The day had gone wrong from the start. The computer system was on the fritz, and patient check-in was taking forever. The hygienists were having trouble accessing patient charts. There was no way to book new appointments. Everyone was trying to use paper-based workarounds, and their frustration levels soared. Meanwhile, the waiting room filled up. Patients stared at their phones and sighed. It was a patient experience nightmare, and it was about to get worse.
The front desk phone rang just as Brenda from billing walked by. Debbie, struggling with check-ins asked, “Take the call, will you? You’ve got time.” After all, the billing people didn’t have anything to do since the computers were down.
“Not my problem,” Brenda said. Debbie muttered a curse, and then froze. The entire waiting room was looking at them and watching their interaction.
If you ask your patients what your office culture is like, what do they say? Do they think your practice seems friendly and fun? Does it seem like it would be a great place to work? Or do your patients pick up on team tensions? Do they see that your team members seem to jockey for position or have long-simmering conflicts?
When your team is stressed and conflicted, it changes the whole atmosphere in your office. Patients sense the animosity and rivalries. Their needs aren’t met, because your team members fall prey to the idea that narrowly defined roles are more important than customer satisfaction. When conflicts fester, you lose your ability to create an upbeat, low-drama, and fun experience for your patients.
If you want happy, comfortable patients who are proud to recommend your practice to family and friends, start by improving your team’s communication skills and dialing down the tensions and resentment.
Dealing with Communication Problems
Most office fights begin with a communication problem. Someone is tired or distracted, and doesn’t phrase a request clearly. Someone else responds with confusion or irritation. Suddenly emotions are spiraling out of control because your team members have forgotten that they’re one team instead of two opposing forces. Negative interactions are contagious. You pass them on to the other team members, who pass them on to the patients. Suddenly, no one is communicating well and everyone is on their guard.
Help your team members get into the habit of taking a breath, analyzing the conversation, and figuring out where it went wrong. Look for these common problems:
Good communication in a fast-paced environment isn’t a skill that people are born with. Your team can learn to work through these communication issues with practice and education. The key is that you, or your practice manager, need to learn to take advantage of teachable moments in the practice. Education delivered in the moment makes the lesson more memorable and shows your team how to communicate in real-world situations.
So, how do you deal with communication breakdowns between staff members? You treat them as training opportunities. Let your staff know, in advance, that mistakes are a time for education, not anger. Then, when you have friction between team members, remember that you’re there to teach, not to attack. You don’t need to decide who was right and who was wrong. You can show both people how to communicate better so that they can create a better patient experience.
Look again at the interaction between Brenda and Debbie that began this post. The situation with the computers created an unusually stressful situation for everyone in the office. Debbie was stressed because patients were getting annoyed and her normal routines had broken down. Brenda was probably frustrated because she’d come into work with a list of things she’d wanted to do that day, and the computer system’s issues meant that nothing was getting done.
So, if you’re trying to educate these staff members and improve communication, you might want to approach the problem from the perspective of “How to deal with stress.”
On the other hand, Debbie’s initial request to Brenda was a bit rude, as was Brenda’s response. So you might want to educate both team members about ways of speaking to each other. After all, patients were watching and listening, so their rudeness actually reflected poorly on the entire practice.
Finally, there’s the biggest problem in this interaction. Brenda and Debbie have forgotten that their on the same team and share the same goal – taking care of patients and creating a friendly, service-oriented practice. So you might want to use the teachable moment to refocus them on the practice goals.
When you take advantage of the teachable moment, remember to focus on actions, not people. Instead of saying, ‘Debbie, you were rude,” say “Debbie, you phrased your request like this, but it would be better to phrase it like this.” Instead of saying “Brenda, this is, in fact, your problem,” try to refer to an objective standard like “Remember, our practice goals state that no calls should go to voice mail.”
By moving the discussion from the people to their actions, you create a training opportunity that also diffuses the situation and restores harmony between team members. Over time, your team will learn to see these opportunities on their own, and step back and restore communication without your help. Then you’ll be able to move beyond team conflicts and focus totally on your patients and their needs.