Sunday, January 27, 2013

Looking a gift card in the mouth

I dread the day our dentist closes up shop. It took a long time for us to find one we truly liked, but once we found our current dentist my wife and I have been going to him for decades. His location isn't convenient, but he's a great dentist and we're committed to going to him. (It doesn't hurt that our grandkids now live close by his office and that he was a Cy Young Award winning pitcher in the late 1960s who regularly donates signed baseballs to our grandkids' school's annual fundraiser.)

Not everyone, however, is as willing to overlook the inconvenience of how long it takes to get to a good dentist.

A reader from Columbus, Ohio., recently switched dentists precisely because of the inconvenience of his location. The dentist's response raises a question of how to respond to a gift intended to keep your business when you have no intention of returning.

"We've gone to the same guy for years," the reader writes, mentioning that her husband has gone to him since he was a young kid and that her parents-in-law still go to him. But their dentist is located across town and with traffic, it's taking longer and longer to get there.

"We like the guy, but it's just not convenient anymore as our lives get busier," she writes.

So she called and spoke to the receptionist, explaining the situation and canceling their future appointments. The receptionist nicely offered to send their files to their new dentist.

The following weekend they received a handwritten letter from the dentist asking them if there was anything he could do to get them to come back. His note indicated that he just doesn't "lose patients" and that he hoped they would continue coming to see him. Enclosed was a $25 Visa gift card.

"We do really like the dentist, but don't intend on going back to his office," the reader writes. She plans to reply to his note to thank him for his service and to explain again about his location being the issue.

"Should I return the gift card?" she asks. "Or should I keep it?"

The reader made clear to the dentist's receptionist that it was his location that resulted in their switch. While the dentist's gesture may be kind, there is no obligation for the reader to return the card. There were no preconditions established in the dentist's note. He included the note both as a thank you for their patronage over the years and as an incentive to ask them to reconsider leaving his practice.

Writing a note thanking the dentist and again explaining that it is his location and not his service that has caused them to leave is a nice gesture. They can also tell the dentist that they will gladly recommend his services to other prospective patients.

But the right thing is to treat the gift card as a gift and do with it whatever they like, whether that's to spend it, contribute it to a local charity, or give it to their parents to pay part of their next dentist bill. They can even return it if they want to. But what they do with it is their own guilt-free choice to make. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

(c) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Anonymous said...

I believe in "doing the right thing" as much as the next person, but clearly, even though the case under discussion is a long term relationship, the patient decided to change dentists. The dentist made a good faith offer a gift card but the patient doesn't want to continue the relationship. If the relationship is especially close, I guess it would be nice to return the gift card, but the donee is under no obligation to do so. It seems nowadays that people in professional relationships feel the need to cater to the doctor making the gift offer, but that is exactly what the gift giver is counting on - your feeling guilty for keeping and using the gift card. We all want to "do the right thing", but this is, after all, a doctor-patient relationship, not a normal friendship. Stop feeling guilty when a business relationship is unavoidably ended.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

Anonymous said...

I would just send it back. He was told why and all should be well about it. No sense feeling bad about it. You did what was best and so be it.

Alan Owseichik
Greenfield, Ma.

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Reginald Cooper said...

It was an open-and-shut case until the gift card came into play. The great dilemma here is that keeping the gift card might make the dentist think it's an abuse of the friendly relationship, but giving it back might make the dentist think of it as rude or disrespectful. I would personally still return the gift card though, because it was the dentist's services that they loved, not what they might get out of their friendly relationship. As long as the letter is politely and kindly worded, I'm sure the dentist would understand.

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