The price of a smile

Offering great customer service can be the difference between success and failure.
Offering great customer service can be the difference between success and failure.

The formula for repeat business is attention to detail plus approachability, discovers Natasha Phillimore. So, what does it equal? Great customer service, which is the cornerstone of any successful practice

Tales of bad customer service are easier to find than good ones, and perhaps, thanks to our healthy sense of schadenfreude, it’s enjoyable to hear. But tales of great customer service are—well, as corny as it sounds—uplifting for the soul.

In 2012, UK supermarket giant Sainsbury’s made headlines around the world when Lily Robinson, three (“and a half”) took objection to its crusty loaves. She wrote to the supermarket: “Why is tiger bread called tiger bread? It should be called giraffe bread.” Chris King of Sainsbury’s customer-service team replied that Lily’s was a brilliant idea, and, yes, he agreed the patterns on the crust did more closely resemble a giraffe’s splotches. The letters were posted on her mum’s blog, the topic trended on Twitter and eventually Sainsbury’s did indeed change the name. Giraffe bread is stocked on its shelves to this day.

Sainsbury’s could be accused of manipulating a sweet letter into a PR win, but interestingly the original exchange and the subsequent international media exposure were almost a year apart. In fact, King was just a guy (“27 and a third”) responding to a letter in a way that was kind and approachable and in the same spirit with which it was written. And that’s relevant whether you’re a supermarket giant or a dental practice.

“Connecting is important,” says Anita Roubicek, a co-partner in practice management consultancy Prime Practice. “Explain the treatment and what you’re going to do, as two people talking together. Lying a patient down straight away and putting a bib on them puts them at an awkward and unnatural disadvantaged position. You’re sitting in a chair; they’re lying down—it’s very difficult for patients to feel they’re in control.”

With over 25 years’ customer-service training and development, Roubicek is well-versed on the subject. “Consumers have become a lot more educated and discerning,” she explains. “In the past, dentists relied on repeat business—patients went to where they always went. Loyalty looks very different these days. Our customer today shops around a lot more, and they’re asking, ‘What am I getting?’ The only thing that really differentiates practices is service.”

You don’t have to go far to see far-reaching effects of consumers’ changing behaviour. Last year, the Customer Service Institute of Australia introduced its inaugural ESi’s, or Ease of Doing Business Service Index Awards. How it differs from the institute’s regular Annual Australian Service Excellence Awards (now in its 13th year) is that they are solely based on and determined by a survey of over 3000 consumers. That’s a lot of opportunities for customers to sing a company’s praises or air a grievance.

“The wider business community is becoming increasingly aware of the value and role that customer service plays in achieving business success,” says Customer Service Institute of Australia executive director Brett Whitford. “The area of service provision is arguably the most critical determinant of success for many Australian organisations.”

Roubicek cites the biggest customer-service mistake of dental practices as complacency; when things are going well, it’s easy to forget to treat patients as someone special. “Despite the fact that we are living in a more fast-paced world, people still want and expect good service, and if they don’t get it from you, they will go elsewhere,” she says. “Just expecting that people will come back is a crime.”

“The wider business community is becoming increasingly aware of the value that customer service plays in achieving business success.” Brett Whitford, Customer Service Institute of Australia executive director

Her advice is to apply a we-know-you philosophy to all customer dealings, whether it be a phone call reminding a patient of an upcoming appointment, or the preamble to a major treatment.

“I don’t want to call it small talk because that diminishes it somewhat, but it’s information from the front line, where people communicate and are perhaps a bit looser about their personal life,” says Roubicek. “That needs to be transferred to the treatment room. Using it demonstrates that you know this person.”

She adds that sharing any and all information in the morning team meeting—children’s names or milestones; holidays taken—is really important. “You want a patient who already feels relaxed. [The patient] should feel like, ‘This is where my friends are’.”

One such place is the Melbourne Smile Centre. When the practice launched two-and-a-half years ago, customer service was practice manager Vicki Jones’s primary focus.

“We very, very strongly believe in taking the utmost care of people,” says Jones. “People don’t want to come to the dentist, so it’s important to make it as pleasant an experience as possible. And we go out of our way to make that happen.”

When quizzed on how Melbourne Smile Centre achieves that, Jones is almost stumped. “Well, we’re nice to them,” she says, simply—and perhaps that’s about as distilled as a mission statement gets. “A lot of it is to do with clients really getting to know you. We have a very stable group of staff, which makes patients more comfortable. It comes down to the reaction people get when they first walk through the door.”

It’s not just about waiting-room etiquette, however. Dentists themselves are crucial in ensuring customers have a positive experience. Approachability is key, as is of course a gentle touch.

“[Principal dentist Dr Deepak Jayakumar] actually listens to the patient a lot,” adds Jones. “He explains the treatments very well. As long as patients are informed, they have choices.”

And choices are what empower people, imbuing them with confidence, and making them comfortable. But what’s the single biggest thing that Vicki Jones has learnt in her many years at the customer-service frontline? “Smile,” she says.

Roubicek goes one step further: “A patient needs a dentist who knows who they are. It makes a patient feel, ‘This is a home for my mouth’.”

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