Have Them At Hello!

Phone Skills…..The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly!

Your Phone: An interruption or an opportunity? The MOST valuable piece of technology in your practice is not your high speed drill, it’s not your digital x-ray, nor is it your expertise….It’s your team’s skills and attitude on the phone!

And while every dental office has a phone, the difference between the average dental practice and great dental practices is how they use the phone. There is no reason for poor phone skills, and anyone who answers the phone should be encouraged to see it as an OPPORTUNITY and not an INTERRUPTION!
Have you ever called a place of business and wondered…. how did that person get the job and why are they still EMPLOYED?

EVERY time we have a drop in new patient flow the very FIRST thing that we focus on is our phone skills. Yes, marketing needs to be monitored and refreshed on an occasional basis, but if our new patient numbers are down our team’s phone skills have probably been compromised. Think of it like a space to be filled which creates a vacuum. If we have the capacity, both physical and emotional to handle new patients, they will come. It is a universal property. If we are so busy, or appear to be, that the space is full, there will be no room for new patients. It’s all about capacity; having the team to handle the calls and the skills to appoint the caller.

Why are exceptional phone skills important to your practice? It’s the first step on the patient’s journey to saying “YES.” It’s your very best marketing tool! It reduces confusion and stress and it makes a positive connection in the mind of the new patient.

What do patients expect when they call a dental practice?

A lot of practices are doing some form of advertising to attract new patients. The hope is that these new patients fly into the chair with their mouths and their wallets wide open. There is no advertising piece that is that good, that effective, that persuasive that can have THAT powerful of an effect.
All advertising can do is bring somebody to your phone or your door; and the rest of it is really up to you. And the “Rest” is the really important part.

Think of this process like a funnel. The wider it is at the bottom, the more treatment you are going to get to do. Advertising tells a bunch of people what you do. A small percentage responds. Some of them show up. And most of those, hopefully, accept treatment.


The more you decrease the flow, the more narrow the funnel at each level, the fewer patients you are going to bring into your practice. And when new patients don’t come into the office, what happens to the practice?

In order NOT to lose patients you’ve never met, we want you to make sure the funnel to your practice isn’t clogged. This requires effective communications….

When you get back to your practice, have a third-party call your practice and ask:

“How much do you charge for a cleaning?”

There are a number of firms who compile these statistics. Once you have that third party finish their call, compare your team’s answers with these…

  • 75% gave fee immediately (encouraging shopping)
  • 65% gave fee and nothing else about the practice
  • 20% listed long and confusing diagnostic procedures
  • 10% put the caller on-hold for a minute or more
  • 10% answered only after the third ring
  • 10% said they would have to “look up the fees”
  • I hope your team fares better than this national survey. And if they do or don’t, what follows will be beneficial in providing the answers to lead you to success.

    Two separate pieces to Successful Communications:

    1. Technique – the “Words” you use (appeals to logic)
    2. Attitude – your “Expressions” (appeals to emotions)
    There are two critical elements of successful communications: The first is technique, or the words we use to convey messages. Technique appeals to the logical side of people. The second element is attitude. Great phone skills are all about attitude. To really impress a potential new patient, you need to have the right attitude. Attitude is about the expressions you convey about the practice, about the patient and about your doctor. These things appeal to the emotional side of people and anchor them to your practice.

    A Call Audit…….The Good
    Another Call Audit…….The Bad
    Yet Another Call Audit…….The Ugly

    You and your Practice will be assessed by a patient within the first few seconds of their initial call! To the caller YOU become your practice! I know how hectic it can be in a dental office. Most of us are working at Warp Speed and when that phone rings, we don’t know who will be on the line. It could be a new patient, an existing patient with an emergency or the doctor’s wife asking him to pick up pizza for dinner tonight.

    To handle calls well, and with grace, you need to slow down and if you don’t take a deep breath you may sound exasperated.

    What you want to deliver to the caller is concern, compassion, and conscientiousness. Warmth and sincerity help convey, particularly to new patients, or those who are in pain, the likelihood of their being treated warmly and sincerely when they come into your office.

    How you answer the phone, how you address patients, how you respond to their questions create an image of how your practice treats people. You need to make sure it is a GREAT perception you are creating.

    To the caller…YOU become your practice by default. You set the tone during the first few moments whether you are having a good day or bad. Patients don’t care, nor should they.


