7 business skills dentists need today

Sept. 1, 2000
A labor market as tight as it`s ever been. Hygienist shortages in most every locale. Non-existent pools of prospective dental assistants. A looming dentist manpower shortage. Patients more committed to their insurance plans than to a particular doctor. All of these factors are having an effect on dental practices. In today`s economic environment, dentists need enhanced skills to continue to grow and prosper. Developing close, long-term relationships with employees and patients, and meeting mutua

Jay M. Hislop, DDS, JD

A labor market as tight as it`s ever been. Hygienist shortages in most every locale. Non-existent pools of prospective dental assistants. A looming dentist manpower shortage. Patients more committed to their insurance plans than to a particular doctor. All of these factors are having an effect on dental practices. In today`s economic environment, dentists need enhanced skills to continue to grow and prosper. Developing close, long-term relationships with employees and patients, and meeting mutual goals with each "stakeholder" in your practice are essential ingredients for dentists to meet their professional and economic goals.

"Grow and prosper? You`ve got to be kidding! We`re so busy right now, the last thing I want to think about is growth," you might be saying.

Yes, growth and prosperity are as inextricably linked as ever. Today, many dentists are experiencing cashflow and profits never before seen in their careers. In such times, it`s easy to become complacent. However, even today`s best practices are at risk of slow decline if the dentists/owners cannot attract and keep superior employees for the long term. If you practice comprehensive restorative dentistry, a steady flow of quality new patients is necessary for the ongoing success of your practice.

Add the final factor - very poor early-career economic planning, coupled with a looming precipitous decline in practice values - and you have the seeds of retirement disaster for unwary dentists in the middle of their careers.

So, what are the skills needed today that will allow a dentist to have a prosperous practice that will attract quality patients, employees, associates, and future buyers?

Skill 1

Communication skills matter

One perpetually frustrating concept among dentists is the economic success of socially adept, yet clinically inept colleagues. These dentists may lack your clinical skills, but their patients, employees, and friends love and support them. Interpersonal communication skills always will be a key element in financial success. Some of the most important skills in a dentist`s personal "skill set" are the abilities to listen, empathize, and carefully design responses tailored to the behavioral style of each patient.

Think about the impact! Combining communication skills with clinical excellence and professional ethics is a sure way to financial success. Add quality long-term employees with strong commitments to the patients and the doctor, and the practice is unstoppable!

Skill 2

It`s the patient relationship

Successful doctors talk to patients on a personal, nonclinical level. Each patient has a unique set of perceptions, circumstances, and past experiences that he or she brings to the practice. Treating each person merely as a potential cosmetic case just waiting for you to press the right "hot button" and trigger an avalanche of case acceptance only will result in disappointment.

The simplest definition of professional ethics is the still the best: Know your patient, then hold out for what is best for that person. Developing patient-centered relationships remains a key element in successful diagnosis, treatment-planning, and case acceptance. Know each patient as an individual. Learn what is important to him or her, then structure your treatment plan to fulfill those particular needs and expectations.

Never substitute your own prejudices or personal goals for those of each individual patient.

Skill 3

Develop long-term relationships with employees

Good economic times don`t guarantee success! If a business is unable to meet the demand because of insufficient manpower, the economy is less of a factor for that practice. Long-term successful relationships with employees are another important key for continued success through good and bad economic times.

Flexibility in work schedules and vacation times, plus an understanding attitude regarding family events - such as illnesses or important events in the life of an employee`s child - go a long way toward creating long-term goodwill. Give your employees time off for important soccer games and musical performances.

Skill 4

Be generous

Gifts often cement your commitment to a long-term relationship. Taking each employee out for a business lunch once a month reaps huge benefits in building relationships. A personalized pen, a bottle of wine, or tickets to a movie for a mom and her child creates appreciation for you as a person and as an employer.

If you live in an area of labor shortages, providing a hotel room and an expense-paid weekend for a top job candidate may not only land you that employee, but also may help the candidate establish a long-term commitment to the area and your practice. Helping a long-term employee make an important purchase such as a home or an automobile or assisting with college tuition with a low-cost loan are ways to crystallize your mutual commitment.

Skill 5

Look for mutual benefits

Successful negotiations result from each side reaping more benefits than the perceived sacrifices. A well-designed treatment plan that meets the patient`s unique needs will almost always create sufficient economic benefits to the practice and be beneficial for the patient. But in today`s "marketing climate," there is plenty of advice on how to "sell" patients on elective treatments. Look first to the benefits your patients will reap, then see how you benefit from the opportunity. Looking to your self-interests first is not only a breach of ethics, but will result in poor patient relationships and declining practice goodwill.

Employee relationships are opportunities to establish mutually beneficial agreements. Negotiate terms that provide economic, social, and personal benefits for your employees. Figure out what is important to each employee and demonstrate your commitment to achieving those goals. Use a framework of closely monitored goals and objectives for you and your practice. Show the employee that as the practice meets its behavioral and economic goals, the employees achieve their personal and professional goals as well.

Skill 6

Take a hands-on approach

Business leadership requires active participation; blind delegation will not yield specifically desired results. The dentist who understands and can explain each task in the office is a more credible leader than one who says, "I don`t care how you do it, just get it done!" Be involved in job design and description. Communicate your expectations. Develop objective measurements for every task in the office, then monitor the results. Evaluate employee performance on a regular basis (at least quarterly) and use both objective and subjective measures. Once the standards are established, avoid micromanagement. Simply do periodic performance reviews and updates of the protocols.

Each patient deserves enough of your time to have his or her clinical questions addressed and personal concerns resolved. Focus on co-diagnosis and negotiated treatment plans. Be forthright with your expectations of the appearance, function, and longevity of your finished case results. Don`t hide from fees and finances. You may delegate the specifics of financial arrangements, but saying something like, "I don`t even know what my fees are. Sally handles all of that," erodes your credibility and reduces trust.

Skill 7

Show appreciation

Thank patients not only for referrals, but also for their commitment and cooperation with your efforts over the years. Gifts of coffee mugs, personalized pens, or flowers are appropriate ways to express your appreciation to a loyal patient. A personal card from you on a special occasion is remembered, while a generic card from your office is not. Set up a system that allows you to conduct a small amount of personal communication with several patients each day.

Showing gratitude to employees does not reduce your leverage. On the contrary, gratitude enhances employee loyalty and commitment. Appreciation is one of those rare assets that returns much more than what is invested. If you want to experience loyalty and appreciation, first give it away freely to those important to you.


Michael J. Wissot, MBA, MIM

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