. Be ready to listen with an Adult state of mind.

  • Child (emotional)
  • Parent (judgmental and rigid)
  • Adult (rational and solution-seeking)

When a complainer calls, they are in an emotional (child) state. They may have rehearsed a speech in their mind. They feel abused, cheated, or uncared for. Therefore, the person hearing the “child” may unconsciously start adopting a parent state. That’s when you’ll hear things like “Our policy is…”; “You should have…”; “You don’t know what you’re talking about…”; “It’s your responsibility to know your insurance, etc.” By keeping an adult state of mind, you let the child vent then, eventually, through your own behavior, they will start to come to the adult state.

2) Listen

Take notes. Acknowledge that you are hearing; “Tell me more.”; “Then what happened?”; “I see.”; “I understand that could be very distressing.”

3) Rapport

Use the patient’s name. State your purpose, “I want to find a solution you are happy with.”; or “I’ll help you get to the bottom of this.”; or “We certainly want to do everything we can to make this right for you.” Restate the person’s complaint. “I’ve taken notes and what I heard you tell me was… Do I have that right?”

4) Solution

“Here are a couple of things we may want to consider.”; “Would it help if I found out about _____ for you?” And, of course, “What would you like to have done so we can resolve this?”

5) Confirm & Close

“So here’s what I am going to do.” (find out, fix, or make sure “it doesn’t happen again”). “How does that sound to you?” Make sure that you note any specific actions and timeline and who’s going to do what by when.

6) Follow Through!

Make very sure you follow up on your promises. Example: “Your fees are too high!” A typical response (usually proposed by consultants and dental journal writers) is, “Mrs. Jones, we only use the finest materials and for the quality of care we deliver, blah blah blah.” Or, “Dentistry is inexpensive when you compare it to medical or buying suits or some other things (that are implied to be less important, thus indirectly putting the
patient down.)

Instead: “Gosh, I can tell you are unhappy with this. Can you tell me more?”
“Well, Bill, it’s my job to help ensure that you are happy with our services. You obviously
feel our fees are high and I’d like your suggestions on how we can go about looking at this.”

The patient might feel the fees are high because they can’t afford things in which case, of course, you work with financial arrangements. They might feel they are higher compared to other offices in which case you might say, “Would you like us to check our
fees against other offices or show you what information we have about that?” Or, in many cases, the patient just may want to be acknowledged and they don’t really want you to do anything except understand them. If the fees are indeed high even compared to other offices, then you can explain why. “Our fees are a little higher than average and I wanted to explain to you why they are if that’s what you’d like me to do.” Then (and only then) you could go into things about the quality of the lab, the time the Doctor spends, the Continuing Ed or technology, and so on.

In Conclusion:

No one likes to hear complaints, but dealing with them tactfully is a critical “customer service” skill.