Building practice reserves

March 1, 2006
You are driving down the highway when the amber light on your dashboard begins to blink - a warning that your gas is low.

You are driving down the highway when the amber light on your dashboard begins to blink - a warning that your gas is low. The road sign indicates that there is fuel at the next rest area ... 12 miles ahead. Anxiety swallows you, and your foot becomes heavier as you try to control the circumstances. “You should have fueled up at the last stop,” you reprimand yourself. You barely make it to the rest stop, imagining that only the fumes saved you. You tell the attendant to fill it up while you get a cup of coffee to settle your nerves. You promise yourself never to let this happen again. Within minutes, you are back on the road, waiting for the next episode caused by a lack of reserves.

Fuel is a sublimely appropriate metaphor for whatever it takes to make our lives run smoothly. Fuel provides the energy we need to make things run. I might have used ink, computer memory, or even time. It doesn’t matter what resource I used because our lives should be filled with enough reserves to run at an optimal level.

One of the problems we have is that, unlike the metaphorical road, we don’t have enough indicators and road signs - we never know what is “enough.” The poet William Blake once said, “You never know what is enough, until you know what is more than enough.” That certainly is a good argument for stocking up on supplies, computer power, and great staff. But what about some of the other reserves that we don’t ever seem to have enough of like money, time, and of course, the one that so many dentists seem anxious about: new patients?

With all of the wonderful dentistry we get to do these days, we not only look for more new patients, but also for patients who will accept our very sophisticated work. The search for more new patients seems like a never-ending treadmill. Theoretically, most of us understand that the best way to get more and better new patients is to build a referral-based practice based on word of mouth. In theory it sounds nice, but many dentists turn to other methods like advertising and third-party assistance. I guess all of these efforts fall under the heading of “marketing.”

I have a definition of marketing that has served me well through the years: “The creating and maintaining of relationships.” That definition has provided me with enough high-octane fuel that I rarely feel the need to find new patients. This view of dental practice may require a leap of faith, but it seems that every time the amber light glows in my office, an old or new patient shows up to begin a nice case.

Some of my staff hasn’t fully taken the leap. They still worry about new patients, but it seems there is a higher power at work. Why is that? Let’s take a closer look at the word relationship. Almost all of the work we do is done through relationships, and the key to all relationships is trust.

What is trust? Stephen Covey tells us that trust is a combination of care and competence. In our practices, that would mean we care enough to put our patients’ needs first (before our own) and to develop the competence to provide the very best dentistry. When our patients trust us, they believe we are reliable and dependable, and they are certain that we have kept up in our field. Some would call those three traits (dependability, reliability, and assuredness) the requirements of great service.

It’s funny how all of the things that really matter - like trust, care, competence, and service - all have something in common. They are immaterial; they can’t be measured. Albert Einstein once said, “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”

The immaterial items listed above cannot be counted. They are not like the gas in our fuel tank or the dollars in our bank account. What I can guarantee is that spending time improving your levels of care and competence will increase your trustworthiness. And if you truly care about your patients, it will show. Through this process you will build up so many “reserves” that finding new patients will become an afterthought.

Dr. Barry F. Polansky practices in Cherry Hill, N.J. He is the author of the book, “The Art of the Examination,” and publisher of Dental Life, a newsletter dedicated to finding balance and happiness in private dental practice. Founder of the Academy of Dental Leadership (, which offers small group and individual practice coaching, Dr. Polansky is on the visiting faculty of The Pankey Institute. Reach him via e-mail at [email protected].

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