Your words matter in patient/client retention, so avoid these miscommunication mistakes
Lawyers and doctors are well versed in talking to others in their profession, but often not so good at talking to their patients and legal clients. Having poor communication skills is an unhelpful attribute that can have a serious impact on your reputation and business.
My lawyer is not communicating with me
This is not an uncommon lament made by law clients.
What do I do if my doctor doesn’t listen to me?
That’s a question quite a few patients have. When these statements are made, your client or patient is probably headed for the door.
In our extensive analysis of online doctor reviews, we found that 53% of complaints were about communications. Patients and clients expect their doctors, lawyers, and the staffs to have sound communication skills.
Bad examples of attorney client & doctor patient communications skills
The doctor never uses the patient’s name. The physician and staff members refer to the patient by a diagnosis, “the gallbladder in exam room 1.” The doctor merely sees the patient as organs and disease.
“The car accident case is in the conference room,” says the receptionist to the client’s lawyer. The attorney sees another personal injury case. Neither professional sees a human being with a problem.
This also applies to witnesses in a legal practice. If the expert witness is being prepped for a trial or deposition, and the attorney repeatedly refers to the expert as “doc,” the expert will not feel very special or valued. That impression could bite you when your expert witness is on the stand.
How to get your way with words
A man returns to discuss the results of his prostate biopsy with his doctor. The diagnosis is cancer. If the doctor says, “You have cancer, and we will have to schedule you for surgery to remove your prostate gland,” this is hardly a way to communicate such ominous news to a patient. It also can affect his compliance with the treatment plan and even his life.
Minding patient communication skills, the doctor can say instead, “Fortunately our early biopsy found some abnormal cells that indicate a tumor of your prostate gland. While you do have prostate cancer, we found it at a less advanced stage and know what we are dealing with. We have some options regarding treatment that I would like to review with you. We will be a team, and we can help you lead a very happy and healthy life.”
This latter approach, which says the same thing, is likely to create an entirely different reaction from the patient. He will be encouraged at a time when it is really needed. Your guiding, positive words will be encouragement he follows. Your words matter.
A better technique for patient and client communications
The improved conversation above starts with a positive comment or observation followed by the bad news. It ends with a positive or reassuring message. I refer to the latter approach as the sandwich technique: It softens the negative comment between two positive ones.
Example of poor doctor patient communication skills
You walk into the exam room to see a returning patient and start with this comment, “How is your back pain?” This tells the patient she is merely a clinical condition, not a human being.
Good doctor patient communications
Another approach with the same patient might be, “Ms. Smith, how are your grandchildren? I saw your husband yesterday, and he looks terrific. Nurse Sarah will help you with the gown, and I will return to examine you for your back pain.”
This opening takes 30 seconds but indicates to the patient that you see her and care about her as a human being. You return and perform an examination and then finally return to the room at the end of the encounter to answer any questions the patient may have. During the few moments after you have left the room, you can see other patients, complete paperwork, or return phone calls. The doctor is the first and last to see the patient. As a result, the patient believes she is spending more eyeball-to-eyeball time with the physician, which she appreciates and may include in an online review or in a recommendation to a friend.
In my practice patients were given a card to write down any question they would like answered before seeing the doctor. This avoids the awkward scenario where the doctor or lawyer has mentally shut down their end of the dialog and has their hand on the doorknob to leave. You might as well have said, “You’re dismissed.” But the patient or client has additional questions and stops you (meekly or madly) to ask them.
Example of poor attorney client communication skills
Your divorce client has been waiting for 20 minutes while your internal meeting has run long. He sits down and you open the consultation with the following. “Mr. Turner, you have not sent me the documents I requested over two weeks ago. Are you serious about trying to get a favorable result in this case?”
Mr. Turner, who has been battling his wife for those two weeks for access to the documents needed, thinks, Well, I am serious about finding a new attorney. And he’s billing me for this chastisement?
Good attorney client communications
Same scenario, but using insightful lawyer communication skills. “Mr. Turner, I am so sorry to keep you waiting but I was unavoidably detained. I see that we are still in need of the documents we discussed a couple of weeks ago; is there anything I can do to help you obtain them? I know communications can get tricky with a spouse during divorce. I have probably had a similar experience with another client and can offer some advice, if you think that might help.”
In this exchange, the attorney’s apology for being late shows that he values his client’s time. Mr. Turner is not challenged as being at fault and is not being blamed for lack of action (if he is at fault, this can be dealt with in a better manner and not right out of the gate). His attorney is understanding and offering to help with the problem. This makes Mr. Turner feel better – he more than likely knew the documents were late – and he is more motivated to get the documents, knowing his attorney is supporting him.
Nonverbal communication can sour lawyer client & doctor patient relationships
What would be the impression of a patient or client when they enter their professional’s office and see a desk cluttered with paper, charts, scattered pencils and pens, and a dusty laptop with fingerprint smudges? Compare that impression to the pristine and clean office desk and the only paper, chart or electronic device that is on the desk pertains to the patient or law firm client: This person is organized and will be focused only on me.
Here’s another nonverbal insult. The doctor/attorney enters the room (or the client enters) and the professional looks at the computer or the file and not at the individual. Avoid this scenario by scanning the file or chart to prepare what to say before interacting with the patient/client. And look him or her in the eye while talking.
Don’t forget staff communication skills
You must put the same amount of training into staff members interacting with patients and clients at the end of their interaction as at the beginning. In addition to medical care providers and legal assistants, your secretaries, schedulers, and billing staff should get the same training as your greeters and front desk staff, if not more.
At these ends of the encounter, staff members will be the ones who hear all the good, bad, and ugly about a patient’s or client’s experience with the practice. Often, the patient’s last impression of the doctor-patient relationship is paying the bill.
Make sure your people know how to respond to patient/client complaints and how they can pass along the feedback they hear so that any negative experiences are not repeated. Providing an easy way for patients and clients to offer their feedback in the office is necessary. Vanguard’s online Patient Satisfaction Snapshot survey is one way.
You can also give people an opportunity to fill out a quick questionnaire before they leave. This can many times ward off negative online doctor or lawyer reviews after the patient/client leaves the office and has time to dwell on their poor treatment.
These are just a few things you can do to ensure your clients and patients have a positive experience at their visit. Remember, the last impression is lasting, so focus on the final memorable moments as much as you do on making a good first impression. You will see the impact it will make in retaining clients and patients and in improving your online reputation.
Bottom line: Watch your words to your patients and clients and avoid negative nonverbal communication. As physicians and attorneys, we must clearly craft our message because the wrong words and nonverbal messages can significantly impact our patients/clients and unfavorably influence their outcomes.