Plug “Revenue Leaks” With Better Scripting

By Megan Urban

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Dental professionals expect to hone their clinical skills through continuing education. They look forward to learning about the latest tools and techniques to improve patient care while growing their practices, yet few apply this thirst for knowledge to their office procedures and the “scripts” used for patient communication.

If you experience “revenue leaks” due to gaps in your schedules-or if your beleaguered front office team spends inordinate time juggling appointments at the last minute-it might be time to entertain a few adjustments to standard operating procedures.

Choose Your Words Carefully
Most dentists believe that their team already uses industry standard practices to manage their schedules. They’ve trained their team to book follow-up appointments before patients leave the office, and they’ve instituted a system for sending reminder messages prior to the scheduled dates/times. That’s great! But there’s a difference between knowing what to do, and doing it really well.

Take the case of the semi-annual hygiene appointment. Hygienists usually ask, “Can I set up your next appointment for you?” While the question aligns with best practices, it leaves the door open for a response of “No,thanks,” or “Not now.” A more fruitful approach assumes the patient wants another appointment and needs to find the best time slot. The hygienist guides the interaction by saying, “It looks like Wednesday mornings work well for you. On February 10th, we can see you at 9 or 11. Which option works better for you?” Once the appointment is set, the hygienist provides the appointment reminder card, and offers a duplicate copy if there’s benefit to having separate copies for the home and the office. The latter provides an extra measure of service, while increasing the likelihood of a protected status on the calendar.

As the appointment draws near, the typical reminder provides the date and time of the scheduled visit, along with a request for callback if the need arises to reschedule. While this messaging conveys an accommodating attitude on the part of the dental office, it sets the bar rather low for patient responsibility by suggesting that adjustments to the weekly schedules are no big deal. In reality, it’s a hassle for the team and could result in lost revenue if they’re unable to fill the opening, and, of course, the patient may not receive much-needed treatment in a timely manner. Consider the following messaging, “We have reserved an hour for you with our team, on Day/Date/ Time and look forward to seeing you then.” It focuses on your mutual commitment and sets an expectation of maintaining the schedule.

Last minute cancellations are particularly troublesome. Some dentists provide early warning of late notice or no-show penalties as a negative incentive to good behavior, while covering part of the financial loss. Others simply jump into a rescheduling conversation if and when the situation arises.

Neither approach is especially kind to the bottom line. A more useful conversation operates under the assumption that the appointment may yet be salvageable. For example, “As we’ve already reserved this time for you, what can we do to help you keep the appointment?” If the patient is unexpectedly delayed, staff may be able to accommodate a late arrival. If financial considerations or a fear of discomfort are to blame, staff may be able to resolve the issue and get things back on track. The hasty pivot to rescheduling or penalties eliminates the opportunity to identify and address the underlying problem, and opens the door to recurrence.

Patients with a history of cancellations merit special attention. A conversation during the scheduling process could ferret out the root cause of the behavior and illuminate a path that will work for both parties. Thereafter, the treatment and language for an appointment reminder might sound something like, “We have reserved an hour for you with our team on Day/Date/Time. As we’ve had some difficulties with keeping scheduled appointments in the past, I’ll need to hear from you by 9 a.m. on Friday if you plan to be here. If I do not hear from you, I’ll need to offer that time to someone else in order to be fair to our team and the patients on our waiting list. I look forward to hearing from you.”

Each of these examples reflects relatively minor changes to the wording, and yet the underlying message shifts rather dramatically. It establishes a context in which staff anticipates and works toward successful outcomes. It also sets the tone for relationships based on mutual accountability.

Invest in Staff Training
If it were simply of matter of writing the perfect script for every occasion, we’d publish our “best of all words” and declare victory. In reality, your team needs training to take the words off the page and put them into action successfully.

An appropriate entry point for training considers the foundational objectives of the practice and the associated office procedures and scripts. These goals might include:

• Leveraging collective expertise and influence to ensure patients have access to services, as well as awareness of personal practices that promote oral hygiene and health
• Providing the highest quality patient care at levels they can reasonably afford
• Maintaining a full schedule to enable the team to work at peak efficiency
• Fostering an atmosphere of mutual trust and responsibility between the team and the patients
• Establishing an atmosphere in which all persons who enter are accorded dignity, respect, and genuine concern

When your team takes these guideposts to heart, it will shine through in all of their interactions with patients and one another. They will recognize that all relationships are a two-way street, and their demeanor and tone of voice will express their commitment to a cordial and mutually rewarding association.

The dentist or office manager should review the key elements of scripted messaging and why they matter in patient communication. However, scripted language should not be used mechanically. Such treatment conveys insincerity and emotional distanceprecisely the opposite of what we’d like to accomplish! Staff should feel free to adjust the language to suit their personal style while still retaining the underlying intent of each message. Encourage them to practice saying it aloud until they feel they can deliver it in a natural and sincere tone of voice.

Be prepared to refine your messaging over time based on the experience of your team and the specific patients that you serve. Give staff an opportunity to share their successes and their challenges, as well as any insights they’ve gleaned. Recognize that even the best communicators will find uncomfortable patient conversations daunting. Make sure they get practical and emotional support from their peers to address these circumstances. Leverage outside expertise as needed.

Summary
A fresh look at scripting and a renewed commitment to staff training and continuous improvement opens the door to a sweeter bottom line and a more productive, less harried staff. The good news is that it doesn’t have to take a lot of time to make these refinements. Management consultants who specialize in the field have already done the “heavy lifting” of figuring out what works and what doesn’t work across a broad spectrum of dental practices. It’s simply a matter of tapping into this wellspring of knowledge and finding the appropriate means to bring it into your office.

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