You may think you're service-oriented—you may indeed be service-oriented—but is that how your clients see you? When you're working at full tilt, it's hard to step outside of the box and think about how your clients perceive the service they get from your laboratory. You provide a consistent quality product on time and often spend half of your day tending to the requests of your dentist-clients. So—when the question of quality service arises, you think, "What else could they possibly want from me?"
Since "good service" is very often in the eye of the beholder, there's no easy answer to that question. The perceived quality of your service is the difference between what customers expect and what they actually get. That's why any customer service expert would tell you that good service, no matter what the business, starts with paying attention and listening to your clients.
Keep the lines of communication with your dentist-customers open. Offer vehicles for constant feedback so that you stay apprised of their opinions, concerns, worries and frustrations. For example, sending quality control cards with each case is standard procedure in many laboratories; some also do periodic surveys to gauge customer satisfaction. Keep in mind that followup is crucial; if you receive a less-than-positive comment, calling that dentist immediately demonstrates that you're genuinely concerned about his satisfaction.
Lab owners are quick to point out that quality control cards and surveys are just one part of the picture; they say that when it comes to understanding a client's expectations, personal contact is vital. "I suggest you periodically call your clients—both your best customers and those who send you minimal work—and ask why they use your services and what you can do to improve," says Bob Wakitsch, co-owner of Dental Craft Corp. in Ringwood, Illinois. "I find that when I take the time to personally ask the question, my clients take it more seriously and realize how important their answers are to me."
What they want to tell you Not only will dentists appreciate that their feedback is valuable to you, but their answers may point out developing problems. They will also help you better tailor your services to their needs; perhaps you'll find out you're exerting time and energy on something they don't really need. When you ask—and truly listen—they'll tell you what they want. It may sound something like this:
"Be there for me." (Be responsive.) Make your clients secure in the knowledge that you're available to them and that you'll respond promptly and obligingly to their requests or concerns. "Dentists don't always plan ahead so very often they'll be calling with the patient in the chair," says Kathy Pascoe, who co-owns 19-person Prosthodent Dental Studio, Clinton Township, Michigan, with her husband, Tom. "So we make sure that one of us—or one of our managers—is always available to talk to a doctor."
Some laboratory owners even hand out cards listing all their contact numbers—including cell and home telephone—to further put clients at ease. "It shows them that I'm always accessible, even after hours," says Chris Morris, owner of ADL Dental Laboratory in Louisville, KY. "It's a simple way of saying, 'I'm here if you need me.'"
"Look out for me." (Anticipate his needs.) When Keller Laboratories saw its cosmetic caseload increasing, laboratory management realized that customers would appreciate a greater amount of face-to-face service—which would be difficult to offer to those clients who weren't located near its main facility in St. Louis, Missouri. So over the last year, the lab has established three locations in other areas of the state—two in Kansas City and one in St. Peters. Though production work is still done at the main facility, these groups of technicians service doctors in the area by doing pickup and delivery, checking prescriptions and providing case consultation and technical support. "Many of our clients have really gotten hooked on having a technician stop by the office every day," says Dave Baylis, vice president of sales and marketing.
To be able to anticipate your clients' needs, you not only have to stay in touch with them, but in touch with the industry. For example, Dental Craft Corp. has a focus group of 10 dentist-clients that meets once a year. "We ask them about the future of their practices and of dentistry, so that we can understand what we can do to help them get where they want to go," says Wakitsch. "At our last meeting, I asked what they were reading and they recommended a few publications I had never even heard of, such as Dr. Tom Orent's 1,000 Gems Update and The Profitable Dentist. Now I subscribe to them so that I have a better feel for what's on their minds."
"Work with me." (Be flexible.) Phrases like "that's our policy" or "there's nothing I can do about it" stop customers in their tracks. "Being flexible goes a long way," says Morris, who tells the story of an overdenture bar that fractured due to a manufacturer defect. Although it's usually a two-to-three-week procedure, the lab turned the case around in three days because the patient was going on vacation. "It earned us a lot of goodwill with the dentist and the patient—who has since referred his sister for implant therapy to this doctor," says Morris.
Of course, it's not always possible to give the dentist what he's asking for. "We'll do whatever we possibly can for our clients," says Wakitsch. "But we can't just give everything away if it's going to hurt us long-term."
"Don't fail me." (Keep your promises.) You've heard the phrase: "Under promise and over deliver." When you pledge to do something you're not sure is possible, then you're setting up your client for disappointment. "We aim for no negative surprises," says Wakitsch. "For example, we always estimate on the high side when quoting cases so if the bill comes in lower, the customer is pleasantly surprised."
Of course, things can go wrong even when you have the best intentions. But if you have a relationship with your customers, they will tolerate occasional mistakes—if they're handled appropriately. Studies show that seven out of 10 complaining customers will do business with you again if you resolve the complaint promptly in their favor.
"The most important thing you can do when there's a problem is to be honest," says Jerry Dongilli, technical director, Knight Dental Studio, Oldsmar, Florida. "I've never lost a client in 34 years by being honest. I've been embarrassed, but I've never lost one."
"Take care of me." (Give him peace of mind.) Many laboratories say that offering technical consultations and participating in treatment planning are at the heart of their service programs because they demonstrate that they're truly part of the dental team by helping to ensure the success of each case. "Given the array of new materials on the market, dentists want to call someone who is familiar with the product and has worked with it more often," says Carol Murphy, marketing manager, O'Brien Dental Lab, Corvallis, Oregon. "Or perhaps it's a new dentist or one who has never done an implant; he needs advice and he knows he can come to us to get it."
When a dentist calls Hub Dental Laboratories sounding perplexed about a new procedure or an esthetic or functional problem, Lawrence Forbes knows the magic words. "I'll tell him, 'this is now my problem, not yours,'" says Forbes, general manager of the New Brunswick, Canada laboratory. If necessary, he or another technician will go to the dentist's office. "When I let him know that someone will be there in 10 minutes, he often asks incredulously, 'You'll do that?' We let the dentist know he's not alone."
"Take care of my patient." (Make him look good.) Dentists are concerned about things going smoothly for their patients, which adds stress when there's a problem with a case. "When a patient's unhappy, he's going to blame the dentist," says Forbes. "If we help him save face, he's going to be grateful."
When a patient has been inconvenienced, Prosthodent's Pascoe gives him a $15 gift certificate to a local restaurant with a note saying, "Have lunch on us." "I send it to the dental office in an unsealed envelope, asking the dentist to pass it on to the patient if he feels it's appropriate," says Pascoe.
"Take care of my staff." (They influence his buying decision.) Consider everyone in the dental office—not just the dentist—to be your customer. "Don't forget that a dentist's staff makes a lot of decisions for him. Treat all of them like royalty," says John Tschohl, author and founder of the Service Quality Institute in Minneapolis, Minnesota.