What your staff needs to know about marketing your practice

Jan. 1, 1999
Marketing should be like breathing: easy, natural, regular, routine, absolutely necessary, and done every minute of every day without thinking. In some practices, this is the case. Team members work together to educate patients about procedures; provide excellent treatment in a comfortable setting, offer outstanding customer service, and make patients want to tell their family and friends about their great dentist.

David Schwab, PhD

Marketing should be like breathing: easy, natural, regular, routine, absolutely necessary, and done every minute of every day without thinking. In some practices, this is the case. Team members work together to educate patients about procedures; provide excellent treatment in a comfortable setting, offer outstanding customer service, and make patients want to tell their family and friends about their great dentist.

In other practices, however, while the quality of the dentistry may be above reproach, there are many missed marketing opportunities. In these practices, marketing is not like normal breathing. Instead, marketing is intermittent, labored, and sometimes frantic - not unlike the breathing pattern of a someone who is just learning how to swim. Even though inexperienced swimmers may not know how to move through the water while at the same time breathing at regular intervals, breathing remains necessary. In a similar fashion, dental team members need to learn how to provide excellent dentistry and at the same time seamlessly integrate marketing into their daily routine. It is far better for the doctor to train the team in marketing rather than, as it were, to throw them into the deep end of the pool and let them fend for themselves.

To market your practice effectively, your staff needs a specific set of skills that you should teach them. Here is what your staff needs to know:

Your Brand Identity. In the corporate world, branding works because it helps customers associate specific qualities with a name. Starbucks is known for gourmet coffee, Nordstrom`s is known for customer service, and Sony is known for (among other things) excellent consumer electronics. These companies cultivate a specific market niche, and they work hard at communicating that niche to the public.

Your staff needs to know how your practice is different from other dental practices - what makes it unique and what gives it that special something that will attract and retain patients. For example, one practice might sum up its brand identity by using these terms: thorough, caring, and leading edge. The word "thorough" implies that each patient will spend quality time with the doctor. "Caring" suggests an old-fashioned commitment to the patient, regardless of business pressures. The term "leading edge" suggests a progressive practice that keeps abreast of new materials and techniques.

If these messages are driven home at every opportunity - when the new patient calls the office for the first time, in the new patient welcome letter, as part of the scripts used when speaking to patients, and in scores of other ways to reinforce the central message-then the staff will know exactly what the practice`s brand identity is and what words to use to communicate it to patients on a regular basis.

Keep in mind that these terms are used here only as one example. There are countless other examples, each reflecting a different style of practice. These differences in style need to be respected. For instance, the very "thorough" practice may have difficulty running on time, because the trade-off between personal attention and speed is decided in favor of the former. In fact, some practices like to think of themselves as "efficient," which suggests that they really go all out to stay on time and respect the patient`s time by keeping waiting to a minimum. This may be a laudable goal (and a good marketing message), but it may conflict with the notion of being "thorough," because thoroughness, by definition, takes time.

To help choose your brand identity, do a group exercise with your dental team. Write down as many positive adjectives to describe the practice as your team can think of in a 10-minute brainstorming session. Then, go through the list and rate each one on a scale of one to 10. Keep the highest scoring adjectives and discard the rest. Then, continue to rank and prioritize until you have three to five adjectives that you want to use to describe and define the practice. Once this is done, you will have a brand identity, and the staff will have the words they need to communicate your brand to patients and potential patients.

Customer-Service Expectations. The dental team members need to know what is expected of them. This does not mean something vague and platitudinous such as "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." This is certainly good advice in the abstract, but it is much too vague to be useful in a busy dental practice that is trying to move to the next level. It also is not very helpful simply to tell the staff to have "a positive attitude." Give the staff credit for knowing that excellent customer service is important, and give them credit also for at least trying to be nice to the patients. Build on these concepts by telling them exactly what to do and what not to do.

For example, staff members need to know that it is their job to establish an emotional connection with the patient. This does not mean an intense, personal relationship. But it does mean that the patient will come away from an interaction with a team member remembering that he/she had a positive experience with another human being.

When a new patient calls for an appointment, the emotional connection takes the form of warmth, enthusiasm, and true interaction. The person who answers the phone should not just say, "Would you prefer Monday or Tuesday?" or "Would you prefer morning of afternoon?" Instead, the emotional connection starts with a real conversation. "Mrs. Jones, let me be the first to welcome you to Dr. Smile`s practice. He is a very thorough and caring dentist, and he stays current with all the leading-edge materials and techniques. I promise you that all of us on the team will do our very best not only to provide you with excellent dentistry, but to make your visits to our office as comfortable as possible."

In this example, the receptionist has used the patient`s name (an effective technique for building rapport); formally and enthusiastically welcomed the patient to the practice; communicated the practice`s brand identity by using key words such as "thorough," "caring," and "leading edge;" and promised (great word!) the patient not only excellent clinical dentistry, but outstanding customer service as well. Mrs. Jones will certainly be impressed.

Fantastic Attitude. I often tell doctors that an employee with a fantastic attitude has 80 percent of what it takes to be a fantastic employee, while another individual, who has smarts, experience, and poise, but a mediocre or poor attitude, only has 20 percent of the ingredients necessary to be a truly outstanding employee. Your staff needs to know that you place a premium on great attitude. That means showing up for work on time, day after day, calling in sick only when absolutely necessary, being willing to help others whenever the need arises, maintaining a cheery disposition all day long, and making sure that the patient comes first.

