Knowing what your patients want from you: The importance of making them feel special

Imagine two different dental practices within a few blocks of each other.

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The importance of making them feel special.

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Imagine two different dental practices within a few blocks of each other.

The doctor at Practice A is highly skilled and seen as one of the leading practitioners in the nation by his peers. He holds a Mastership in the Academy of General Dentistry, Accreditation by the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, and is an ICOI Diplomate. The office is clean, well–designed, and boasts the latest technology, including a CAD/CAM machine, laser, and cone–beam unit.

Practice B, in comparison, is a family practice that serves patients of all ages. The facility is comfortable, warm, and clean. The dentist makes a point of building a friendly, non–clinical relationship with each of her patients. The practice is up–to–date on its technology, but hasn't yet invested in any costly, high–end units. The staff is very friendly and good at their jobs, the hours are convenient, and the prices are reasonable.

One of these practices is doing remarkable business, while the other is struggling and looking for ways to boost business. Which practice is the successful one? It may not be the one you think.

Practice A has unmatched clinical skill and advanced technology, but is losing its business hand over fist to Practice B. Why? Well, Practice B is giving its patients the thing they really want most from a health–care provider — care.

Clinical skills and efficiency are important, but patients expect that from any licensed dentist. While it's true that many patients say they want to see the best dentist in the area, they're not just referring to clinical skills. Rather, they want a gifted dentist with a good team that genuinely cares about them. In short, what matters most to your patients is knowing that they matter to you.

Yes, I know I've written extensively about the benefits of technology and argued that continuing education is crucial. Technology and training matter both from a clinical standpoint and a marketing one. But it's the experience you give your patients while they're in the office that's most important. After all, most patients can't accurately assess your skills as a dentist, but they can certainly assess their experience with you.

There's a lot to that experience. It begins at the moment they first decide to call you and doesn't stop until you retire or they leave your practice. It encompasses everything from the name of your practice, to the smell of your operatory, to the message on your recall cards, and yes, it includes your technology and education. But the single most important aspect — and the one area Practice A failed to consider — is how important you make your patients feel.

Consider your last experience in a medical doctor's office. Did you feel like the doctor and office staff genuinely cared about you when you were there? Most likely you didn't. You probably felt like a cog in a machine or a number in a database. In fact, I imagine that's the case any time you get sick and need to go to the doctor. You're placed on hold when you call, you're lucky if you can get an appointment for the same day, and even luckier if it's with your doctor.

When you come in, you're packed in a waiting room and likely won't be called back until considerably after your appointment time. When you're finally called, you're rushed through the appointment and given a quick diagnosis. You probably don't get more than five minutes with a doctor who can't remember your name without consulting your chart before you're out the door and wondering what happened.

Most medical offices don't do a very good job of making a patient feel like they're important, so if you're running your practice like a medical office — stop. Make sure your practice doesn't feel cold and clinical, smell like chemicals, or look gray and dreary.

Greet patients by name when they arrive, and include some personal information in their record so you can ask them how their daughter is doing in college or whether they have done any skiing this winter.

Spend time with them and be sure to answer any and all questions they may have about their teeth or treatment, no matter how busy your day is and how basic the questions may seem. If they've had a big procedure, give them a call the next day to see how they're doing (and make the call yourself).

Look at every aspect of your practice — anything that seems remotely clinical should be changed to something that will help communicate the message that you care about each and every one of your patients.

It may seem strange to run your business so differently from your fellow health–care providers, but it's important to understand that your practice operates under an entirely different model than a medical facility. Patients have greater freedom to change dental offices than they do with their doctors, or they can choose not to come in at all.

You may feel this puts you at a disadvantage, but actually the opposite is true. You see, most patients expect service similar to what they receive at a medical office. They expect to be treated like a number rather than a name.

So when you surprise them with genuine empathy, good communication, and a real interest in what they have to say, it can have a profound effect. All it really takes is a small change in your mindset. If you can understand the concerns of your patients and discuss them openly in a warm and down–to–earth manner, you will quickly develop a loyal patient base that will return for their recall appointments, accept your recommendations, and refer new patients to your practice regularly.

There's a saying that I believe should apply to all health–care providers: people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. Your expertise will never truly matter to them as much as your concern and understanding of them as individuals.

Everyone wants to feel important. They may be one of a dozen patients that you'll be seeing that day or they may be the third root canal you've performed this week — none of that matters. When they're in your chair, they want to feel like the only patient you have. Create that feeling for them, and watch your practice growth explode.

Fred Joyal is the CEO and cofounder of 1–800–DENTIST and one of the world's leading experts in dental consumer marketing. Joyal speaks regularly about patient loyalty, dentistry as a retail service business, practice marketing, new patient acquisition, and practice branding. His recently published book, “Everything is Marketing: The Ultimate Strategy for Dental Practice Growth,” is available at www.goaskfred.com.

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