Jacqui Goss explains why you should welcome patients who complain and how to deal with the situation when things do go wrong
Work in retail management for a number of years, as I did, and you soon learn that despite the best efforts of humans, machines and Intel processors, things go wrong. It was then that customers would complain, and I would hear over the store’s public address system: “Jacqui Goss to the customer service desk.”
I confess at first I used to respond in the manner of a hungry lion scenting a young gazelle–I went in for the kill and emerged with pride. The wounded customer made a hasty exit and no doubt related the experience to his/her family and their friends who told it to their family and their friends and…well, you get the idea.
These days, however, I’m much more of a pussycat than a lion. I still get called to deal with disgruntled customers, but now they are patients, the telephone has replaced the public address system, and I do it on a consultancy basis.
I do not, of course, get involved with clinical complaints nor ones that are being pursued formerly through the General Dental Council (GDC) or the Dental Complaints Service.
What are you complaining about?
Patients want you to deliver what they want or exceed their expectations. Some will complain when you fail to do so. Frankly, I wish they all would complain. Why? Because a patient who complains highlights an area for potential improvement and gives you the opportunity to make amends.
Dealing first with patient-originated complaints, you should decide in a team meeting how to deal with them. There are a few ground rules to follow if you want to handle complaints successfully.
For want of a better phrase, the “first contact recipient”–the team member who initially receives the complaint in person or by telephone–should deal politely with the patients and encourage them to give as much factual information as possible. What is the name, address and phone number of the patient? What happened that he/she is complaining about? When and/or how often did it happen? Who was involved? What was the result?
If the complaint is being taken over the telephone, make sure the patients understand that the information they are giving is being taken down–the questions are not just being posed out of curiosity.
End the discussion by informing the patient that his/her complaint will be investigated and that (name of designated person–usually the practice manager) will contact him/her in (a number agreed as a practice policy) days and inquire what is the most convenient time of day to do so.
If the complaint comes in the form of a letter or email, the patient may need to be asked questions in order for the investigation to proceed.
Referred to the “public involvement department”
The next stage is to forget all about it! Only joking–although I’m sure this is what happens in many businesses.
When the complaint has been investigated, and it has been discovered what went wrong to upset or annoy the patient, the designated person must contact him/her. Most often, this will be the practice manager; although, as I wrote earlier, some of my dental principal clients ask me to do it. Most likely, it will involve telephoning the patient in the evening or on the weekend, and some practice staff are not prepared to do this.
Having introduced myself and explained why I’m calling, I begin by thanking the patient for making the complaint. I’m not being facetious–I’m genuinely pleased on behalf of the practice that a mistake has been highlighted and brought to our attention. I then explain how the mistake occurred–patients need to feel assured that it has been properly investigated. I advise against using trite phrases such as, “it was a computer error” or “somebody forgot to do it.”
There’s no need to go into the intricacies of your practice management software or explain why a certain member of staff has become rather forgetful of late. However, a statement such as: “It was only when we looked into your complaint that we realized what could go wrong if we didn’t put the information on our computer in a particular way” will sound plausible and authoritative. Similarly: “The problem arose when a member of the staff forgot to do something, so we’ve now set up a system of double checking so the same mistake can’t happen again.”
Say it with flowers
I then apologize for the mistake and any inconvenience it has caused the patient. Personally, I always use the word “sorry” as in “I’m sorry this happened” and “I’m so sorry you’ve been inconvenienced.” Bankers, prime ministers, politicians and others have become good at “apologizing” without actually appearing sorrowful. For me, that’s just not good enough.
Nine times out of 10, the patient accepts the apology and ends the call feeling somewhere between satisfied and happy. If you detect from his tone of voice that the matter has not been settled to the patient’s complete satisfaction, or if the mistake caused him/her considerable inconvenience, offer compensation. Exactly who within the team can offer what compensation should be agreed at a team meeting, but it’s best if the staff member making the call to apologize can offer something without having to seek authority. A free appointment with a hygienist could be reasonable compensation, for example. A more personal option would be a bouquet of flowers.
Finally, don’t forget to log the complaint and the action taken. You should also provide feedback to the member of staff who made the mistake and/or the whole team, as appropriate. The incident should lead to improvement within the practice.
So, that was a patient-originated complaint. However, there are other sorts as well.
You should encourage your patients to complain–or, more accurately, give you feedback on the performance of your dental practice. Unless you do so, you may never know that you are not exceeding your patients’ expectations. The patient whose expectations you fail to meet or exceed may well tweet their views to their Twitter followers–which could potentially be thousands of people. That is not the word-of-mouth action you need.
I will explain how to handle negative comments made online and how to elicit feedback from patients in my next article.
Jacqui Goss is managing partner at Yes!RESULTS. For further information call 08456 44 80 66 or visit www.yesresults.co.uk.
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