What business are you really in? This is a question dentists as clinicians can often delegate to the backburner, basing their practice philosophy on a more or less vague, perhaps even subconscious, idea of what a practice should look like, feel like, be like, to them. Comes the time that practice becomes static, even moribund, in its feeling, its look, its presence in “the new present”, these same clinicians may find themselves wondering where to begin an analysis that will move them forward again.
Before spending money on marketing or a new web site, determining the business of the practice is the first priority. The desires of patients will determine that business. What is it that they dream about, aspire to, or imagine? When these basic, often secret or unrealized, desires are satisfied, the practice will grow. The primary objective of marketing is to make prospective patients aware of the office and to communicate that you have the ability to provide them with what they are seeking.
Prime Your Practice for Process, Not Problems
If a practitioner is told, for example, that often a patient may be thwarted by the process of getting to the office, he or she might think “Mapquest?” But that is not what we’re talking about. Rather, the focus should be on the word “process”. For example:
1. Problem: The right and left hands aren’t talking to each other. Everyone in the office needs to deliver the same message and work for the same outcome. The patient should never have to give the office the same information twice. It shows a lack of both organization and communication.
2. Problem: incomplete preparation of staff. Any member of the staff who interacts with a potential patient must be ready with all the information a patient might ask for or hope to receive. From the very first contact, be it the administrator’s voice on the phone or the auxiliaries’ ability to ask good questions, to every and any staff person’s ability to interpret what the patient means by what he or she says, this consistency is bedrock for success. Brass tacks: Does the first person with whom a potential new patient comes into contact have the knowledge and ability to answer questions and move this person to the next step; i.e., make an appointment or a follow-up call?
3. Problem: Clinicians and staff fail to understand how the patient perceives the practice. The doctor and team must be clear about what the patient actually experiences when doing business with the office. The experience a patient has while processing through the office is as important as the clinical delivery of care. Offices which want patients to accept larger treatment plans must pay careful attention to the office environment, level of personal service, amenities, knowledgeable team members, and even the addition of a little extra pizzazz whenever possible and appropriate. In business, research demonstrates that our better restaurants are masters at creating an experience for their patrons. This can find an application in the business of running a dental office as well. It has been said that the business of a practice is the set of feelings the patient leaves with, not the set of procedures that were completed.
Here is a rule to start with when analyzing how an office operates: Patients don’t care what you think they need; they care more about what they want. If practice growth is important, the motivated practitioner will find a way to discover what those patients want.
In some practices, the new patient is intentionally directed to a highly trained patient coordinator who is charged with the task of building the relationship and gaining understanding of the patient’s wants. This is done before the new patient sees the doctor on the first visit. The patient coordinator spends time talking with new patients to learn what they believe they need or want and why they need or want it. What problems are they trying to solve? What pain are they seeking to alleviate or avoid? What pleasure or gain are they hoping to experience? What do they see as the ideal outcome, and how will that make them feel?
The treatment plan will optimally highlight what the doctor can deliver and will describe how it will benefit each individual patient both clinically and non-clinically. In this process, the doctor must answer the underlying question every patient asks, which is, “If I give the money you require, what will change in my life as well as my mouth?” The doctor must have the idea of what the patient is looking for well in mind and understand what that patient sees as the ideal outcome - and why. This is the message that will move patients to “yes” as care is planned.
You Are Not Your Patient
One of the easiest traps to fall into is to think that patients want what the doctor wants and likes what he or she likes. This mistake is easy to make when there is a poor understanding of who the patient is and what that individual values.
A recent practice scratch start was not going well. The doctor became quite exasperated because he could not understand why his patients didn’t schedule for the dentistry he was diagnosing.
The question was, “What makes the doctor think they want the help that he wants to give them?” The doctor answered, “But they need my services.” The real issue the doctor needed to understand was, do they want them?
The doctor’s point of view is not necessarily how the patient views his or her situation. Best practice: Avoid telling people what they need, and instead become a practitioner who understands each patient’s wants and then fulfills them. This is called “lifestyle dentistry”.
