Oct. 1, 2003
Each member of the dental team directly affects the success of the practice through his or her actions. The way team members communicate, the way they deliver a quality experience for the patient, and the way they discuss treatment fees conveys the an image for practice.

by Debra Englehardt-Nash

Each member of the dental team directly affects the success of the practice through his or her actions. The way team members communicate, the way they deliver a quality experience for the patient, and the way they discuss treatment fees conveys the an image for practice. Each team member has the ability to make the practice more productive, more cost effective, and, ultimately, more profitable. Practice profitability should be as important to your team as it is to you. The more successful the practice, the greater the team's earnings potential.

In the past, team members had a specific function and seldom ventured beyond the tasks assigned to their job descriptions. There was little crossover within the front and back office, especially when it came to discussing fees and payment options with patients. Today, computerized offices mean increased crossover between staff members, and practices are evolving to a true team approach in the delivery of quality dentistry and an exceptional experience for the patient.

Authentic communication

By far, the most effective communication is genuinely authentic. You have to believe what you are saying if you want your patients to believe you. If team members do not believe in the practice or in the quality of care the doctor provides, or if they are merely reciting from a script, they cannot speak with passion or conviction. When you communicate authentically, you enjoy what you do, you enjoy the people you work with, and you are happy and honored to be part of an organization that offers high-quality care. Even if a team member has less than impeccable language skills, for example, what the patient will hear is the tone, passion, and energy of the message. So much of communication is not the actual words, but the way they are said. You have to let your heart come through when you speak with patients — especially when it comes to treatment and fee discussions.

What to look for

Often when team members discuss a comprehensive cosmetic case with a patient, the treatment fee is substantial, perhaps equaling or exceeding their yearly compensation. So, authenticity starts with hiring the right people who value the dentistry you offer. Look for enthusiasm (which, with training, will evolve into authenticity) in potential employees. And consistently treat each team member as a valued and integral part of your practice. If we nickel-and-dime employees, they will think our practices are "nickel-and-dime" as well. If we want to teach our teams to be aware of the quality experiences we provide our patients, we must provide a quality employment experience for them. By treating and compensating team members well, they begin to gain confidence in the practice and in themselves.

Every team member deserves the opportunity to be well-trained, and every new employee needs to experience the clinical environment and spend a day chairside in order to comprehend the intensity required to deliver high-level dentistry and relate it to patients. Let them enjoy hearing a satisfied patient's remarks to help them understand the value of the dentistry. And insist they watch the new-patient experience and learn through observing the right communication style, tone, and message. And, because it is so very important to the success of the practice, make communication training a full-day event.

It starts with the phone call

Often the first contact a patient has with the practice is over the telephone. Even before the patient comes to the practice, you begin communicating and setting expectations about the overall experience, including your financial policies. Every day I take calls from prospective patients, and it amazes me how many ask for free consultations. When patients make this request, it is up to the team member to educate them on the practice's philosophy and why the first appointment is the most important. It's during this consultation that patients have the opportunity to meet the doctor and discuss expectations and possible results. They will be confident they have chosen the right practice and right doctor for their care. But they need to understand that both your time and the consultation are very valuable in the delivery of quality dentistry, and, therefore, are not free.

If the team member has done a good job on the phone, then she has successfully built the patient's anticipation of a quality experience. The quality of the experience is almost as important as the quality of the product. And here's where the team can significantly impact a patient's satisfaction and the practice's success.

Communication that makes sense

Patients judge their experience with a practice using all of the senses, but especially sight, sound, and smell. Environment is important. Your office should reflect your commitment to quality dentistry. We have to invest in the look and image of the office, because the minute patients walk through the door, they begin validating or invalidating their decision to select your practice. Present a professional appearance. Doctors need to be very specific about uniform — the team needs to look like a team. Is it most effective to have the person collecting money dressed in scrubs? Certainly not. That person should visually communicate the credibility and responsibility that comes with that role.

The greeting also is important. The front-office team member should stand, shake the patient's hand, look that person in the eye, and make conversation. (Think of a banker's or businessperson's demeanor.) The new-patient coordinator should go to the reception area and make an introduction before taking the patient to the consultation room. The team member should then initiate the consultation by clarifying why that patient is at the office. Then, listen while the patient talks. Understand the patient's needs before you begin discussing your capabilities. This will save both of you time and frustration.

When it's time to talk money

As the discussion continues, if the patient asks about treatment fees, the team member must answer those questions — with authenticity. When a patient brings up the subject of money, it needs to be addressed immediately, even if it is in general terms, rather than delayed or deferred to the doctor or another person. Everyone on the team needs to be comfortable discussing fees — without embarrassment or apology. This conveys that everyone associated with the practice appreciates the kind of dentistry offered and believes that the fees are acceptable. If every team member is using the same financial protocol and embraces the practice's policies for financial arrangements, patients are less confused and will be more comfortable with the financial options presented.

If a patient wants to move forward with treatment, it's up to the team to smooth the way. However, be sure your financial options are not so "easy and affordable" for the patient that the practice loses money. Providing patients with in-house financing can be a recipe for disaster. Allowing them to pay $25 a month for years and years can lead to increased overhead and a collections problem. It also can foster resentment over the years for the long-term debt owed to the practice. Ideally, a practice's financial protocol would be limited to payment before treatment, payment at time of treatment, or outsourced financing through a company like CareCredit®, Dental Fee Plan, or HelpCard. If a patients are reluctant to use outsourced financing, it's important to maintain protocol and allow them to delay treatment until they can comfortably pay the fee. Subjecting patients to financial hardship does not make for a comfortable atmosphere. The beautiful dentistry provided is forgotten, while the long term, crushing debt lingers on.

If you are a fee-for-service practice and perform large cosmetic cases, consider integrating a preoperative visit with the patient, at which time you collect pre-operative photographs, provide instructions, and collect the treatment fee. There are several advantages to this method. First, this prevents the patient from associating the first clinical visit with paying for treatment. And secondly, if the patient experiences "buyer's remorse" and cancels this appointment, it will not affect the longer clinical appointment in the doctor's schedule.

Ultimately, each team member should be involved in creating an exceptional experience for the patient and with communicating the quality of dentistry and its costs comfortably. Consistency is important, and enthusiasm and authenticity are imperative. If patients don't feel confident that the fees you charge are appropriate, and if they can't attach value to your services and aren't comfortable with your practice's financial policy, it means that your practice is not the right choice for them.

Using the team approach to provide an exceptional patient experience and to communicate quality and value along with treatment fees and financing options is truly an advantage — for the practice, the patients, and the entire staff.

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