    When patients call your practice that don’t know you, or never visited your office before, they have only the verbal message — the words — along with the vocal tone to judge your competence – right or wrong!

    Tone quality of your voice is critical. Does the patient feel that you are friendly, trustworthy, enthusiastic, and empathetic? Are you tailoring your speed to that of the patient? Are you SMILING? Many team members will put a mirror behind the phone where they can see themselves smiling while on the phone. It’s a great way to check ourselves in real time.

    Active listening is equally important. “Yes I understand,” “Tell me more about that.” Paraphrase what you have heard. Let the patient know that you are taking notes. All of these techniques reinforce the feeling that you care about them.

    We can all recall countless times when we called a business and have spoken to someone on the other end who sounded, bored, completely uninterested, and even rude. What kind of message did you get during that call?

    Since you can never know if the person on the other end of the line is not a million dollar patient, treat every caller as if he or she is the best patient you’ll ever have.

    Your voice IS the practice. The person who answers the phone reflects the image of the entire team and practice. Make it clear from the cheerfulness in your tone that you enjoy working there. It already says volumes about the doctor.

    There are four things you communicate with your tone of voice:

    • The first is Friendliness. Have you ever called a business and it sounded as though they were doing you a favor answering the phone? This is anti-marketing at its finest. If you want to turn patients off early…answer your phones in a hurried, unfriendly kind of way.
    • Trustworthy is another quality that comes through and it is meant to build trust. Building trust requires that we sound knowledgeable. I can’t believe how many practices hire and put in place people that have little knowledge of dentistry and little knowledge about the doctor, his philosophy, and other important aspects of the practice. Patients ask a lot of questions: I overheard a call where the caller must have asked, “How old is Dr. Buzza?” What they really wanted to know was how much experience does Dr. Buzza have? The front office answered, “Oh, he’s really old; I’m guessing he’s about my dad’s age or a little bit older.” Not a good way to answer the question. Does your team know the history behind the practice? Do they understand your vision? Do they embrace it?!
    • Enthusiasm is also critical. Now think about this…if I asked you to rate your practice on a scale from 1 to 10, where do you think the level of enthusiasm is? Write that number down. If it is between 1 and 4, you need to go listen to a motivational speaker in order to spark some enthusiasm in your team. If you are a 9 to 10, you might be a bit too overpowering. It should fall in the range of 7 to 8. What you want is enough enthusiasm to motivate the caller to schedule, but not too much enthusiasm that it sounds fake or phony. Enthusiasm comes from the heart and patients can feel that over the phone!
    • The last quality is empathy. In healthcare, empathy is often missing because we are so accustomed to patients with conditions and the questions that they ask, that we sound like robots on the phone responding to their problems. And when you add the stress that patients have about visiting the dentist, we need to give empathy in large doses. You wouldn’t say something like ”I’m sorry Mrs. Jones, whatever happens with insurance is between you and your insurance carrier. We don’t get involved.” Not a great way to win friends and influence patients.

    So, basically, your emotional state will modify your pitch so when you are stressed or angry or excited or surprised it will come through in your voice. And you can bet that your patients will pay more attention to this than they will the words you speak.

    Oh, and let’s talk about SMILES…Remember to smile when on the phone…a smile can be heard through the phone. Also, whenever possible, consider standing up when talking on the phone. This helps give your voice energy and conviction.

    The Flow Chart

    How do we decide what kind of an appointment to schedule our caller for? Following the flow chart and the skills outlined below will improve your success, grow the practice, and increase your satisfaction.

    The Five Step Strategy

    • Welcome! Get their name and who referred them, build rapport, make a personal connection.
    • Why they called: find out why they REALLY called by getting into the “questioning seat” as soon as possible. Be interested instead of interesting…listen actively. Get to the “Ah-Ha” moment.
    • Pre-Assess: Offer an appropriate solution (appointment, information, or referral).
    • Sell the Benefits: How does it benefit patient? Why is it the perfect practice for them? Sell the practice!
    • Get the Details last: birth date, address, phone, email, insurance, pre-meds, health issues, etc.

    The goal is NOT to fill in the information on the computer screen…Its’ to IMPRESS the patient and schedule an appointment, period!

    Step #1: The Welcome – “Thank you for calling Dr. Buzza’s office. My name is Stacey, how may I help you?” Mention the name of your practice, your name, and ask for their name. It is common courtesy and a good business practice to thank the caller by name for phoning your dental team.

