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You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

Like people, every dental practice is unique. They deliver a range of the same services to the community, but the manner in which it is delivered is what sets practices apart.

The manner in which practices deal with unhelpful patient behaviours is one such area where different approaches abound such as:

  • turning up to scheduled appointments late,
  • failing to attend at all, and
  • not paying invoices on time.

I have witnessed a wide range of responses to these kinds of scenarios by practices.

At one end, there is the haphazard approach of whatever comes out of the receptionist’s mouth at the time. This can depend on how confident she is and how well she understands the negative impact on the business that these unhelpful patient behaviours have. At the other end of the range of responses, there are practices that have carefully constructed scripts and consequences that the receptionist must enforce.

While one response does little to shift the unhelpful behaviours, the other extreme can alienate patients and fails to allow for any modulation of the response given individual scenarios.  

Having been in the role of receptionist for many years, I reckon I have tried them all. And the one that I have found works best is ‘be nice‘.

It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that in order to stop someone from doing the wrong thing, we need to make them feel bad, guilty or regretful.

This is, quite simply, incorrect.

Many patients, once they have been made aware of your expectations, are happy to conform. This is especially true when the patient has or wants to build a good relationship with you.

The saying goes, ‘you catch more flies with honey than vinegar’. That is, you can more easily influence people with gentle persuasion than being rude, abrupt or impolite.

A key element in achieving a smooth-running day is to get our patients to help us. And this is more successfully achieved with honey.

When a patient, for example, runs late for an appointment, there will be several reasons that contribute to it. The reason we often miss is that the patient was simply unaware of the practice’s expectations in this area.

Consider a new patient arriving a couple of minutes late to an initial consultation with you. Their experience at a previous dental practice may have been a long delay in the waiting room because that dentist was always late. Or, the patient may have always walked in 5 minutes late at this dental practice and was not given any indication that this was unacceptable. In either instance, the experience and understanding with which the patient came to your practice was that timeliness was not an expectation.


Rather than calling the patient in a stern, parental voice with “Hi, it’s Julie from the dental practice. It is ten minutes past eleven and you were due at eleven. Are you nearly here? We may not be able to get all of your treatment done today”, call instead with an upbeat, friendly voice: “Hi, it’s Julie from the dental practice. Just thought I’d call and check you remembered to come to your eleven o’clock appointment. I can’t imagine you’d want to miss out on this fun!”

Another example is a failed appointment.

Instead of “I am calling to let you know that you failed your dental appointment with us. We do charge a fee for missed appointments”, try: “I’m calling to make sure everything is alright, as we were expecting you at 11 o’clock today.  I can help you make another time to get that treatment done.” (Make the appointment, then…) “Sarah, if you find you cannot make this appointment, it would help us out enormously if you could let us know with as much notice as you can. Thank you so much, I really appreciate it.”

In both examples, you are achieving your goal to make the patient aware that you don’t like the unhelpful behaviour. The abrupt response achieves that goal but can also damage the current relationship the patient has with your practice. The patient may also find dealing with your practice difficult and inflexible.

The alternative, upbeat response achieves the goal and in addition maintains a friendly, caring connection with the patient. It also allows for a modification of response with each unique patient.

I believe you should be stern with patients you are trying to transition out of your practice. Vinegar can certainly help this process! However, if you are dealing with a patient that you want to keep, then drizzle that honey everywhere!