Getting staff and patients to like you

Feb. 1, 1999
Bonding with both team members and dental patients by connecting with each human being who crosses your path is the surest way to loyalty.

Bonding with both team members and dental patients by connecting with each human being who crosses your path is the surest way to loyalty.

Howard Farran, DDS, FAGD

Paying your team members fairly and doing quality dentistry on your patients are admirable traits, but are they enough? If all dentists were the same - courteous, decent doctors providing staff with competitive benefits and patients with good dentistry - it would be enough. But this is not the case. Some do better than that.

Do you think your team members have to keep working for you? Don`t they have the freedom to work for any number of practices in the region? Look around; it`s the turn of the millennium. I see between three and six "help wanted" signs every day in my community. The job market is great for employees, but tight for employers. Staff members are looking for more than a paycheck simply because they can.

Meanwhile, patients enjoy "free agency" too. The newspapers regularly run ads by dental practices, sometimes with special offers to attract your patients. What makes you feel confident that they will be loyal to you instead of trying out a new dentist with a special offer? The opportunities to change dentists abound for patients, but it`s tougher for dentists to attract and retain patients. Patients are looking for more than just any prophy and drill. Why? Because they can.

Let`s talk about going the extra mile above and beyond being an "average dentist." An average dentist is just the best of the worst or the worst of the best! Let`s look at what you can do to make your staff and your patients genuinely like you. This bond, over time, is what makes staff and patients loyal. How can you make them so satisfied, they don`t bother to consider looking elsewhere?

Building staff loyalty

The most important element of a dental practice`s success is a quality team. What is the definition of a quality team member? It`s someone who meets his or her requirements cheerfully and consistently, and even goes above and beyond what is required when time allows. It`s someone who chats easily with patients and makes them laugh while putting them at ease. It`s someone who is so good at answering patients` questions and educating them on dental health and the benefits of services that they`ve practically have the patient "sold" before the dentist even walks in the operatory. A quality team member is someone patients get to know so well that they come in the office to show off a new baby or new puppy. Maybe this hygienist makes a copy of her recipe for taco dip for a patient`s upcoming party and mails it. It`s reciprocal friendliness.

Quality team members are priceless to a practice because they build patient loyalty. Dentists have the least patient interaction; team members have the most. Dentists need to do everything possible to hire and retain quality team members, while letting go of the "average" staff members and the bad apples.

Beyond offering staff members the standard benefits package and salary that`s competitive, what else can a dentist do to build staff loyalty? Here`s what I`ve done, which has worked so far ( I have almost no turnover):

- Don`t work around your staff while you are in a grouchy or "silent" mood. Staff members shouldn`t have to suffer for your inability to take charge of your attitude.

- Become more outgoing with staff. Be up on current events, but avoid talking politics, religion, or morals.

- Have daily, one-on-one, private conversations with each staff member for two or three minutes. Sneak the staff member out the back door, or take her aside for a few minutes in the hallway - anywhere you can be out of earshot from other staff and patients. Make small talk: "What`s going on?" "Is your mom recovering OK from the surgery?" "How`s your day going?" "I can`t believe how crabby Mrs. Birch was this morning. Way to handle her, Jan! You even had her laughing by the time she left. What`s your secret?"

- Once a month, take each staff member out to lunch at a nearby fast-food restaurant. It`s not the cost of the meal that will impress them. It`s the fact that you are taking a billable hour of your time to eat with them. During this lunch, ask a few leading questions and let your "guest" do the talking.

Many times - especially at a first or second lunch with team members - they will not allow themselves to share anything personal with you. They may not want to talk to you about their families or their personal life. That is the dentist`s opportunity to subtly learn how they feel about the physical features of their environment - the office activities, the methods used, their co-workers, etc. Pursue things gently at first. If they shy away from answers, talk about golf, tennis, flower gardens, the weather - whatever they feel reasonably comfortable talking about. Do that knowing that there always will be another chance for a more personalized conversation later on.

Some employees will unload personal information on you as if lunch is their confessional hour. If this happens, allow them to get some of it off their mind, but gradually, with tactful questions at opportune moments, transfer the conversation back to subjects pertaining to your practice.

Building patient loyalty

Quality team members seem to have an innate ability to bond with patients. Is there something a dentist can do to make patients like him or her, too?

Just because dentists interact with patients less than team members do, it doesn`t mean that dentists are "off the hook." If anything, the pressure is on during those five- to 30-minutes (on average), because the build-up is intense. Patients have expectations that you are going to be this warm, intelligent, gentle, fun doctor who also seems trustworthy. Now, if you come in wearing gloves, goggles, and mask, and go right to their mouth after a brief greeting, they will have no bond with you whatsoever. Dentists must use every opportunity to make patients like them when they are not explaining a diagnosis, promoting a treatment plan, or educating them on materials and methods.

What else can a dentist do to build patient loyalty? Here`s what I`ve done (I have very low attrition):

- Greet patients without wearing goggles, mask, or gloves. Introduce yourself, shake their hand, sit on a stool next to the operatory chair, and ask them questions about themselves. For five minutes before doing anything, you might have a simple cocktail-party-like conversation with the new patient. "How long have you lived here? Isn`t this a great area?" For any patient, tell a funny story about how your day started, etc. to break the ice for five minutes. Then, while talking to the patient about why he or she is there, put on gloves, etc.

- While treating patients, offer headphones and a remote control for TV/VCR. If a patient doesn`t want to listen to music or watch movies or cable, try not to ask questions during treatment when the patient cannot answer. Instead, relate funny stories about how bad you are at dancing, cooking, singing, etc. or have interesting conversations with the hygienist or assistant so the patient can witness your fun-loving, talkative personality. While you are shooting the breeze with the staff member, the staff member is bonding with you and the patient at the same time.

- After treatment, take off your gloves, mask, and goggles and sit on the stool next to the patient. Explain what you did, what the patient should expect, and that he or she can call you anytime if there is a problem. Be sure to ask if the patient has any questions. Close with a comment about something you spoke with the patient about earlier. For example, "Since you`re a film buff, be sure to check out `Pleasantville`; it`s really an interesting movie. Let me know what you think," or "I`ll be sure to try the blue corn tostadas at Rosita`s. Thanks for the tip. You`ll have to be my food critic from now on. Maybe I`ll take the wife and kids tonight!" (Make a note in the patient`s chart to comment on your visit to the patient`s favorite restaurant when you see him or her next.)

Patients should be given your home phone number when they leave the office, so they don`t feel stranded if they have a problem. To cement goodwill, phone every patient that night who received more than a cleaning that day to ask how they are doing and answer any questions they might have. Patients are shocked and touched when I do this. It makes me wonder if their own mother remembered to check on them!

Staff members need to receive more back from the workplace than just collecting a paycheck. Patients need more than adequate dental care at reasonable fees. Bonding with both team members and dental patients by connecting with each human being who crosses your path is the surest way to loyalty.

From time to time, I`ll kid my staff members. Here`s a recent exchange with my hygienist: "You`re just going to leave me one day and go work for that other guy, Dr. Perfect, down the street, aren`t you?" My hygienist`s reply: "Naw. How could I leave you Dr. Farran? Who would I tell my bald guy jokes to?"

I said to a patient: "Tom, is there anything a humble dentist like me can do to make sure you have a great experience today?" The patient countered: "Dr. Farran, just let me put the ballgame on, give me a little nitrous before you give me that shot and do that filling, then tell me some of your bad jokes, and I may even pay you for it!"

They like me. I feel pretty lucky. Maybe all it took was showing them I liked them first!

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