Tailor your practice to what the customer wants

Aug. 1, 1998
Dental patients say it best: When it comes to effective marketing, absolutely nothing compares to confident, caring staff members.

Dental patients say it best: When it comes to effective marketing, absolutely nothing compares to confident, caring staff members.

Suzanne Boswell

Should we market our practices or not? Will we get a return on our investment? What will our patients think about it?

We`ve heard both sides of this story. Both dentists and their patients have concerns about marketing a dental practice. Do any of the following comments sound familiar to you?

The Practice Position:

x - I feel uncomfortable actively promoting treatments.

x - It`s distasteful to market the practice through external advertising.

x - We should leave it up to the patient to initiate inquiries about elective treatments.

x - We shouldn`t harass the patient about sending us referrals.

x - Why shouldn`t excellent dentistry be enough?

The Patient Position

x - I don`t want to feel trapped in the chair.

x - I don`t want my dentist to push treatments.

x - I want my dentist to suggest treatments on the basis of what is best for me, not best for him.

x - I`ll refer to my dentist, but I`d feel awkward if he pushed me for referrals.

x - I don`t want to feel "marketed to."

Any form of marketing could be perceived negatively by both practitioners and patients, as the comments above show. Some might say that internal marketing is acceptable when handled tastefully, but that external marketing is taboo. But whether you are for or against marketing in the profession of dentistry, two points are clear:

(1) Any form of marketing must be patient-friendly.

(2) Dentists at least must market internally.

Is it marketing or is it customer service?

Several years ago, a terrific Memorex ad campaign promoted the clarity and realism of the company`s audiotape. One of these ads featured the voice of the great singer, Ella Fitzgerald. As viewers heard her hit a high note, they saw an image of a drinking glass shattering at the high pitch. The voiceover posed the question: "Is it real or is it Memorex?"

I`m often reminded of this commercial when thinking about the issue of marketing. Patients we interview in our focus groups often blur the line between marketing and service. From the patient`s point of view, it`s hard to tell the difference. The point is that excellent service is marketing.

During the year I was writing the book, The Mystery Patient`s Guide to Gaining & Retaining Patients (PennWell, 1997), I repeatedly experienced a similar philosophical dilemma. I found myself struggling with a topic that needed to be addressed, but unsure of whether it should be put in the chapter on marketing or the chapter on customer service. It became clear to me through this process that marketing and service are inextricably entwined.

Excellent customer service is marketing. It is marketing in the most effective and patient-friendly manner. It also is the type of marketing that the practice is most comfortable with because it`s non-aggressive, patient-friendly, and certainly ethical.

Confident, caring staff

Patients say it best. When it comes to effective marketing, nothing compares to confident, caring staff members. In an ongoing series of focus groups we conducted with patients on marketing, they consistently remarked that the most powerful marketing comes from a highly evolved staff - one that believes in the practice. No brochures, "on-hold" message tapes, or collateral materials can hold a candle to what the staff says about the practice.

Staff members provide the foundation for an effective marketing program. Imagine an office that has impressive external advertising and a beautiful collateral package. Now imagine how patients would feel if they called the office or arrived for their first appointment and found the team didn`t meet their expectations. Marketing without a solid foundation can be perceived by patients as technique and, therefore, manipulative. Trust is blown out the window!

Before spending time and money on materials, be sure your team can support your efforts! Likewise, seizing opportunities without providing genuine value to the patient can be perceived as purely opportunistic. There must be a win-win balance.

The highly evolved team has gone beyond "working" at promoting the practice. Their belief in the practice is so strong that they can put effort into focusing more on patient issues. They can think about what the patient needs first and then easily relate solutions that are found within the practice. The highly evolved team is one that:

* Has a strong belief in the ethics of the practice

* Has a strong belief in the clinical skills of all its dental practitioners

* Genuinely respects other member of the team

* Truly cares about the patients, as individuals

* Has empathy for patients

* Communicates in an open, honest, and sincere manner

* Understands their own responsibilities in the overall marketing plan

* Recognizes the power of providing top-quality service

When your team comes together with this kind of belief and strength, internal marketing is far easier and it naturally overlaps with excellent customer service.

Carpe Diem - seize the day!

Every day, patients provide you with a myriad of opportunities for you to promote your practice in a patient-friendly manner. The keys are:

(1) Recognize the opportunity.

(2) Place yourself in the patient`s position and rethink the opportunity to meet the needs of the patient first.

(3) Seize the opportunity in a patient-friendly manner.

For the practice, the toughest of these three steps may be No. 2. It`s very difficult to step outside yourself and see an issue from the patient`s point of view. In doing this, it`s crucial that the patient understand that you want to be of service, provide valuable information, or meet his or her specific needs.

Having empathy for the patient is a crucial part of this. Empathy means understanding how the patient might feel, not necessarily feeling what the patient feels. For example, to be empathetic, you can understand patient anger without feeling anger yourself and without agreeing with what the patient is saying.

What follows are some examples of marketing opportunities that might arise in your office. Review these scenarios with your team. Consider how patients might feel if given the potential answers listed for each question.

