Customer complaints: how to deal with them

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customer complaints
It’s important to deal skilfully with customer complaints.

How you respond when things go wrong—and you’re to blame, not the patient—can make the world of difference to the outcome. By John Burfitt

There’s a story dental marketing specialist Carolyn S Dean tells about the way one clinic dealt with a patient issue, and how they managed to ruin what had been a good dentist-patient relationship in the process.

An issue with the dentist during a consultation led to the patient complaining in an online review. The dentist, however, did not see the review for 10 months.

“Only then did the dentist call to apologise for what had happened, as the patient did indeed have a valid complaint,” Dean says. “When the dentist asked what could be done now to make it right, the client said if a response had been made within 10 days, it could have been resolved, but after 10 months, it was too late.”

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In dealing with all the patients who come through the doors of a clinic every week, something is bound to go wrong at some point. Many times, a patient’s complaint is unfounded, but there can be cases where the dentist is in the wrong. It could be due to a procedure that went wrong, an accidental overcharge, an excessive waiting time or a clash of personalities.

Dr Phillip Palmer of consultancy Prime Practice says what matters most in those situations is not necessarily what went wrong between the dentist and patient, but how it’s dealt with. 

“There’s no question about it—if you see enough patients, something will happen and despite your best efforts, there will be times when you are at fault,” Dr Palmer says. 

“That’s when you need to already have procedures in place to deal with whatever comes up so the problem is handled and the patient does not walk away, never to return. The staff should know what to do in those situations and ensure it is handled appropriately.”

Dr Palmer believes there is a five-step process when facing such a situation: own the problem, apologise, communicate, correct it, and act fast. He says clinic staff must also be trained to know how to handle such situations.

“When I used to run my own clinic, we had a budget for such matters, and had movie tickets at the front reception,” he says. “If there was an issue we were responsible for, we would hand them out as a token of apology.”

“I don’t think you should ever be afraid to admit you’re sorry as it shows concern for the patient and also that you are seeing it from their point of view.” 

Dr Peter Alldritt, Rose Park Dental

Adelaide practitioner Dr Peter Alldritt, of Rose Park Dental, believes the key is being prepared to admit when you’re in the wrong, whatever happens.

“I don’t think you should ever be afraid to admit you’re sorry as it shows concern for the patient and also that you are seeing it from their point of view. Sometimes, a letter can be the most valuable of all, including the offer to repair what’s gone wrong as soon as possible. Communicating with the patient and doing so fast makes the difference and can ensure you don’t lose them. Ignoring it or hoping it will all go away will not help anyone.”

Many complaints are sent by email, letter or made by telephone, and can be handled directly. It’s the ones made on a social media platform that must be handled delicately, Carolyn S Dean says.

“It needs to be someone’s job in the practice to monitor online reviews at least once a week, so if you have an unhappy patient, you know about it and can get on it straight away.

“If it’s an accidental double-up on charges or the filling fell out after one day, you have a duty to move on it in a way that shows you take it seriously, not just to that patient but to anyone else reading about it. Apologise and show concern, and then ask them to call, email or drop in again immediately. Never get into a spat or go into detail online; just take that conversation offline as quickly as you can. The smoother the process, the more likely the patient will return for their next appointment.”

Patients being left waiting as the dentist’s schedule runs significantly overtime should never be allowed to become a major issue, Dr Palmer adds. 

“As a patient, I once walked out of a waiting room when I had been kept waiting an hour after my allotted time, and no-one spoke to me in that hour,” he says. “Policies should exist so this can be neatly handled long before the patient even arrives, with the receptionist calling a patient and informing them of the delay. It is the courtesy of letting them know what is going on, informing them they can possibly arrive later, or asking if they want to reschedule.

“Never forget the rule that it costs seven times as much to attract a new client than to retain an existing client—and no-one likes losing a patient. It comes down to the basics of good patient communication and clear staff procedures, and following the rule of, what would you want if you were in the patient’s shoes? Then you need to go out of your way to correct it so that patient feels valuable.”

It’s when any problem threatens to spiral, Dr Alldritt warns, that the professional ego needs to be kept out of the equation and that good customer service should dictate the way forward.

“Don’t take it personally so you feel insulted or damaged,” he says. “Put things into perspective and look at it from the patient’s point of view so you understand exactly what has upset them. If you are in the wrong, ensure that person has been heard and then don’t argue about it. Just fix it.” 


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1 COMMENT

  1. Marketing aside, responding to patient complaints is an ethical obligation of health care professionals. The Australian Open Disclosure Framework also requires dentists to disclose their errors (https://www.safetyandquality.gov.au/our-work/open-disclosure/the-open-disclosure-framework/).
    But presumably because of shared professional indemnity insurance obligations, in my experience Australian dentists do not apologise to patients or admit to fault. They are also told to “avoid discussing the standard of work of other dentists with patients” (‘Bad mouthing’ – Bite Magazine: https://bitemagazine.com.au/bad-mouthing/).

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