Private practices are experiencing a high volume of calls from patients seeking NHS care – here’s how to deal with them.
As patient access remains a problem, thousands of patients without a regular dentist are left seeking dental treatment. Practice Plan creative director, Les Jones, spoke to dental business consultant, Richard Collard, for advice about how practice teams can manage the increased number of phone calls they are now fielding.
Les Jones (LJ): If you’re being swamped with phone calls, how can you ensure that the person calling the practice is the type of patient you want? Is there some kind of a vetting process that needs to happen?
Richard Collard (RC): Interesting question. I wonder how many practices have considered the type of patients they’re looking to attract? But you’re right, there needs to be some basic filtering, and I think it’s done in two ways.
First of all, your website: what does it say about what you do, especially in the context of the NHS? I had a 100% private practice recently that was being inundated with NHS enquiries. It had a section on its website called ‘new patients’. So, if you were looking for an NHS dentist, you’d click on that wouldn’t you? It simply stated, ‘we are accepting new patients.’ Sorting that message out would sift people at that first point and reduce the number of calls.
Then, if somebody did a Google search for ‘practices in my area’ and rang the number on the Google listing, the first thing that they should hear is a little bit about the practice and what sort of new patient is being accepted, along the lines of what we’ve already discussed. That would then be the second filter.
So, there you have the two filters: the website filter and the telephone filter. They start to precondition people and let them know you’re a private practice. So, anyone who stays on the phone and wants a discussion already knows that.
LJ: There seems to be a big change in dynamic here, in the way practices are communicating. And perhaps they need to be a little bolder and more direct on their websites to make it very clear what kind of practice they are, right from the start.
RC: Yes. You’re right when you say you can afford to be more bold, because there’s an accessibility issue. Places are limited, so you want to be attracting more of the kind of people that understand what you do and are prepared to pay for what you do.
Others may well decide to continue to look around to see if they can find somewhere offering NHS treatment. Fine, good luck with that. However, it would be better they tie up somebody else’s line, not yours.
LJ: Coming back to the ‘are you taking on NHS patients?’ conversation, as we both know, despite the fact that you might say it big and loud on your website that you’re not taking those patients on, you will still get those calls. What’s your advice to practices as to how they deal with them?
RC: The first thing I’d say is get your second filter right. So be very clear in what your first message on the telephone says. This is one of the things I’ve been doing a lot of work on recently: getting the right kind of systems in place.
So, if your phone system isn’t capable of doing some of the things that I’m suggesting now, you will continue to experience problems because the phone will keep ringing off the hook. But you also won’t know how many calls you are missing unless you know how to interrogate the system properly. And the ones you are missing could be the very people that you want to attract in the first place.
So, I would suggest in a 100% private practice, set up a filter so that when someone rings up the first thing they hear is something like, ‘Welcome to [Your Town] Dental Care, providers of private dentistry to a discerning practice membership. If you’re an existing member here, please press one. If you’re a prospective new member, please press two. Otherwise, please press three.’
So, only a few options, which is good, but it clearly said ‘private dentistry’. People need to be braver about stating they’re a private practice and be less coy.
Also, with this message, it immediately talks about membership, not registration. The language is really important here. ‘If you are a prospective new member, please press two.’
The message they then get, having pressed two, will be something along the lines of: ‘Hello, this is Dr Steven Thomas, principal dentist and owner here. Thank you for expressing an interest in becoming a member of the practice.’
So, a nice welcome from the principal.
‘We provide comprehensive dental healthcare on a solely private basis.’
Not being coy there.
‘This means our patients have a wider choice of treatment, both in terms of how it is delivered and the types of treatments available.’
So, patients can feel empowered here.
‘Our members appreciate that planned regular visits to a dentist and a hygienist are vital for maintaining healthy mouths.’
There’s a brief patient profile.
‘Our aim is to help them keep their own teeth for as long as possible and keep them smiling for life.’
That’s a brief practice profile.
‘We continue to welcome a steady stream of new members to the practice so, if you’d like to book your first appointment or simply explore if we are the right practice for you, press four to speak with our patient care team.’
That says we’re popular and accessible…what’s not to like?
You can edit that, but you get the principle. I’ve tried to throw everything into it there.
LJ: What if some people still want to talk about NHS treatment? What’s your advice to practices as to how they deal with those calls?
RC: I would probably repeat some of the things in the message. Because once you’ve got things recorded or on the website, you have a template script to use. And the more front of house team members play around with it, the more confident they will become in articulating it.
So, in answer to the question, ‘So, you don’t do NHS, then?’, your team member would be able to respond with something like: ‘Well, as you will have heard, we are a solely private practice. We are taking on new patients. If you would like to book as a private patient and consider becoming part of our membership scheme, we’d be delighted to welcome you. Would you like to book an appointment, or would you like to talk to somebody about our service and what we offer first?’
You’re now giving them a choice.