Every one of these scenarios offers patient-friendly ways to market the practice. Which do you think are the most patient friendly?

Scenario 1:

Telephone rings

Patient says: "I just moved into the neighborhood and saw your sign. Would you tell me something about the doctor?"

Receptionist says:

a) "He graduated from Baylor in 1972 and has been in practice at the same location all this time ... Do you want to make an appointment for a cleaning?"

b) "She`s very gentle and very caring. She attends many continuing- education seminars to stay up-to-date. Our patients just love her and so does all the staff!"

c) "What kind of information would be the most helpful to you? Was there a specific area of interest or concern that you have?"

Key Point: Gently probing the patient for more specifics indicates an interest in patient needs, increases patient understanding, and aids the staff member in providing meaningful information. This is a key question because the answer can provide insights into what is important to the patient and enable the staff member to market the practice in a patient-friendly manner. Patients consistently affirm that when the staff asks appropriate questions indicating interest in them, the practice is perceived as a caring one.

Scenario 2:

At the front desk

Patient says: "No, I can`t schedule the cleaning then. My sister`s moving into town, and I`ll be helping her move into her new house that week."

Receptionist says:

a) "How about the 16th? Would that be better? (Appointment is made.) Great, we`ll see you then."

b) "What date would be best for you?" (Appointment is made.) Great, we`ll see you then."

c) "Would you want to do it before that week or after her move? (Appointment is made.) Terrific! And we`d love to be of service to your sister and her family. Does she already have a local dentist?"

Key Point: After scheduling the appointment, the staff member can ask about the sister and pursue a referral in a low-key, patient-friendly manner. The staff member should put a note in the patient`s records so it is a point of conversation at the next appointment - an important part of rapport-building. Patients feel more "connected" when the practice indicates an interest in them and in their families.

Scenario 3:

During a hygiene appointment

Patient says: "What`s the best kind of toothbrush (floss or toothpaste)?"

a) "We like XYZ brand because ..."

b) "I suggest ABC brand toothpaste to all of our patients because ..."

c) "The best toothbrush for you is XYZ because ..." (Show a toothbrush you`ve chosen specifically for this patient and relate it to the needs of the specific patient.) "And as you use it, you need to focus on ..." (Relate specific techniques that are best for the patient.)

Key Point: By tailoring your answer to the specific patient, the patient has a higher perceived value of the treatment received and, consequently, increased trust in you. Hygienists are in an especially key role to market the practice through personalized patient education. When you show you see this person as an individual - not "just another patient" - what you say and what you recommend becomes very meaningful.

Scenario 4:

Treatment room with the assistant

Patient says: "Sometimes, I feel so stupid. I know the doctor just explained my problem, but I still don`t understand why I need this treatment."

Assistant says:

a) "Well, the doctor did use a lot of technical words. Let me explain what he meant."

b) "What didn`t you understand and I`ll explain it further for you?"

c) "Please don`t feel uncomfortable about that! I`m glad you told me. It often helps to hear it put another way. Here`s why the treatment is so important for you and why it will help you."

Key Point: Patients often "open up" to staff members more quickly than to the doctor. Put the patient at ease about having asked the question and validate the importance for understanding. What you say can have a significant influence on the patient`s likelihood of accepting treatment. Before the patient leaves the chair, encourage any additional questions to ensure comprehension.

Scenario 5:

During an exam

Patient says: "I just hate to come in here. I get so nervous because of the experiences I had as a kid."

Doctor says:

a) "I`d be nervous, too, if I were sitting where you are!"

b) "Don`t worry; just relax. Everything will be O.K."

c) "Tell me what happened and what specifically makes you uncomfortable. Our talking about this can help me understand how to make your experiences in this office more comfortable for you. Together, we can work on overcoming this."

Key Point: Don`t discount the patient`s concerns and anxiety. Getting the patient to talk about it helps you provide the treatment the patient needs and instills understanding that you are a truly caring practitioner. A patient who is fearful and goes to your office anyway is not a coward. This person is brave to face the fear and deserves your support. When cared for with sensitivity, this individual can become a fiercely loyal patient who refers you to others.

Scenario 6:

At payment counter

Patient says: "No, I can`t schedule the treatment. I`d like to, but I just can`t afford it right now."

Financial staff member says:

a) "If it would help you decide, we offer a 5 percent discount for prepayment. Would the discount help?"

b) "How about putting it on a credit card? Could you handle that?"

c) "I know you said you really want to do the crown as soon as possible. We`d like to help you find a way to get the treatment you need. You`ll feel more confident, your bite will be improved and that`s what we want for you, too. We have several alternatives that might work for you. If you`d like, we can go into the consultation room for a little more privacy and discuss what these options are."

Key Point: Ensure that there is privacy for any financial discussions like this one. You must have alternatives in place for situations just like this. Have the payment options on a printed form so that the patient has something tangible to take home and think about. Credit cards, payment plans, phasing of treatment, alternative treatments are all keys to increasing the likelihood of treatment acceptance. So is a positive attitude that shows understanding, sensitivity, care, and compassion.

How you handle these issues can lead to referrals or send patients packing!

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