A great attitude also means that the "no whining" rule needs to be enforced, because whining is contagious. It insidiously affects employee morale and dampens enthusiasm. In addition, staff members need to know that they are there to serve the patients, not to play a game of one-upsmanship with them. For example, a patient arrives and launches into a long story about the problems she is having with the auto-body shop. It seems that the shop has kept the patient`s car for days with no end in sight, the damage is more extensive than originally estimated, and her car-insurance company is refusing to pay for all the repairs.

At this point, a team member tries to outdo the patient with her own car-repair story. It involves a two-week wait for parts that, it turns out, are no longer even available in this country, a bill so high that she and her husband will need months or years to pay it off, and an insurance company that won`t return her lawyer`s phone calls, so she`s just going to have to sue them. So there!

The problem with this scenario is that the patient did not come to the dental office to hear that someone has a more compelling car repair story than she does. She came to the office for dental care. In the course of the conversation, she related her woeful tale to the receptionist. The correct response on the part of the receptionist is to say something like, "I really sympathize. It sounds like such an ordeal. I`ve had some dealings with body shops, so I can certainly understand your frustration. The good news is that here in our office, we`ll do everything we can to make sure your visit goes smoothly. The doctor will be with you in just a few minutes."

This alternative scenario is appropriate because the staff member keeps in mind that she is part of the show. She is there to play the part of the caring receptionist whose job is to put patients at ease. This is a different role than sitting around at home with a group of friends and commiserating about bad experiences with body shops.

If the dental team can remember this distinction between the work persona and the at-home, laid back, "please-comfort-me-while-I-tell-you-my-problems" attitude, then work truly becomes a place where service flows from the staff to the patients.

Seizing Opportunities. There are many opportunities to get the word out to patients about various procedures or, simply, the fact that the practice is accepting new patients. The staff needs to know that it is part of the job to find opportunities to market the practice. When, for example, a new patient calls for an appointment, staff always should try to find out how many people live in that household and whether or not all of them will become patients. At the end of the conversation, the staff member should say, "Mrs. Jones, we`re really looking forward to meeting you at 2 p.m. on Thursday. And, by the way, what other members of your family would you like to make an appointment for at this time?"

This is a great way to close a conversation, and it inevitably leads to more new patients.

In addition, staff always should be listening for other patients` comments that can open the door to more business. For instance, a patient tells the hygienist that she really knows how important it is to brush and floss daily, because she does not want to end up like her mother who lost all her teeth at an early age and has worn dentures for years. The hygienist should ask that patient if her mother has a dentist and how long it has been since her mother`s last dental examination. The hygienist should also mention (if true in this practice) that the doctor checks the fit of old dentures, relines dentures when necessary to make them fit more snugly, makes patients new dentures when appropriate, and also offers dental implants as a treatment option. That patient also needs to leave the office with some information - which can be imparted verbally as well as through a brochure - regarding bone atrophy caused by wearing dentures over a period of years and the benefits of dental implants.

If this information is not imparted to the patient, then this conscientious patient - who follows a daily regimen of brushing and flossing and faithfully visits the dental office for hygiene appointments - may not know that her denture-wearing mother also should be seen and that the practice can offer her mother a range of options that may enhance the quality of her life.

Practice Ambassadors. Staff also should be told that they are expected to be personal ambassadors for the practice in their daily lives. Referrals to the practice from staff should not be some relatively rare occurrence, but a steady source of new patients that the practice can count on. In order to be practice ambassadors, staff need to take great pride in the practice. Each team member needs to view his or her position not just as a job, but as a calling. Staff should have so much pride and enthusiasm that they cannot wait to tell others about the quality of dentistry and personal attention available in their dental office.

For this reason, each staff member should have his or her own business cards, and they should be used regularly. (This is preferable to the system used by some practices, where business cards are locked in the supply room, and a perfect year is considered to be one in which not a single card escapes from the office.)

The staff should make sure that all of their friends and family know what they do for a living, where they work, the doctor`s name, and that the practice is accepting new patients. They should encourage their family to stop by and meet the doctor informally. They should offer the doctor`s services as a speaker for community organizations to which staff belong. They should (with the doctor`s concurrence) suggest that the dental office be used after hours as a meeting place for community organizations.

In short, they should strive to find creative ways to promote the practice and get the word out to their family and friends.

When a new staff member joins a practice, the doctor should prepare announcements that can be sent to the new team member`s circle of family, friends, and acquaintances.

The announcement should say something like, "Dr. Joseph H. Smile is pleased to announce that Debbie Helpful has joined his dental team." The announcement should continue with some biographical information about Debbie and conclude with some facts about the dental practice. Debbie should provide a list of individuals to whom the announcements can be mailed (the more the better), and she may want to enclose a short note with some of them. The note may include wording such as: "Lisa, Thought you would like to know what I`m up to."

By imparting this information to your staff, you will give them the information they need to market your practice effectively. You also will teach them that marketing is like breathing-just a natural, everyday occurrence that is easy to do. This type of systematic training is far better than letting staff either "sink or swim" when it comes to marketing.

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