    Henry Ford said “it’s not the employer who pays your wages…the employer only handles the transaction….it’s the customer that pays your wages.”

    Step #2: Why they called – “Mrs. Jones, I am so glad you called our office. You know, I’d be really happy to help you. I want to be sure I schedule you for the right appointment and the appropriate amount of time. Would you mind if I ask you a few questions and jot down some notes for the doctor?”
    This is a great way to set yourself up in the questioning seat. It sounds very conversational and what you’ve done is set yourself up so that you can control the conversation. Certainly, if they called in pain you would say something like, “I’m sorry you are in so much pain and we are glad to help you get out of pain!”

    Use the Flow Chart

    • Determine if they are an existing patient or a new patient – It’s always better to make the assumption that they are an existing patient since you may not recognize the name and don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable. This is easily accomplished by always asking “when was the last time you saw Dr. Buzza?”
    • If it’s a new patient there are 3 potential different categories that they may fit into:

    a. Cleaning/Check-up
    b. Emergency
    c. Shopper

    The point is we want to build rapport with the patient. The caller should do 80% of the talking as we ask questions in a friendly, professional manner.

    Step #3: Pre-Assess – Ask questions like:
    “How did you learn about us?”
    “Are there specific concerns that you would like to discuss with the doctor?”
    “How long has it been bothering you?”
    “How long have you noticed that?”
    “Can you describe how it feels?”
    By actively listening, reserving judgment, and asking questions, we learn more about the patient’s needs and wants.
    These are just some examples of questions that help you pre-assess the patient’s needs and wants. Why do this? This information is important for you to use in helping to create a sense of urgency to schedule.

    Step #4: Sell the Benefits

    • “You know, Mrs. Jones, based on what you’ve told me, it sounds like we should bring you in for a limited exam with the doctor to assess what is causing you that pain on the lower right. Now, once we get you out of pain, we need to schedule you for a comprehensive exam along with a hygiene appointment.
    • You are going to love Dr. Buzza. Our patients tell us he is so gentle and thorough!
    • As it turns out, Dr Buzza can see you on Monday at 11:00 or Tuesday at 1:30. Which works best for you?”

    Notice we did a couple of things here…I reminded her of the immediate issue she called about. I explained the solution and I supported the practice and created value. Finally, I used the Alternative Choice close to get the patient to schedule. I used an either/or date and time, giving them two choices only.

    Step #5: Get the Details Last
    “Okay, Mrs. Brown, we have you scheduled for Monday at 11:00. Do you need any directions? Great! Let me get a few important bits of information so that when you arrive Monday, we can get you in quickly. What is your full name……..?”

    Never end the conversation, no matter what the caller is asking for, without asking the caller to make an appointment, period!

    The Hygiene Patient

    Our goal with a Hygiene Patient:

    • Listen carefully to assess what their Emotional Drivers are.
    • Show them how you can meet their needs completely.
    • Sell them on the GREAT EXPERIENCE they will have – “You are going to love Renee…all of our patients tell us how caring and gentle she is.”

    Support your Hygiene Team:
    “Mrs. Jones, let me explain what we will do on your initial visit. Renee, our wonderful hygienist, will take some x-rays, review your health history, ask you some questions about your goals and expectations, check your Blood Pressure, and look at your teeth and gums for signs of disease. She will also check for oral cancer and then will professionally remove the tartar on your teeth. The doctor will come in and see you as well. It should take a little more than an hour. You can complete the health history forms securely right on our website at Santarosadentist.com. If you can’t do that, please come in 15 minutes earlier than your appointment time to complete the forms. Do you know where we are located? Good, any questions? Mrs. Jones, we look forward to seeing you on Thursday at 11:00. Is there anyone else in your family we need to schedule an appointment for?”

    The Emergency Patient

    • Follow the same process by getting into the questioning seat as soon as possible.
    • Be sure to express some empathy for the situation they are calling about.
    • Your goal is to learn what type of appointment they require; focus on their problem and on learning more.

    So before you move an emergency through our process, be sure to express some empathy for their situation. We are going to use the same process but we will focus more attention on learning what type of visit they need and more information about the problem.

    It may sound like this: “I am so sorry to hear you are having some pain and I’m really happy to help you. May I ask some questions and jot down some notes for the doctor while we talk? So, tell me a little bit more about your toothache….”

