A young mother sits on the couch in the reception room. The couch is comfortable, and the reception area is filled with calming distractions. The fidgeting of her hands, the glances at the door to the treatment area where her two children are, and the glimpses at her watch are all signs that she is anything but calm.
Our business team members are trained to recognize this, and they do. They go to work reassuring mom and trying everything to help her relax, but this time it’s different. I’m sitting in the back reviewing cases when one of my team members approaches me and says, “Dr. Reza, I think you need to talk to mom.”
Those are words no pediatric dentist wants to hear. We’re trained to work with kids. Our personality is geared toward comforting children, not dealing with a parent’s insecurities. We learn how to do crowns and fillings in dental school. There are no courses on how to speak to a parent. If you’re lucky, you have a mentor you can watch handle these types of situations. If not, it’s trial and error; more error in the beginning for sure.
I’m on it. I walk to the reception area that is empty except for mom. I’m a pediatric dentist, but my priority right now is not fixing a child’s tooth, it’s helping mom. My amazing dental assistants are in the back with the kids having fun. My more than capable young associate is ready and able to put his clinical skills to the test with these patients. But none of that matters to me at the moment because mom is my concern.
The Art of Listening
I walk over to mom with a smile that I keep on my face until I know she sees it. She smiles back and I feel a little of the tension release. I sit next to her on the couch, and we chat about her teaching job and all the crazy things going on in our community. Once the pleasantries are over, I ask mom to tell me what’s going on and then I remain quiet. That’s the tough part they don’t teach in school. The art of listening.
Listening to her story is about more than just making her feel better and diffusing the situation. It’s also about learning for the future and improving our service as a whole. No matter what concern she had, it was important to me, because it was important to her.
Many times, we are unable to take criticism and we view every comment as a personal insult. It’s important to learn that just because a parent says something we don’t like doesn’t mean that parent is wrong. In this case, mom was not just nervous about the dental procedure her son was about to have; she was legitimately confused about the treatment plan. While the family has been with us for years, something was lost during the explanation.
How We Fixed The Problem
There were many things we did to address mom's situation. Her biggest concern was she felt she was not being heard. Taking the time to listen was the first step to diffuse the situation, and that’s exactly what I did.
I apologized for the miscommunication and suggested we take a step back, really delve into the treatment plan again and not proceed until she understood and was comfortable with it. We wanted mom to completely understand the recommendations we were making. After all, we are talking about her most prized possession, her child.
In addition, the family had a long-standing relationship with several members of our team, so we noted in the file to make every attempt to schedule her children with the team members they felt most comfortable with.
After going over the recommendations again, we proceeded with the treatment plan with all parties happy—and all it took was a few minutes of my time.
What We Gained
While the conversation with mom ended there, the learning did not. As a team, we discussed and explored the situation so everyone could see how to improve.
In our office, we have team meetings every week. When we have a situation like this come up that we can learn from, we use the meeting to really dig into it. We break down the circumstances that led to the issue in detail. Without placing blame, we work together to determine what we did right, what we did wrong and if we need a system in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again. That’s exactly what we did in this case, and our practice is stronger for it.
It took a few years for me to truly appreciate how important my team is and to learn the office benefits when they have more authority. Now, they are trained to recognize when a parent feels uneasy, and to act. It’s part of our office culture. We know if we want to ensure our dental families have an exceptional experience, the team must work together and do their part to make patients and parents feel at ease.
We consistently incorporate customer service training into our office CE. This allows me to have confidence in my team and to give them the autonomy to handle any situation. But if they are uncomfortable in a situation or feel the issue needs my specific attention, like in this case, they don't hesitate to find me so I can get involved.
As a team, we’ve learned a lot about how to make nervous parents feel comfortable. Here’s how you can do the same:
1. Don't be afraid to ask why they are nervous.
2. Listen to their story and repeat it to them.
3. Give them your time.
4. Ask them what they need to make the situation better.
5. Let them know you care.
Remember, dentistry is about more than just treating teeth. Situations like this one allow us to explore different parts of our job that are equally important, if we’re up for the challenge.