Quick! There’s a fire in the trash can in your dental office. What do you do?
You could move the trash can to another room even as it sprouts flames and then go back to business as usual. Out of sight, out of mind, you know.
But wait. Do I smell something burning? Of course! The fire is still in the trash can, and it’s spreading! Even though the trash can is in another room, the problem has not been solved, because the fire is not out. In fact, the situation poses a greater danger the longer it is ignored.
In many businesses, including dental practices, the short-term solution to many dental practice management problems is to, as it were, move the fire in the trash can to another room. Just pretend the problem doesn’t exist or hope it gets better without any intervention.
- There is a problem brewing between two staff members in the office. Let’s change the subject and hope the problem goes away.
- The number of new patients has been trending down. Let’s talk about that great case we had last week and put off grappling with the new patient issue.
- One of the computers isn’t working properly. Let’s use the computer in the back while we hope miraculously that the main computer will get better with some rest.
One of the hallmarks of good dental practice management is to face problems squarely and solve them in a timely way while they are still controllable.
You may have gone to dental school and you may not see yourself as a firefighter, but one of your main jobs is putting out fires. Follow all the rules: prevent dental practice management fires when possible, respond immediately when there is a problem, and put the fire out once and for all so that problems in the dental office do not smolder and reignite.
David Schwab, Ph.D.
As one who is on the telephone with dental practices every day to evaluate their dental marketing, I take the pulse of practices and find out how they are answering the phone. Here are the results of my informal, non-scientific survey of dental practices.
About 75% of practices have someone answer the phone by giving her name as part of the greeting. (I am using “her” to mean “his or her” but most phone answerers in dental offices—but by no means all—are female). The other 25% omit a name in their standard phone answering script.
What are the 25% thinking? Some of these offices claim to offer “personal service,” and on their websites they use words such as “caring” or “friendly”; but every day they answer the phone without revealing the phone answerer’s identity. Are the people at the front desk in the Witness Protection Program?
Alas, the explanation for this curious lack of dental marketing is more mundane. The problem is either that a) no one taught the phone answerer how to answer the phone, or b) no one is supervising this function.
Lack of training results from an assumption: “Everyone knows how to answer a phone politely.” However, there is a difference between being polite, attentive, and even chirpy on the phone and making sure that good dental marketing techniques are used consistently. When even the most helpful person remains incognito, the practice loses an opportunity to connect with the caller.
Even when people are taught exactly how to answer a phone—and given a script to read—problems arise when there is no reinforcement or accountability. People fall into patterns and habits, and phone answering is a mantra that becomes fixed very easily.
Kudos to the practices that always provide a name as part of the greeting. For those who have forgotten this important lesson in dental marketing, it’s an easy fix that will help the practice be perceived as one that puts an emphasis on personal relationships.
A new dentist joins an established dental practice. Let’s call this individual Doctor Newcomer. The owner of the practice, Dr. Established, has high hopes for the freshly minted dental graduate. Dr. Established thinks that Dr. Newcomer will pick up clinical speed and confidence and one day be ready to take over the practice.
Dr. Newcomer soon learns that one of the hardest aspects of joining a private practice is dental practice management. Not only is Dr. Newcomer inexperienced in dental marketing, but there are added pressures of managing the team.
Dr. Newcomer is relatively young. It is quite natural for the new, young dentist to hang out with the team, swap stories, and talk about the road ahead. The problem is that the new dentist is often drawn into the staff orbit. He or she relates to team members rather than Dr. Established, who is the boss.
Bad habits and patterns soon emerge. Team members bring Dr. Newcomer into their confidence and Dr. Newcomer reciprocates. Before long, even in the most professional dental offices, Dr. Newcomer unwittingly crosses the line and starts to share gossip with the team. Inevitably, someone makes an unflattering comment about Dr. Established, and Dr. Newcomer is in the middle of this cabal.
Dr. Newcomer is not savvy in the ways of office politics. He or she does not yet know that there are no secrets in a dental practice. Dr. Established finds out that Dr. Newcomer is talking about him behind his back. In the eyes of Dr. Established. Dr. Newcomer has become part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
The best way to guard against this scenario is to be aware of it at the outset. Dr. Established needs to make it clear to the entire team that the management structure of the practice has changed. It now consists of Dr. Established and Dr. Newcomer. There needs to be respect throughout the team for everyone’s position, and the role of Dr. Newcomer needs to be clear to everyone on the team from day one.