    Of course, you would ask them other appropriate questions depending on what their issue is.

    Alternative Choice Technique

    Some emergencies need to be seen right away, while others can wait for a day or two. TRIAGE. You know Mrs. Jones, it does sound like this is something Dr. Buzza would be really concerned about. How soon can you be here?”
    If she says she can be there right away, and you have a full schedule: “Well, we do have a full schedule, but I can offer you two choices: one is to come in immediately and we will do our best to see you as soon as possible. It could be as long as a two hour wait but we will do our best to make you comfortable. Or, if you’d like, you can come in tomorrow at 10:30 and we can see you more promptly. Which would work better for you?”
    With emergencies, sometimes you are able to see the patient right away, other times your schedule is booked solid. Rather than cause a scheduling conflict, use the Alternate Choice Technique. When you give the patient two choices it allows the patient to decide how much pain they can tolerate.
    The critical part in this technique is explaining what they can expect during the visit.

    The Shopper Call

    Anytime you advertise, you are going to get shopper calls. To be effective, we need to get comfortable handling these calls. We dislike and avoid things we dread doing! Most teams assume all Shoppers are Dead-Beats, concerned only about cost! Have you ever shopped for anything?
    Your attitude about Shoppers is EVERYTHING!
    While we dislike shopper calls, we need to recognize that if we are going to advertise for new patients, shoppers will call.

    And because we dislike these calls, we avoid them and begin dreading having to deal with them. Pretty soon, resentment creeps in and we assume all shoppers are concerned with only one thing: cost.

    If we are ineffective in how we handle these calls, it helps make our advertising program less effective as well. Here’s the point… your attitude about shoppers is everything. If you could look a little differently at these callers your attitude would begin to change and your success rate will go up.

    Let’s put it in perspective: have you ever shopped for anything? Of course! We all have. I was calling different tire stores to find out the price of replacing all 4 tires on my car. Does my calling suggest that I couldn’t afford it? No, why else would I call. So then, why do we assume patients can’t afford quality dentistry when they shop? Isn’t it the same thing?

    Let’s dig more into these types of calls…

    Imagine a clothing store with a sign out front – “No Shoppers, Only Buyers!”
    A Shopper is a Buyer waiting for you to make them feel comfortable about choosing YOU! Make them feel comfortable!

    A lot of practices believe in the philosophy that “you should never quote a fee over the phone!”
    So you tell the caller, “We NEVER quote fees because there are too many variables. I can schedule you for an appointment where Dr. Buzza will take some x-rays and let you know what you need.”
    You can guess the next question right? “How much does it cost for xrays and an exam?”
    I know there are practices out there who believe, or who were taught, not to quote fees over the phone. I suppose that philosophy was well intended…but do we really accomplish our purpose?

    Let’s look at what happens…

    Our goal with the Shopper:

    • Listen carefully to assess what they REALLY want.
    • Show them how you can meet their needs completely.
    • Sell them on the GREAT EXPERIENCE they will have.
    • Suggest you use a no charge or low charge incentive to encourage them to schedule, risk free.

    Is cost really an issue for most patients? That’s not what research shows. Of course, nobody starts out wanting to spend money on dentistry, for one simple reason: they don’t appreciate the value they are getting. If we don’t value something, any price is too high. Conversely, if we do value it, then most of the time we find the money.

    We had a “biker gal” come in with her boyfriend. I don’t think we’ve ever seen that many tattoos before. Her teeth were in bad shape. The treatment coordinator told the team at the morning huddle that she didn’t think she would be able to afford the work. Guess what happened? She told us that she was determined to find a way to make it work, and sure enough, she did! People can find the money for things they value.

    Many small business owners, including dentists, let the process of pricing control their business. But they misunderstand the psychology of the consumer. If price were the major driving factor then why does Nordstrom exist? If price were the driving factor, how did Starbucks take people from paying 50 cents for a cup of coffee to gladly forking over $3.00 for a cup? Simple: perceived value. Starbucks is a great example of wonderful marketing that overcomes price. They created an environment where people want to gather; they design a warm, inviting place and they provide an insane number of drink combinations.

