Being a dentist has never been easy. It’s a vocation, yes – but even under normal circumstances, the skills required to run a successful practice are considerable.
Lauren Harrhy recently described some of the stresses faced by dentists, even before coronavirus, “As the demand for more convenient appointment times increases, we find ourselves working longer, less sociable hours to meet that demand. This can lead to a less favourable work/life balance.”
As practices re-open after the seismic shock of Covid-19, amid the rockiest economic landscape since 1945, it’s timely to look at ways of making it easier to run a practice. The sector is more sheltered than many from the effects of recession, as people will always need dentists – but if technology can make life easier for practices while bringing improved patient satisfaction, that’s surely worth investigating.
One platform really coming into its own now for dental practices is chatbot technology – a pre-programmed virtual staff member that responds to enquiries 24/7, books appointments and much more from your website.
Answering patients’ questions
Typically, new enquirers telephone a practice, checking opening hours first and then perhaps being kept on hold before speaking to a receptionist – who’s hopefully polite and cheerful but possibly not, as humans tend to have good and bad days. Or potential patients check practices out on social media. Those first points of contact are key in terms of whether new patients choose to register with a practice, and whether they recommend it to other people – and that’s too crucial a stage to leave to chance.
Amazingly, only 10 per cent of all questions sent to business pages on Facebook ever get answered. Chatbots, meanwhile, respond to 100 per cent of incoming queries – meaning many more web visitors are converted into patients.
Repetitive FAQ answering, traditionally the domain of receptionists, is easily automated via chatbots, resulting in significant cost savings for practices and freeing up receptionists to focus on at-desk administration and being the friendly human face of the practice when patients arrive and leave.
Initial calls to a new dental practice are often made outside of office hours. People may have moved to the area and registering with a dentist falls under ‘home chores’ in the evening or over the weekend; or they may be experiencing dental problems and book an appointment from their mobile phone. For patients seeking information around cosmetic dentistry, initial searching, coming off the back of online or offline chats with friends, will likely be done through their phones from home, gyms or even bars.
Dental practices can put themselves in a fantastic position to respond to all these patient enquiries online through the use of bespoke chatbots programmed to respond to FAQs, make appointments and provide information about additional services – with 100 per cent guaranteed politeness and cheerfulness.
Patient enquiries have always taken up significant staff time – with the added sector-wide problem of staff not always being as helpful or as on-message as you’d ideally like your brand to be. Chatbots, guaranteed to give accurate and positive information 24/7, can be programmed to give full responses to queries ranging from opening hours and new patient intake through nervous patient considerations, cosmetic dentistry services, disabled access, car parking and public transport enquiries to out-of-hours emergency treatment.
With routine appointments and treatments on hold during lockdown, patient backlogs are also going to be something to contend with for some time yet. Chatbots can help reassure existing patients by giving regular updates on waiting times, signposting to information about the practice’s other dental services online, and by responding to queries from waiting patients.
Chatbots can be synchronized with staff diaries, making appointment scheduling seamless. You could also delight new patients and reassure existing ones by having your chatbot programmed to include photos of your dentists, nurses and hygienists, which is reassuring for patients old and new.
Chatbots are a great way to demystify dentistry and show its human face – you could even present a few key facts about staff member’s hobbies, pets or favourite foods via chatbot, giving things a personal touch before patients even set foot in your premises.
Customer service is the area where the most obvious improvements can be made thanks to chatbots – and research by Gartner suggests that chatbots will soon power 85 per cent of all customer service interactions.
Saving patients time is key – because if there’s one thing today’s time-poor, click-savvy millennials don’t want, it’s having to wait on the phone or scroll down a FAQs list. Operator recordings (‘your call is important to us’) just don’t wash with today’s patients!
Chatbots can easily offer very personalised patient communication, which is an obvious asset in enhancing your practice’s brand – better relationships mean easier working lives for your staff and, ultimately, improved business results for your practice.
Pandemic-proof dental practices
Covid-19 brought many learnings – one being that it’s vital to retain a public face even during lockdown.
For dental practices, chatbots can provide real-time information about the practice’s estimated opening dates, what to do in case of dental emergencies, and information about social distancing and other measures in place going forwards. Chatbots can, of course, also book patients in for future appointments even when the practice is closed and staff are furloughed. Equally, remote consultations by video or at-home appointments can be booked easily via chatbot.
The human touch can extend to an update on who’s looking after the waiting room goldfish, or sign-posting health-related articles online. If any of your staff are volunteering with the NHS or in the community, your chatbot can also showcase this, complete with photos or even video.
Endless possibilities levelling the playing field
Chatbot technology could also be harnessed by progressive dental practices for a whole range of activities including payment plans, life cycle advice to patients (new baby/school-age children/kids going off to college/retirement) and post-treatment feedback to name just a few.
It’s also an industry leveller – priced from around £250/month, even small practices are able to afford them, competing with the glitziest of clinics in terms of customer service. Whether you’re a practice in a rural village or on Harley Street, chatbots can bring you and your patients closer together than ever before.
References available on request.