David Schwab Ph.D.
The last place one might expect to learn about dental marketing is at a casino in Las Vegas, but during my recent visit to Caesar’s Palace, I noticed some savvy marketing that every dentist can use.
I was in Las Vegas for the American Academy of Implant Dentistry meeting, which I enjoyed very much. I had dinner in the hotel at the Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill. The restaurant was crowded so I opted to eat the bar. I watched a football game on television and ordered from the regular restaurant menu.
The bartenders were interesting to watch. They served food and drinks, kept up a friendly banter to engage the patrons, and they provided an exceptional level of service. With their peripheral vision, the bartenders could see someone signaling at the far end of the bar. They served quickly, cleared plates, and made eye contact with customers often.
I noticed that the bartenders took pride in their work and exhibited a high degree of professionalism. They anticipated their customers’ needs and provided prompt service without hovering over anyone or being pushy. The bar patrons could sit back and relax, because the pros were taking good care of them while exhibiting a great attitude, high energy, and a commitment to their profession.
The ability to scan the room and anticipate needs is also important in dental marketing. Having a laser focus on patients and letting them know that their needs will be met and their questions answered will help engender trust and respect in patients.
Many patients have told me that their have respect for their dentist and they have also often commented on the team. People notice when the staff exudes competence and a can-do attitude.
If you want to show your patients great attitude and not just talk about it, take the team to a busy restaurant and bar where the waiters and bartenders give it their all. It will be motivational and educational for the entire team and important lesson in dental marketing.
David Schwab Ph.D.
While many practices make great efforts to attract new patients thorough dental marketing, there are practices that are losing patients at the first point of contact. I call dental practices all the time and my personal impression is that more practices are experiencing busy times during the day when they cannot answer the phone. Instead of a live person providing a greeting, patients sometimes get a recording.
There are two issues here and two very good solutions. First, being adequately staffed to answer the phones is very important but often either overlooked are rationalized away as not possible. The same practices that attend dental practice management courses and other dental seminars and come away convinced that they should provide “Ritz-Carlton” service often miss the primary reason for the success of Ritz-Carlton: the company is always well staffed with helpful people.
I have checked into discount hotels late at night when the check-in line literally snaked through the small lobby and outside the building. At the Ritz, there are always plenty of well trained staff to expedite the check-in process, answer the phone, and handle guests’ needs.
In a dental practice, if you expect people to pay your fees for extensive treatment, then you need to cover the phones, even during busy times when all lines are ringing and multiple patients are checking in and out.
I know that some people will say that due to staff budget constraints, it is just not possible to provide adequate phone coverage 100% of the time. If this scenario has to happen, then my second recommendation is to have a specific outgoing message that callers will hear when you are busy. Instead the usual, after-hours outgoing message, put a special message on your voicemail system that says something like this: “Thank you for calling Dr. Smile’s office. Our office is open today. If you got this message it just means that we are busy for a moment but we will call you right back. Please leave your name and number and we will return your call in five minutes.”
For the busy potential new patient who is calling during his or her coffee break, this message is reassuring. The patient now knows that you are in the office, you care about the call, and you will call back momentarily. This is great dental marketing!
By following these two dental marketing tips, you will lose fewer patients and capture more new patients at the first point of contact.
David Schwab, Ph.D.
I know they are out there. It’s a question of finding them and bringing them into your practice with adroit dental marketing. One middle-age woman with a mouthful of broken down teeth, an unattractive smile, and significant periodontal disease recently completed dental implant treatment. She found the dental office that helped her when she responded to the practice’s Internet advertising. For years, this individual had driven past countless dental practices. She had no doubt been bombarded by ads promising replacement teeth and a beautiful new smile. Until one day, she searched on the Internet, clicked an ad that caught her eye, and made the decision to make a new patient appointment. Her life was changed forever.
