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Communication – The Key to Customer Service

Paula LaBar

article by Paula La Bar

Paula La Bar is the director of customer care for Glidewell Laboratories, where she has played a pivotal role in guiding the company’s standards of customer service.

Have you ever had a customer get upset, and you just can’t figure out what set them off? Chances are, with a little digging, the issue will be traced to a communication lapse. For example, a customer sends in a prescription with the expectation that the case be received in-office by a certain date. What if that case can’t be finished by that date? What if the dentist wasn’t informed that the case would not be finished by the expected date? Surprises lead to disappointments, both for the patient and the dentist. Effective communication allows everyone to know and understand what’s happening at the moment, what’s going to happen next, and what timeline to expect along the way. Conversely, a lack of communication leads to a loss of confidence and, ultimately, a loss of work requests from the dentist.

Communication is an important aspect of any relationship; but as customer service representatives, the burden of creating and maintaining a communicative environment is solely our responsibility. At Glidewell Laboratories, our technical advisors and customer service representatives discuss cases with customers all daylong using the LAMA method, a conversational technique developed by Judy McKee of McKee Motivation that promotes a continued and mutual dialogue, rather than a one-sided series of questions. Through Listening to the customer and Acknowledging what he or she said, we are able to Make a pertinent statement and Ask follow-up questions. By controlling the path of the conversation to gather the greatest amount of detail, we can ensure that the call is productive, and that the customer’s chief concerns are addressed and the customer understands and agrees with the remedy going forward.

In addition to promoting a detail-oriented conversation, an important aspect of customer communication is fostering a safe atmosphere in which issues can be addressed constructively. Proper phrasing is important. Improper phrasing can be easily misconstrued or misinterpreted, and the customer can unintentionally be made to feel "wrong" (or worse, stupid). From there, the conversation can go downhill fast. Therefore, we make a concerted effort to make our customers feel the opposite of wrong: right! When customers are right, they are much easier to communicate with, and feel much happier about the quality of service they are receiving.

How do we unintentionally categorize someone as "wrong"? At the laboratory, the most common situation with the potential for this communication taboo is when we contact a dentist to let him or her know we are unable to proceed with a case. Here are two examples of how we might inadvertently make a dentist "wrong":

  • "This impression is really bad."
  • "You didn’t reduce the preparation enough."

Both of these statements definitely make the customer wrong. Consider how you would respond if the roles were reversed. "What? My impression is bad? Is my lab tech calling me a bad dentist? What does he know? He didn’t go to dental school!" These poorly worded statements can put the customer on the defensive. Instead, by thoughtful rephrasing and the use of the word "appears," we can make sure the customer is "right." Let’s see the difference:

  • "Dr. Smith, the distal margin appears unclear to us. Would you like to take a look at this and see what you think?"
  • "It appears to us that we may be close on the occlusion. Would you like us to reduce the opposing dentition slightly?"

In both statements, the word "appears" avoids placing the blame on anyone; therefore, no one is "wrong." We’ve created a safe environment, as we always should, in which the dentist can address the issue without conceding error, and the laboratory and the dentist can come to a mutual understanding and plan of action. It could well be that the patient was a challenging (and I mean really difficult!) patient, and this was the best the dentist could provide to the lab.


A bit of empathy can go a long way toward preventing issues. Consider again the dentist, expecting a case to arrive by a certain date. While the last thing you told the dentist might very well be that the shipping date has changed, that information is most likely forgotten the moment you disconnect. The reality is that after conversing with you, the dentist is going to hang up the phone and head right into the operatory. Then, when the case doesn’t arrive in time for the patient’s next appointment and our notification of the shipping date change is forgotten, we have to take responsibility and handle the upset. Recognizing these conditions, representatives here at the laboratory are trained to ask for the dentist’s front desk after discussing a case with the dentist. This allows our representatives to verify the appointment time directly with the person actually scheduling the patients, to improve communication with all parties involved.

Finally, being responsive to your customers is a critical and integral component of communication. We don’t always have the answer to a problem at the time of a call, and that’s OK. Sometimes research is needed before responding to a customer. At these times, it’s important to communicate at what point you will have an answer, to notify the customer when you will call him or her back, and then stick to your word. Even if, after investigating for the agreed amount of time, you don’t have the answer, you still must keep your word and call that customer back at the specified time. This not only builds credibility, but also keeps the lines of communication open.

In the end, quality service is the cornerstone of any thriving business. By adhering to, and building upon, the fundamentals of excellent communication, customer service representatives will be able to expedite call times, maintain relationships, and, most importantly, keep customers happy.

Lab Perspectives: Volume 1, Issue 3

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