How you handle consumer complaints can make all the difference between resolving the issue in a timely manner or facing a world of pain further down the line, as Tracey Porter discovers.
When Melbourne dentist Kia Pajouhesh elected to take defamation action against a patient who posted a scathing online review, he was drawing a clear line in the sand.
As the managing director of Smile Solutions, one of the country’s largest private dental practices, Dr Pajouhesh wasn’t about to take what he considered false and defamatory imputations against both his business and him personally lying down.
Although Dr Pajouhesh wasn’t the first medical practitioner to take issue with an online review, the high-profile case has thrown a spotlight on the shadowy world of consumer complaints and the rights of brand owners to defend their reputation—no matter the personal or professional cost.
Dental marketing experts argue that a positive reputation is one of the most powerful marketing assets a business has to convince new customers to engage with them and existing customers to stick with them.
Yet while not all customers who are unhappy with aspects of their oral health care will complain on online forums—and not all dentists who disagree will respond by issuing a writ—the increasing influence these types of reviews have on the reputation of bricks and mortar dental businesses should not be underestimated.
Integrated Dental Marketing (IDG) managing director Carl Burroughs, whose Sydney business has been helping the Australian dental profession for more than 17 years, says the most common complaints he has helped clients respond to are nearly always around a lack of communication.
Burroughs says the cost of dentistry is a perennial favourite for patients to complain about. Most often its not the actual cost of a procedure they are unhappy with, but the fact they did not know what the cost was going to be before the treatment was completed, he says. “Other popular complaints also tend to centre around poor communication skills, the rudeness of a member of staff or a dental treatment not being explained in full. Clearly there are also times when a patient complains about the quality of the dentistry they received or something failing, but these are less common in our experience.”
Mark Brown is a director of Engage Media (the publisher of Bite) who in a career spanning more than 20 years has helped develop custom content strategies for everyone from large corporates to SMEs across the veterinary and oral health sectors.
He agrees bill shock fuels much of the negative feedback he receives concerning dental practices and adds that other factors, such as when a patient opts to get a second opinion, can also put clinics in the direct firing line of unhappy customers. Yet ironically both marketers insist the very factor that causes most complaints may also be the most effective weapon dentists have to help calm the waters in the wake of an unsettling complaint. They agree that no matter the nature of the concern, communication is key when it comes to reducing the risk of patient backlash.
It’s important to listen
Brown, whose core skill is helping brands connect with their audiences, says while the patient may not always be right, they always have a right to be listened to. He says it’s important that dentists and practice managers seek to acknowledge the client’s concern first and foremost.
Only once a patient feels they have been truly heard, should the dental practitioner review their notes, check their intraoral photos and attempt to remedy the situation whether that be via refund, ongoing treatment or by coolly and calmly outlining where the customer may have erred, he says.
Burroughs says a swift and empathetic response is essential to get the ball rolling as “not responding for a few days will compound the situation”.
It is likely the patient will then add the feeling of being ignored to their lists of grievances. He says inviting the patient to talk over the problem with the dentist, either over the phone or ideally in person, is the ideal first step.
“Document these conversations and meetings, but the main thing is to listen to the complaint and avoid being combative in any way. The patient may have totally misunderstood something and the treatment may be the very best for them, but this will count for naught if they have not felt listened to.”
As with almost everything within a dental practice, a formal procedure to handle complaints is imperative to both deliver the best outcome for the patient complaining and also to protect the staff, the dentists and the practice.
“There are those within the profession who complain how regulated everything has become but having the proper procedure in place to handle things takes all the guess work out of any situation that arises and means even junior members of a team know what to do,” Burroughs says.
Aside from instituting a formal complaint procedure in the event a practice does not already have one, Brown also recommends practice owners consider taking a breather before responding to those who may have written their complaint in email or letter form. “It’s tempting when your back gets up and you think you’re right to jump in but maybe draft something, sleep on it and then have another look at it in the morning.”
Likewise, engaging the services of a third party to promote positive feedback and drown out negative reviews online rarely works out well for the party being complained about, the pair argue.
If it happens authentically due to the tremendous service a practice is providing, then it may be worthwhile but it is never a good idea to try and employ a company solely to provide positive reviews, Burroughs says.
“Firstly, this breaches AHPRA guidelines, this action would be fake and misleading and secondly, Google has sophisticated ways of detecting fake reviews which will then be removed. This could potentially damage your Google reputation.”
When all is said and done, if complaints are ignored then the reputation of the business will almost always be negatively impacted, Burroughs says. “Negative online reviews have killed businesses completely, halved the audience of movies that have been slammed, and ostracised people in public office.
“The odd negative review on Google will not destroy a dental practice. In fact, there is a certain believability about having the odd negative review as most people know you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”
7 top tips for responding to a complaint
- Prevention is always better than cure so approach a problem with a client in a similar way to how you handle an issue with a friend, partner or employee.
- Encourage reception staff to speak with patients pre- and post-treatment so that you can be informed of any concerns they may have.
- Respond within 24 hours once an online complaint is received. Savvy consumers will read a review before engaging an oral health practitioner and if complaints are not handled quickly, this can create a negative perception with potential new patients.
- Acknowledge the patient’s distress and listen without judgement.
- Find out what will assist the complainant to resolve the matter. Examples could include a written response, a phone discussion, changes in policy or procedures or a meeting.
- Apologise if appropriate, but in any event be sympathetic.
- Avoid official or technical language.
Source: Dr Craig Brown, ADA NSW and Dan Halliday, Dental Marketing Australia.