This success story reminds us that demographics are destiny: we have an aging population with significant unmet dental needs. At my recent lecture at the American Academy of Implant Dentistry in Las Vegas, I identified four major challenges in dental marketing, specifically dental implant marketing:
- Increasing competition. There was a time when dental implants were placed only by specialists, but now general dentists routinely offer this service. Dental implants have gone mainstream. Trying to get a patient into your practice for implant dentistry is harder because every dentist around you has the same idea.
- Downward pressure on fees. With more competition and some very aggressive pricing in the market place, patients are seeing eye-popping fees for dental implants. It is harder for traditional practices to justify their fees, which nonetheless remain quite justifiable.
- It is difficult to cut through the clutter and get your message out. Doctors are honing websites, testing Google ads, and using more targeted television advertising to find patients who need their services. It’s not about “mass mailings” any more; it’s about precise demographic and geographic targeting.
- People often have priorities other than needed dental implant treatment. The patient I described above is now delighted with her new teeth, but she rationalized her procrastination for years before seeking treatment.
While marketing challenges have multiplied, the profession’s ability to deliver implant dentistry in an efficient and predictable manner has also increased. I will discuss specific marketing strategies in future blogs. Finding the “right” patients requires finely-tuned dental marketing, but every day we are reminded that they are out there.
David Schwab, Ph.D.
One of the most interesting developments in dental practice management in recent years has been the opportunity to beam into far-away offices via Skype for team training. While I still spend many days on the road presenting dental seminars and working with clients in my dental consulting business, I enjoy conducting virtual meetings with team members in Virginia one day and California the next without leaving my office in Florida.
My Skype training sessions are not webinars, because they are not lectures. These are back-and-forth interactive meetings where good discussions and qualitative learning take place.
During a recent Skype session, I was telling the team, including the doctor, about the importance of letting patients know that the practice is accepting new patients. I explained that typically many patients either do not know if the practice is open to new patients or they assume that because it takes time to get on the schedule, the practice may be closed to new patients.
I saw the expression on the doctor’s face. He had an “aha” moment. He suddenly realized that he could not assume that his patients would refer to him, because many patients, although very happy with his office, simply did not know that he would welcome new patients.
There are many ways to get the message out: systematically letting patients know through brief yet effective verbal messages, effective wording on the practice website, advertising, and good interior and exterior signage with the “new patients welcome” message.
The good news for doctors is that they have not fished out the stream. There are still many potential patients who would come to the practice, if their friends and family—current patients of record—were encouraged to spread the word.
The office team I was training that day on Skype took notes and made a commitment to shift their internal marketing into high gear. I could see the enthusiasm on their faces—another great advantage of video meetings.
I recently interviewed a doctor to develop dental patient education videos for his practice. The doctor’s winning personality and professional demeanor came across very well on video. He has a very fluid and easy speaking style and he inspires confidence. This doctor asked me a great question. He wanted to know if his interview answers should contain just the positive side of dental procedures or whether he should also talk about potential complications to cover informed consent.
My answer is that we have to make a distinction between relating positive stories to patients as part of patient education and sitting down with a patient to discuss a specific treatment plan. For purposes of a patient education video, the doctor has every right to talk about success stories. As long as the information is totally factual, there is no problem. If the success rate with dental implants in his office is 98%, he can say that. If a patient told him with tears in her eyes that the treatment he provided “changed her life,” then that is a powerful human interest story that he should share.
Patients are looking for solutions to their problems, and doctors routinely solve problems and improve the quality of patients’ lives. Quoting statistics accurately and relating positive comments from patients are perfectly acceptable ways to get the word out about services provided.
When discussing a particular course of treatment recommended for a patient, the doctor should explain that every dental procedure comes with risks. The documentation of informed consent should be thorough, consistent, and systematic and done in accordance with all applicable laws. However, the need to review the possible complications of a procedure should not prevent doctors from truthfully stating that they have successfully treated many patients who are now very happy with their results.
In practice management, think of patient education as talking up dentistry to get people’s attention. The goal is to make patients aware, peak their interest, and motivate them to come to the office to learn how dental treatment can help them. Once the discussion turns to the patient’s individualized treatment plan, informed consent should be part of the process so that the patient can make a fully informed decision.