It is important to remember that patients are not just saying “yes” to treatment plans. They are also saying “yes” to everything along the way. This is the process by which the patient is engaged. From the odors in the reception room and how it is decorated to the (hopefully) weed-free and well lighted parking lot, is the experience congruent with the image the practice portrays? The patient is as important as the treatment plan. This means the patient’s experience becomes as important as the clinical skills of the doctor.
Emotions Make the Equation
The truly happy patient feels an emotional connection with the office and with the doctor and staff personally. People naturally gravitate toward those who make them feel welcome and special. This means the staff has a significant role to play in practice success and profitability.
Remember that patients have many choices concerning which office to visit. The team must make each person who walks through that door feel special: Greet them with a big smile, shake their hands, remember their names or recognize their voices on the phone, recalling something from past conversations, asking how they have been since they were last in. One office in rural Minnesota always receives more referrals than any other. Patient surveys show that their patients say, “They are always happy to see me!”
Unexpected gifts and extras have a very positive influence on patients. Everyone, no matter who they are or how much money they have, loves getting a little something extra, especially when they do not expect it. These little “gifts” do super duty when properly executed. They delight the patients and make them feel special and appreciated. They reinforce the patient’s belief that this is the perfect dentist. When chosen carefully, the right gift subliminally supports the image of the office that it is trying to project. The perfect gift is one that says that you understand more about your patient than just his or her teeth.
When was the last time a business you deal with sent you a thank you note or made a follow-up call to thank you for your patronage? Imagine how good that would feel if you had spent a particularly significant amount of money. Imagine how good it would make you feel if the note was handwritten on a nice card or stationery instead of a generic letter spewed out by a computer.
At a New Year’s Eve fundraiser for a local regional charity, the president of the local medical clinic explained to the guests seated at his table that they had been able to double the size of their clinic because of a conversation he had with his personal dentist. He related that he’d had a difficult procedure done and his dentist called him at home that evening to see how he was doing. He was so impressed with that act of kindness that he required all of his doctors at the clinic to do the same. The result has been a huge increase in their business.
Flowers are an excellent way to express thanks, especially to female patients. Patients who receive flower arrangements after a long procedure are excited and will tell their friends about the event for weeks.
Do not be lured into taking the easy way out and giving a discount or some kind of freebie from the office as an expression of thanks. These gifts are self-serving and are usually recognized as such. Giving a $50 certificate applicable to the patient’s next visit is uninspiring and lacks meaning. Please remember that an expression of thanks should make patients feel appreciative of the office for being the kind of practice that really went out of the way to thank them for their patronage. The gift should communicate to the patient that he or she has been “heard”. Gift cards suggest a lack of thought, as do items that look as if they were purchased in bulk or were given by a vendor.
A practice in Minneapolis discovered that a recent new patient was from a law office in their building. As they got to know the patient during the new patient experience and throughout treatment, they discovered that he was a baseball nut who traveled to different stadiums across the country on his vacations to see the games. He also had a sweet tooth. When they completed the last seat appointment, the entire team and the doctor were on hand to present this gentleman with a chocolate baseball bat they had ordered. He was surprised beyond belief that someone would go to all that trouble for him. Do you think he told this story to his colleagues at the law office? And how many became new patients?
The experience was so rewarding on the office side that the doctor and team became members of the “eyebrow raisers” club, which inspired them to do more for the next new patient.
Why do people stay with the same doctor for years? It is because they feel that the doctor knows them and their history and cares about them. This is the realm of the team who can remember children’s names, the names of their patients’ dogs, and where the family vacationed last summer. It helps to have a computer to keep track of all this personal information so that you can seem more knowledgeable when memory falters.
Recently a metropolitan office wanted to really push hard for new patient growth. The doctor’s novel idea was to engage a professional clipping service to send him newspaper clippings out of selected magazines etc. on topics about which he knew his patients had an interest. He then filed them by subject, and periodically the team would include a clip from a magazine with a personal handwritten note from him indicating that he ran across this article, thought of the patient, and thought that he or she would like a copy. Patients loved the personal attention, and referrals grew commensurately.
