The best team meeting EVER!

Aug. 1, 2009
Effective training and team leadership are the backbone of any truly successful dental practice.

by Timothy K. Johnston, DDS, FAGD

Effective training and team leadership are the backbone of any truly successful dental practice. Training starts on the first day of employment and continues for the life of the employee. One of the problems with continuous learning and staff development is that the source of the information can become stale. It's not that the material gets old, but the presenter (dentist) or presentation (staff meetings) can become so familiar as to be easily ignored.

The team leader in a dental office is always the dentist. Some dentists try to pass the duty to a staff member or office manager, but the reality is that this particular role is not delegable. It doesn't matter what title you give people. It is your office.

If your name is on the door, you are the ultimate role model. You are the team leader in your office. If your standards are low, don't be surprised to find your team's standards will follow suit. If you have unimpeachable ethics, your staff will also hold themselves to a higher standard.

Your leadership is the barometer of activity in the office. But even this influence eventually breaks down, the same way parental influence eventually wanes with children.

Have you ever noticed when your own kids misbehave you sometimes have to tell them several times to “stop that” before they actually “hear” you? There's nothing wrong with their hearing. They've just learned to tune you out.

But if a stranger says something to your kids, they straighten up like the little angels you raised them to be. Carrying this analogy to the dental office, your staff eventually learns to tune you out. Drone on all you want about customer service, attention to detail, and quality control, but it all just becomes blah, blah, blah to your teams' ears.

Enter the “stranger” in a dental office — the practice consultant. Advice from an outside voice is more powerful than your communication, simply because it's new. Even if the words are the same, the message is fresh because the delivery is different. This is why it's so important to take your team out of the office for continuing education every so often. You can bring home all the information you can carry from a seminar, but you can't deliver it to your group nearly as effectively as another person.

Over the years, our office has run the gamut of outside team meetings. We've experienced everything from local society meetings, to “institute” training, to Las Vegas “edutainment” seminars. You name it — we have done it. We started nearly 20 years ago with a trip to Myrtle Beach to see Linda Miles with three team members, and have taken our current 30 team members to such locales as Florida and Vegas. So I speak with some authority when I say I discovered the absolute best team meeting ever!

A year or so ago we experienced some staff turnover due to marriages, moves, and babies. I was looking for a destination seminar that was heavy on customer service to reinforce the message I was pounding on at home.

I have always believed customer service is the primary building block of any truly great business, especially a service business such as dentistry. With our influx of new employees, I was looking for a great customer service seminar. There were several speakers I wanted to see, but none were together in the same venue.

So I took matters into my hands. We live on the eastern side of Virginia, about two hours from North Carolina's Outer Banks resort communities. The Outer Banks are known for their extravagantly large vacation homes on the beach.

My idea was, instead of bringing my staff to the speakers, I would bring the speakers to my staff! We rented two large houses for a long weekend, and booked two speakers to come and spend half a day each with us. Here are the details:

We booked the homes in February (offseason), which held costs down to about a fifth of the usual cost. It also kept the beach from being a distraction. It was pretty to look at, but no one wanted to skip out of the discussions to walk on the beach in February.

We gave the weekend a theme — Customer Service Beach Retreat — to keep everyone's attention focused on the objectives.

Everyone was encouraged to bring topics about the office to discuss at “open mic,” but they had to be customer service related topics.

I invited the speakers I wanted to have and informed them of the format for the weekend.

We considered inviting other offices with like-minded practice philosophies, but decided to keep the focus just on us. If your practice has fewer than six or eight people, you might consider joining forces with two or three offices to make it more cost effective.

We were committed to “fun-learning” rather than “edutainment.”

I developed an outline for the entire weekend, programming our time right down to karaoke and group games. I assigned roommates with the goal of putting some people in uncomfortable situations with people they might not normally hang out with in the office. We brought plenty of snacks, breakfast and lunch items, and ate dinners out.

The dress code was “pajamas or better.” I fully stocked the fridges and pantries. I wanted it to feel as much like home as possible to put everyone at ease and help them fully express themselves.

As for the speakers, I arranged two fantastic people. First, a couple of my hygienists had seen Dianne Glasscoe-Watterson and raved about her presentation. She's a hygienist who is all about customer service. She spoke the first morning of our retreat. She was so enamored with our group and nature of our retreat that she asked if she could hang out with us the next day!

The next morning we had the pleasure of hearing a corporate trainer from the Ritz Carlton on “Customer Service … the Ritz Carlton Way.” If you have been a frequent guest of the Ritz, you know that their service is legendary. After hearing some of their secrets, we found that none of that is by accident. Every guest interaction during a visit to a Ritz is carefully orchestrated. They spend more time training their “ladies and gentlemen” (they are not called employees) than anyone else in the industry.

“Open mic” was set aside for discussion about customer service issues in our office. The second afternoon we watched a video on customer service, and lastly I reviewed the notes I had taken during the weekend, then offered suggestions for improvement in our office.

Above all the unique things about the weekend, the most beneficial was that we were able to interact with the speakers during their presentations. I warned them both that we were a boisterous group, and they welcomed our dialogue as a change from their usual monologue.

Many staff members made new friends in our circle. We learned interesting facts about each other during games, and even found a few American Idol hopefuls during karaoke!

For an investment of about one third of what it would have cost to take everyone away on a destination seminar, we learned more, had more fun, and became a more cohesive group. It was truly the best team meeting ever!

Dr. Timothy K. Johnston practices full time in Williamsburg, Va. He is also an associate professor at VCU School of Dentistry, and has been published internationally. Dr. Johnston's popular seminars on practice management and hygiene synchronicity can be arranged by visiting the Web at Reach Dr. Johnston at [email protected].

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