Turn Your Practice’s Angry Customers into Raving Fans
By Eleni Karayeva July 09, 2021
Imagine a hectic day in your practice: you are trying to stay on schedule, your staff is juggling multiple tasks in the front, when suddenly you hear a loud agitated voice. It’s that patient from before, that broke their frames - again. For the best ways to handle angry patient encounters, read on!
Don’t make it personal
When faced with a disgruntled patient, it’s important to keep your own emotions in check. While it’s easy to mirror the patient’s behavior by looking agitated, shaking your head in disbelief, or even raising your own voice, it's best to try to remain calm and simply hear out what they have to say. Avoid arguing with the patient; as the old adage goes, the customer is always right. However, this doesn't necessarily mean that you must bend your store policies to appease an irrational patient! (We'll return to this point later). Just remember that the reason behind the patient acting angrily or irrationally might have little to do with you; it could be a projection of some personal difficulties. At this stage, the main thing is to let the patient feel heard. So be a good listener, be sympathetic, and ask open-ended questions to learn what you can about the patient's side of the story.
Own the problem
If there's one thing that makes these types of situations worse, it's when instead of accepting responsibility for the issue, that responsibility gets thrown around to someone else. Often the upset patient is told to wait - it could be for the staff member that initially dealt with them, the doctor or the office manager - but the waiting only serves to aggravate them more. Every staff member that deals with patients should be trained on how to handle complaining patients directly. Take a hypothetical situation where a patient returns, unhappy with their glasses, throws them on the counter and says, “these don't work for me.” Even if this wasn't “your patient”, responding with “I understand this is very frustrating, let me see how I can resolve this for you,” can do wonders. On the other hand, saying “the person that helped you is not in, come in tomorrow” is a recipe for disaster. If it's a situation that does require another member of your team to resolve it, be sure they are briefed about it. The patient shouldn't have to explain their story all over again to yet another person.
Before getting to the root of the issue…
Invite the patient to have a seat. This can help the patient calm down a little and it also communicates that you are ready to give them your full attention. Better yet, invite them to another room. The front desk is not an ideal place for addressing problematic situations. Plus, it's best to separate them from other patients that might be in the office.
Once you have gotten the gist of the patient’s complaint, it's time to get proactive about resolving it. Begin by apologizing (even if it was for something totally out of your control). An apology is much more likely to be well-received after the patient has the chance to vent. For some simpler situations, such as a long wait time, an apology by itself might be enough to diffuse the conflict.
Where just an apology won't resolve the situation, the next step would be to offer solutions to the problem. When formulating your response, avoid focusing on the negative; instead of saying what can't be done, focus on what can.
For example, say a patient brings a broken frame. You check their record and see that the frame was purchased almost three years ago. But instead of blurting out that it's out of warranty, you can soften the news by saying something along the lines of, “I see you purchased these a while ago.” (Incidentally, getting the patient to agree with you when you summarize the facts is a good strategy that brings reason to the conversation!) You can then mention that the warranty expired, but without pausing on the “bad news,” seamlessly offer the alternatives - a replacement part, a considerable discount, etc. Your goal here is to demonstrate that you are willing to go above and beyond to resolve an issue, even if you are constrained by, as in this example, manufacturer policies. And if it’s your company policy that you are being flexible with, it’s totally ok to let the patient know that you are making an exception for them.
However, it should be noted that once in a while there will be those patients that will not appreciate even your best efforts. It’s up to you to decide where to draw the line and stay firm on your company policies.
Always document problematic patient encounters. Whether it’s that person that always reschedules their appointment the same day or someone who always complains about their vision in a new prescription, keeping notes can better prepare you and your staff for the next encounter.
Calming an upset patient requires a methodical approach. Developing that approach takes time, patience, and experience. Train your staff so that you can be sure that everyone in your practice is on the same page through every step of it.
And while turning around a “difficult” patient situation is often not an easy task, the reward for success is being able to communicate and relate to your patients. This way, your practice will be gaining a raving fan instead of a 1-2 star Google or Yelp Review!