Make a place in your practice philosophy to find ways to make patients feel recognized, special, valued, and appreciated. Allow yourself to get to know them and take an interest in them. With the arrival of e-mail and Facebook, there are even more opportunities to “reach out and touch” patients. Give them a reason to be loyal. This will pay dividends when insurance companies change and patients can go somewhere else that may cost a bit less.
How to Be in the Patient Experience Business
Starbucks knows how to get their customers to come back and back again. Every afternoon Marty walks four and a half blocks to the Starbucks near his office. He can get coffee free at the office, yet he walks past two other coffee shops to get to Starbucks, where he gladly pays $1.60. It isn’t the coffee! In fact, he probably can’t taste the difference between his preferred Starbucks cup and whatever is at the office. But when Marty walks into Starbucks, Jayson is already pouring him his Grande Sumatra, calls out his name, and greets him with a welcoming smile. Jayson always leaves a bit of room in Marty’s cup because he knows Marty never fails to add half-and-half. When Marty pays the $1.60, tosses his customary quarter in the tip jar, and climbs on a stool by the front window, he isn’t buying coffee, he’s buying an experience. He is buying a half-hour break from his desk and the incessant e-mails. It’s not that the coffee is worth it, it’s that Marty feels the Starbucks experience is worth it ... and even more importantly, that he is worth it. Starbucks is his personal moment in the day, and he would be hard pressed to give it up.
Marty gives something to Starbucks, Monday through Friday, but that is because his favorite Starbucks store gives him something back. Lasting, meaningful relationships are always reciprocal.1
Today’s successful dental office can duplicate this type of experience in a much more deeply satisfying relationship because it is caring for the individual’s health, not just his or her “island in the day”. Thinking in this way, the dental office has to recognize that it must give the patient more than just “coffee” or a procedure. Successful offices give their patients self-esteem, security, a feeling of “belonging”, confidence, and much more. The doctor and team must know the secrets of the “experience” business.
One of the secrets is, “Do not try to be everything to everyone.” This is not possible in the first place, and secondly, it is so much more enjoyable to be everything to a smaller number of wonderful people.
When creating or re-creating the basic operating philosophy of a dental practice, the dentist and his or her team should make it their priority to want to provide an experience which will appeal to patients who have definable wants, needs, and expectations, and who have the wherewithal to satisfy them. Providing a markedly different level of service differentiates the practice and provides a distinctly different value from other offices.
Depending upon the kind of experience that is desired for the practice, consider answering the following questions when evaluating your patient base.
1. What would delight them?
2. What would be fun for them?
3. How could the practice surprise them?
4. What would make them feel unique and special?
5. What would make them feel good about themselves?
6. What would reaffirm the way they see themselves and reinforce that identity?
7. How could the office create feelings of validity and satisfaction for the patients?
8. What could be done to make them feel safe, secure, and give them peace of mind?
9. How might the practice help them become the persons they have always wanted to be?
10. How might the practice give them the ability to do something they have always wanted to do?
For example, there is a very successful office in a major city in which the doctor and team have a very sincere belief in Jesus Christ, which dictates how they behave in and out of the office. Before treatment the doctor and assistant will pray with the patient, and Christian music is heard throughout the entire office. At the morning huddle there is prayer for the patients of the day and for the well-being of the office and team members. There is no apology for their beliefs, and there is a six-month waiting list to be seen in this office. They know who their target patient is and provide an experience that is satisfying and life-changing. It just happens that is their belief system too.
With the appearance of the chain dental stores and the growing homogenous level of service in our country, patients are yearning for something different, something that feels special and unique, services that recognize each person’s special qualities, and encounters with their dental office that engage them in experiences that feel more personal and intimate.
Practices that can add value to their list of clinical services by giving their patients such an experience will become increasingly profitable, so consider the possibilities of getting into the experience business when you create a philosophy for your practice.
*Mr. White is president of J. White & Associates, LTD., an Apple Valley, Minnesota-based management consulting firm.