    Your least loyal patients either don’t value their own health, or money supersedes any other consideration. They view dentistry as a commodity, and they look for the lowest bidder. So why do patients ask about cost? Because they don’t know what else to ask! They have no way of assessing your clinical skills. When they call your office and ask questions like, “What does a root canal cost?” they are really just trying to determine if they can trust you. That means if you answer the questions with a dollar amount, you’re giving the wrong answer. You’re being literal about the questions. Look at the questions behind the questions. They are really asking, “Are you going to take care of me, and can I trust you to at least not overcharge me?”

    The answer is not, “A root canal is $1,000.” Instead it should be, “Every patient is different, but it sounds like something that the doctor would be very concerned about, and we’d like to get you in the office right away. Don’t worry about the cost. Our initial exam is free and before we were to do any work you would be advised about the investment.”

    I know women who use coupons at the grocery store because it saves $10.00, but they go out and buy a $200 purse. I know friends of mine who go to Sears and buy tools they will never use. People who wouldn’t buy a car without airbags go skydiving. Parents buy their kid a BMW when he turns 16 and are shocked when he gets a speeding ticket a week later. People who would gladly spend thousands of dollars on chrome wheels for their car would never consider spending that amount on their smile. And the same guy who spends $5,000 on an outdoor grill won’t spend a nickel on his own grill.

    Why? Most dental teams can’t find a way to explain the benefits of dentistry. And I always say, the first step in improving this is your mindset. If you don’t believe that $6,000 of needed restorative dentistry is one of the best investments they can make, then that is your BIGGEST BARRIER to success. You will not be able to win the fight for discretionary dollars by your true competitors like Apple, Las Vegas, and BMW who are doing an excellent job everyday convincing consumers that money spent with them will change their lives for the better.
    “I’m glad you called our office and I am glad to help you. But I want to make sure I give you accurate information, so would you mind if I ask a few questions?”
    Get in the Questioning Seat as soon ASAP!

    • Tell me more about why you think you feel you need a crown?
    • How do you decide what kind of treatment is right for you?
    • Do you prefer preventative dentistry or “get-by dentistry?”
    • What kind of outcome are you looking for?

    Dealing with Insurance

    • Don’t shut down the conversation by saying “NO”…but don’t LIE!
    • Your goal is to get them into the office to experience your hospitality!
    • Talk up your practice in a positive way!

    It’s easy to fall into the trap of saying “No, I’m sorry, we are not a preferred provider.”
    Focus on what you ARE, not on what you are NOT, by using Positive Language!
    For instance, say “We ARE a non-preferred provider with Blue Cross” instead of “We are NOT a preferred provider of Blue Cross.”

    This is an important language skill here. Focus on what you are, not on what you are NOT.

    Do you see the small distinction? In the first example we tell the patient what we ARE…in the second we tell the patient what we are NOT. In both cases we said the same thing to the patient, but which one sounds more open and inviting? So, always use POSITIVE LANGUAGE.

    “I am happy to answer your questions. My name is Stacey, what’s yours? Hello Stephanie, may I ask who referred you? She’s a great patient. So, you are asking about insurance, what type of plan do you have?” (The patient says she thinks she has a PPO…) Well Stephanie, we are considered a non-preferred provider of Blue Cross, but you can still use your dental benefits in our office. As a matter of fact, we have a number of Blue Cross patients that we help. While we may not be listed in your book, many of our patients select a practice that best fits their needs and we will get you the maximum benefits available.

    I would love for you to meet Dr. Buzza and our awesome team. I’ve worked for several dentists in the area and he is, by far, the most gentle and thorough dentist I have ever seen. Stephanie, why don’t you come in and see our office, meet our team, and bring your insurance forms with you. After the exam, we can discuss what Dr. Buzza thinks you might need and how much of it your insurance will cover? Then, you can let us know how you want to proceed.

    And here is the best news…your first visit is absolutely cost free!

    If you decide we are not the best practice for you, there is no hassle and no pressure. You can even take your records with you to another dentist of your choice. How does that sound?”

    Last Impressions are LASTING Impressions……

    “Mrs. Jones, I am looking forward to personally welcoming you to our practice. You are going to love Dr. Buzza and the rest of our awesome team!”

    Final Daily Reminders

    • Keep a mirror by your phone – it helps you SMILE
    • Your voice IS your practice – you reflect the image of your practice
    • The price of courtesy – treat every caller as if they are the best patient you have
    • Attitude is everything – warmth and sincerity are positive motivators
    • Be there – answer by the third ring, and try not to put the caller on hold
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