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Inoculate Yourself From Patient Complaints


How do you respond to patient complaints? Some dentists and team members freeze when faced with an upset patient while others counter the patient’s complaints with facts and reason. But neither approach is likely to result in an improved relationship with the patient.  This is especially dire because upset customers typically share their terrible experiences with up to 12 people. And this does not count the contingent who will also blast their thoughts on your review sites.  In this article, we’ll examine how to prevent complaints through a technique I call, “inoculation.”

The Spectrum of Patients

Imagine that there is a continuum of patient behavior. On one end are patient apostles. The apostles are your raving fans, true believers who spread the word. They bring you home baked goods, they write 5-star google reviews and they are generally appreciative and loyal.  At the other extreme are the patients who resemble terrorists; these patients live to take you down.  They argue with you, they complain, and they demand constant attention.

Human nature being as it is, we tend to focus more energy on the terrorists than we do the apostles, which sadly only creates more terrorism.

Inoculating Terrorists

Can you prevent patients turning into terrorists? Yup – through inoculation.  As you know, inoculations, from a clinical perspective, prevent or reduce illnesses.  We can do the same thing with patient complaints: prevent complaints by anticipating the patient’s objection and solving it, before the patient says anything. With verbal inoculations you pre-empt a problem with a matter-of-fact description of what the patient may experience and a focus on the benefits.

How it Works

Let’s say you have a packed schedule and your next opening for a non-pre-block appointment is six to eight weeks out. Without inoculation, you tell your patient he needs a filling and he is escorted to the front desk prepared to schedule it.  Then he is told by your harried team that the first available appointment will be in two months and only at an inconvenient time of day. What is your patient’s likely reaction?  Not happy, right?

But imagine if you inoculated your patient before he got to the front desk. 

You say: “Hey patient, you need a filling on this this tooth.  I’m going to recommend that we take care of this in the next 6–8 weeks. This timeline will be perfectly safe and we’ll have time to take care of you completely when you come in.”

This verbiage eliminates an unpleasant surprise at the front desk. The patient now knows his appointment might be two months out but is comfortable with this because you’ve given your seal of approval. It’s going to be hard for a patient to complain about “being taken care of completely.”

Let’s look at a different scenario. Imagine you’re getting an influx of new patients who are transferring to you from a dentist who has a significantly different approach to care than you do. The patients you are seeing need extensive work and rehab. You can anticipate that they will be upset and confused to hear your diagnosis. An inoculation statement for them could sound like this:

Hey patient, I’m so glad you’re here. I want to alert you that we may do things differently here than at your previous dentist. My philosophy is to provide conservative and comprehensive dental care which is why you may hear something from us you haven’t heard before. I’ll make sure you completely understand why I make my treatment recommendations and we’ll work together to keep you in good health.”

This verbiage helps the patient understand why they may get an extensive treatment plan, before they receive any bad news. It provides reassurance, it tactfully acknowledges there are different treatment philosophies and it creates a sense of partnership.

Use the inoculation technique in any situation where you anticipate a patient objection or concern. It can deter the terrorists and increase your apostles.

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Inspired Us to Dream Bigger, and it Works

“As an Office Manager, I’ve seen a great difference in my practice since starting with Sharyn. Three years ago our staff was in turmoil with a lot of infighting and gossip and some jealousy directed towards me.

I had given up because everything I did was judged. Now I have learned to have more one-to-one communication and by being more vulnerable with individuals I found my leadership voice. As a team, we’re all focused on the same goals.

Last year, in August we produced $88,000. This year we’re on track to produce $111,000 this month. I know it’s because we learned how to follow through with patients and communicate our expectations while building our systems.

Sharyn has gotten us out of our comfort zone and inspired us to dream bigger and it works.”

–Sharon St Pierre, Sperbeck Dental Care

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