It’s all about service

We’ve heard it, read it, and repeated it: Our profession depends on elective as opposed to medically necessary procedures.

We’ve heard it, read it, and repeated it: Our profession depends on elective as opposed to medically necessary procedures. It isn’t always clear how dental professionals should respond to this trend. The most obvious option is to refine the way we present procedures to our patients. We can, for example, incorporate images into our case presentations to increase acceptance rates. One recent study suggests that doing so might double the rate of case acceptance. But is it enough to make incremental changes to existing office processes? For our practice, the answer is no. Instead, we changed the way we do business - with dramatic results. Our practice is growing by 130 new patients a month.

The spa treatment

Because dentistry was, historically, a profession dedicated to medically necessary procedures, we can’t look within the profession to understand the phenomenon of discretionary spending. Instead, it’s helpful to look at businesses that rely exclusively on discretionary dollars. And, because dental procedures are expensive, it’s useful to focus on businesses that sell high-ticket products or services that cater to a demographic willing to buy non-necessities that might cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.

By studying discretionary spending, we learn those business models offer personalized customer service. Consider, for example, high-end department stores. People who shop at these pricey stores expect two things. First, they expect quality products. But quality products aren’t enough. These retailers also give their customers individualized, hands-on, customer service experiences.

Their customers evaluate intangible and tangible aspects of their buying experience. There’s a reason restaurants invest money in their décor. Dining out is a discretionary activity. Diners select restaurants on esthetics, atmosphere, and food quality.

When we created a new vision for our practice in the late 1990s, we asked ourselves how we could structure our practice to give patients a luxury, spa-type experience.

A new look

Our first step was to completely renovate our building. We hired an interior designer and described our new vision. We wanted more than a “nice” office; we wanted our building to feel like a luxury hotel or spa.

The new design has a Mediterranean look. We deliberately avoided ultra-modern and chose something warm, comfortable, and classy. The design incorporates dark, warm colors with a lot of wood and tile.

We didn’t stop with the inside of the office. When the building was erected in 1982, it looked like a residence with a brick exterior and traditional, colonial-style touches. As we planned the interior renovation, the exterior no longer fit with the style of the interior, so we replaced the exterior’s brick with stucco.

We created a consultation room and an alcove designated as a new patient area. Upon completing the renovation, our designer included photographs of our new office in her portfolio. Often, her prospective clients were perplexed by what we’d done. “Why would anyone want to do this in central Florida?” they asked. The question should have been, “Why should our patients - people who are our neighbors and friends - have to go to Miami, Los Angeles, or New York to find a dentist’s office that looks like this?”

When less isn¿t more

Renovating our office was a start, but we knew we needed to do more. When dental professionals look for ways to increase profitability, they often look for ways to reduce labor costs. After all, salaries and employee benefits constitute a significant percentage of a practice’s overhead. Cutting staff is, therefore, a logical way to boost net revenues.

But our vision is to offer personalized, hands-on service. Instead of trying to run our practice with fewer people, we created a concierge position.

Terry Hawk, who we hired to fill this position, had no background in dentistry. She was a restaurant server when we found her. Prior to that, she worked at a Mercedes Benz dealership in a role similar to that of her concierge role.

Hawk takes all our new patient calls. During each first visit, she greets the patient and gives him or her a tour. She offers coffee, water, and cookies, and introduces the patient to our staff. She also completes new patient paperwork. We never hand patients forms to fill out themselves; after all, who likes to fill out forms? Instead, Hawk escorts each patient to the new patient area where they sit together. Hawk keys in the patient information herself at a computer workstation.

Our new patients typically fall into one of three categories. Some come to us for a full check-up. Some schedule a cleaning (often as an opportunity to evaluate our practice). The third category comprises patients who have dental emergencies. Depending on a patient’s category, Hawk escorts him or her to an appropriate operatory.

Our concierge takes patients where they need to go; we never ask patients to find destinations by themselves. This is another element we’ve borrowed from the luxury hotel business. Ask where the restroom is at a high-end hotel, and staff members don’t point and give you directions - they come out from behind the desk and walk you to the restroom. We follow the same model. Our staff members personally hand off our patients to other staff members.

We call patients who are scheduled for longer procedures Very Important Patients. Hawk makes sure VIPs are comfortable and happy. Amenities she offers include pillows, blankets, movies, and music. She also arranges hand waxes and in-chair massages. At the end of each appointment, Hawk checks the patient out.

Technology for that special touch

The final element of our practice’s business model is technology. We were an early adaptor of computerized dentistry, having installed our first computers in 1982. As of January 2005, we became completely paperless. Our network includes 28 workstations. No matter where our staff is within the office, they never are more than a few steps away from a computer. For radiographs, we use Kodak RVG 6000 Digital Radiography Systems and a Kodak 8000 Digital Panoramic System. Our photography also is digital. We use two Kodak dental digital cameras and a Canon SLR digital camera.

From a patient-services perspective, the key technology component is our Kodak SoftDent Practice Management Software. All of our digital radiography, video, and photography images are automatically integrated into our patient records. The software also manages our scheduling and back-office tasks.

Equally important, our practice-management software acts as quarterback for our dental team. It ensures that everyone executes smoothly and professionally. For instance, information our concierge tracks to personalize her interactions with patients is recorded in the patients’ software records. If a patient prefers classical music to pop, it’s in the patient record. If a patient is particularly sensitive to pain, it’s in the patient record. Hawk calls up patients’ records before she greets them, and she has everything she needs to deliver personalized service.

Another example of how we use practice-management software to maintain a high level of service is in our intra-office staff communications. Suppose, for instance, the office is going to be closed for a holiday. Every time we access a patient appointment, the software displays a notice reminding the staff to tell patients about the closure. Our patients feel cared for because we ensure they always know how to reach us.

The software also lets us accommodate off-hour emergencies with the same personalization that characterizes our regular appointments. Through a virtual private network, or VPN, our practice doctors can access patient records remotely. This lets us assist patients through services such as writing prescriptions when our office is closed.

Our practice-management software also allows us to create sophisticated case presentations. A good example is when a new patient schedules a full exam. When the exam is complete, Hawk escorts the patient to our consultation room. We display and discuss the patient’s X-rays and photographs. A video display lets us review intraoral camera clips. The patient can ask informed questions and express treatment concerns and preferences. Because the presentation uses images, it helps each patient visualize our diagnosis and treatment plan so he or she is more likely to understand and accept treatment.

In addition, we present each patient with a bound book copy of his or her entire exam record generated by our practice-management software. Each book’s cover features a photograph of the patient. Patients love the books, and they’re a reliable source of new patient referrals, as our existing patients share them with family and friends.

More than just care

When we finished renovating our facility in 2000, it was 4,500 square feet. We recently added another 1,000 square feet for two reasons. First, we added a bleaching room that features a self-massaging chair. Second, we added a fourth dentist to our practice. The new dentist will focus on emergencies, which will free us to spend more time on larger cases.

As our experience shows, innovative thinking can be financial strength, which gives practitioners more freedom in structuring their time and focus.

Richard W. Steinberg, DDS, founded North River Dental in Ellenton, Fla., in 1982. A graduate of Emory University School of Dentistry, he is a member of the ADA, FDA, WCDA, MCDA, AACD, FACD, and ACD.

Daniel C. Delrose, DDS, joined North River Dental in 1997. The graduate of Case Western Reserve College of Dentistry is a member of the ADA, FDA, WCDA, MCDA, AACD, FACD, and ACD. Reach both doctors at (941) 722-0502, or e-mail nrd@northriverdental.com.

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