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It’s all about relationships

by Howard Farran, DDS, MBA, Publisher, Dentaltown Magazine

You have the best technology. You went to a top dental school. You do excellent clinical work. All of that is important, and none of it is why your most loyal patients come to your practice. They go to your practice because of relationships with you and your staff, and the more you do to nurture those relationships, the better your business will be.

The patients who have been coming to see you for years are a core part of your practice. I suggest that you and your staff members consciously cater to keeping these long-time patients (as long as they're not crazy … I suppose we've all had a patient or two we wouldn't mind losing). Most loyal relationships took years to build and need to be sustained. However, save energy for your new patients. They are the future of your practice and you must form relationships with them, too.

How do you do that? Step one: "Get in their heads." Understand them.

They want convenience and to come in as seldom as possible. They're leaving from work or are making arrangements for their kids, and they're probably stressed. They want to get as much done in one visit as they can. This person is probably nervous and might even be scared. You can address all this by having a smooth, upbeat office, and by having a staff of skilled, pleasant people. Yes, a clean, comfortable office helps. So do televisions, good reading materials, and play areas for kids. Your new patients notice things that your staff may have stopped noticing a long time ago, such as clutter, dust or grouchiness. Address those issues and your new patients will become your long-time patients.

Your loyal patients were new patients at one time. What did you do to retain them? I bet you had a friendly staff, were respectful of patient schedules by keeping appointments on time, and that you did great dentistry. All of this is important. I don't mean in any way to underestimate great clinical skills, but keep in mind that it's personal, human connections that make loyal patients.

If your new patient likes your office manager, guess what? This person is more likely to come back. If this person likes your whole staff, this person is more likely to come back. Most important though is how the patient feels about his or her hygienist, and how patients feel about you. If patients like their hygienist, and they like you, those patients will come back. Those relationships are the cornerstone of your business; they're the heart of your practice.

So how do we retain patients? Let's say that a new or fairly new patient doesn't show up for an appointment. You may have received advice that if a patient doesn't show up, that's not the kind of patient you want in your practice anyway. I disagree. There may be a good reason why the person didn't show up. Have your staff call the patient to find out. Perhaps the patient was running behind and just needed a reminder. Or, maybe something terrible happened to him or her. This is an opportunity to show that your office cares.

Less dire—perhaps the patient couldn't find your office. If you've received that feedback from other people, this experience may show you that your website map needs to be updated. Another possibility is that the patient called your office several times and never received a response. If the patient felt ignored, that could be why he or she didn't show up. This scenario gives you the chance to find out whether your staff is fast enough about returning calls.

At my office we contact as many "no shows" as we can, especially if the patient is new. This helps us cultivate a relationship. It shows we care. We all know that life can get stressful for our front-office staff and that it's impossible to give perfect attention to every patient. However, ask your staff to be as warm as possible, even when conditions are tense. Efficiency is vital, but if your staff members are coming across as too robotic, that attitude may turn new patients away.

People are still looking for a family environment and positive customer-service experience at the dentist. Frequently, the front-office staff faces necessary conversations about finances, payment collections and arrangements. When this happens, sometimes our treatment of the patient can become mechanical and impersonal. And when the visit becomes impersonal, the patient's relationship with the doctor and the practice is compromised. When patients check in, make sure the emphasis is not on the day's payment arrangement—instead, make it about a warm greeting, treating the patient with respect, and focusing on the procedures that need to be completed. If financial questions or details need attention, use a consult room to provide privacy. Established patients may tolerate more impersonal behaviour because they have an established relationship with the practice, but new patients will move on because they sense the financial aspect is more important to the practice than the relationship.

Be mindful of your patient's time—particularly how long he or she has been waiting. Don't escort patients to the back if you cannot see them in a timely fashion. It is better to keep them informed as they wait in the lobby. Convenience is everything. New patients want to been seen as few times as possible. If it's been two years since they've seen a dentist, you may want to schedule an exam in the doctor's chair first, to diagnose and determine cleaning needs. If they regularly see a dentist, start them in the hygiene chair; every new patient wants to get his or her teeth cleaned on the first visit, if possible. If the flow in the office between the doctor and hygienist is not good, patients wait. Waiting creates anxiety, a rushed exam and little time to build relationships. When patients wait, they become reluctant to return to your practice. Those dreaded three words, "I'll call you," become common when relationships and flow are not in sync.

Dentistry is not a product. It is a service. Most patients don't know if the root canal you did was good or bad or if you screwed up that only—they just recognize if they feel safe and respected at your practice. You know you do great dentistry, but the patients just know if they like you. Referrals are based on, "God I love that dentist!" The referrals aren't, "Guess what amazing dental school my dentist went to?!"

All the years I've been in dentistry have shown me that half of dentistry is sold on price and half is sold on relationships. It's a relationship deal. It comes down to how you and your staff make that patient feel. This part of dentistry will never change, and never should.

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