Nothing is more irritating and costly to a dental practice than broken or cancelled appointments. We constantly get asked what a practice can do to prevent or avoid cancellations. A recent question on the Crown Council e-mail network (www.CrownCouncil.com) asked, “What is the proper verbiage for confirming appointments.”
Before we get to the specific answer to that question, let’s take one step back and consider a few important details that influence that verbiage.
With all of the communication options we have today AND the limited amount of time that people seem to have, a higher level of "agreement" and discussion needs to take place with every patient regarding their scheduled appointments. Here are some items for consideration:
1. When scheduling an appointment with a new patient, you might want to say: "Mrs. Jones, I am not sure how you have communicated with your previous dental office, but we have several options for you so that we can stay on the same page together. We will schedule your appointment today and you can go ahead and put that on your calendar or PDA just like we put it on our schedule here in the office. That way we all know that we have made a mutual commitment for that time and date. In addition, as a courtesy to our patients, we can communicate with you a couple of days before your appointment so that you will know that we are counting on you. What is your preferred way for us to communicate with you: Phone, e-mail, text, or a postcard in the mail?" (Let them choose.)
2. “Great. So you can expect to receive a (call, text, e-mail, post card, etc.) several days before your appointment. When you receive that, WILL YOU make sure to respond to us so that we all know we are on the same page? We really respect your time and want to make sure we keep everything on track for you as planned so that will really help both of us.”
Depending the on the selected avenue of communication, here are some pointers:
Avoid using the words “confirm” or “remind” in any of your communication. To “confirm” implies that it was not “firm” in the first place leaving them room to back out. To “remind” implies that you are more responsible than they are so you have to follow up with them like an irresponsible child. Just remember, people generally rise to the level of behavior expected of them. Treat them like they are irresponsible and they will tend to act irresponsibly. Raise the level of expectation and they will usually respond accordingly.
If you are going to send them a reminder post card for a scheduled appointment or a 3 to 6 month hygiene visit, make sure they fill out that card themselves. Don’t fill it out for them! Why? All of the studies in this area prove that people respond and act more responsibly when they see something that has been written in their own handwriting. It seems to set off an alarm in their heads that says “That was me that made that commitment.”
The Natural Law of Integrity says: “People want to act consistently with who they say they are.” If I write a note to myself about an appointment that I committed to a few months ago and see that in my own handwriting, the message is clear. I need to act according to the way I said I would.
If you hand them an appointment card with the date and time of their next appointment, again, let them write it down. It has more power. And look at the language you have on that card. Get rid of anything that implies they can call and cancel the appointment just as long as they do it far enough in advance. Instead, replace it with something like this: “Please mark this important appointment on your calendar today. We look forward to seeing you at this time that has been reserved especially for you.” The implied message here is: We expect you to do what you said you would do! This is not just an appointment; it is time that has been reserved especially for you. Somehow a reservation carries more weight than just an “appointment.”
If sending a text or e-mail before the scheduled appointment, work with your electronic communication provider to rework the language that is used in the message. It could say: “We are looking forward to seeing you for your appointment on June 1 at 9 AM. Please reply to this message today so that we will know that you have this important scheduled noted on your calendar.”
3. If they select the phone call, the appropriate message would be: "Mrs. Jones, this is Brenda calling from Dr. Dentist's office. Dr. Dentist asked me to give you a call about your appointment in our office on Tuesday at 3 PM. Would you please call our office at 777-777-7777 today regarding your appointment? I look forward to hearing back from you."
Remember, you are not calling to “confirm” or “remind.” You are calling “about” the appointment. The other magic is the use of the doctor’s name. That carries a lot of weight and you will receive a higher response.
A couple of other thoughts: with all the options available today, it is essential that we give patients a choice in the method of communication. They need to know how they are going to hear from you and what you expect in return. You have to train them how things work in your office as well as make it convenient for them.
So make sure to do the following:
1. Give people options as to the channel of communication you use to communicate with them.
2. Create the expectation that they will do what they said they would do.
3. Make sure all of the written communication is congruent with #2 above. Make sure you communicate in clear terms that when you make a commitment to your patient for a date and time that the patient can count on you and you expect to count on them.
4. Work on the specific verbiage the team should use when communicating with the patient when scheduling and following up about their scheduled appointments.
Keep in mind that with all of the tips above, there is no 100% solution. As long as there are human beings, there will always be exceptions! The goals are to increase consistency and reduce variation and then keep doing the things that work day in and day out.