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Communication skills of top-producing practices

Feb. 1, 2019
A happy dental team will lead to a productive office. But how do you achieve this happy group that many dentists find to be elusive? Here are five ideas that will guide your practice toward a happy and more successful team.

During my 40-plus years in dentistry, I’ve asked hundreds of dentists about their “one big wish” for their practices. Almost all of them tell me they’d wish for a dental team characterized by at least three of these traits:

• Enthusiasm

• Genuine happiness

• Joy in coming to work

• Reliability

• Job satisfaction

• Self-motivation and productiveness

• Willingness to help grow the practice

• Ability to share in the common purpose

There are several mindsets that need to be in place before the dental team can develop into a viable and fully-functioning group. One of the most important is mutual respect between the dentist and team in five areas. These are communicating expectations to the team, valuing contributions, rewarding initiative, fostering personal strengths of individual team members, and handling mistakes properly.

I will discuss each of these and provide suggestions for what has worked not only in my practice, but in others who have practiced the same techniques.

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Communicating expectations to the team

Dentists must recognize their communicator role as equal parts mentor, motivator, and monitor for their teams. A dental practice will grow only if team members believe that they are an integral part of the office success and feel respected and valued for their contributions. As mentors, dentists must clearly communicate a specific direction and determined focus. All practices should abide by a well-thought-out purpose, called the mission statement. This should be a written document and agreed upon by the team. The mission statement will bring synergy and harmony to the office because everyone will be working together for a common cause.

As motivators, dentists must discuss realistic and measurable goals for practice improvement with their staff at least once each quarter. When dentists do not establish and communicate goals regularly, how can the team make progress? It’s similar to driving a car without knowing the destination.

Each staff member should have a monthly check-in with the dentist so that they receive feedback on their efforts. This role of monitor allows the team to remain on track and respond to any miscommunication early in the process. When issues and misunderstandings are addressed early, things are less likely to escalate.

Valuing contributions

A dental practice grows only if team members feel that they are respected and valued for their contributions. Think back to the last time that the office discussed plans for the future with team members. Was it presented as a lecture or a structured conversation? Was the staff asked for their suggestions and ideas to accomplish the goals? Did the team appear confused or surprised? Were they aware of the deadlines for implementation?

Team members appreciate the fact that dentists seek out suggestions that make their jobs more pleasant and productive. They should feel comfortable when discussing their thoughts about the dentist’s strengths and personality as it relates to the practice’s mission. A dental office without a communicated vision merely adheres to a daily routine. Without a shared vision, everyone will lose interest in the excitement that comes from improving peoples’ lives. Instead, they will view their duties as “just a job.”

Too many dental offices skip the morning huddle. By taking the time to review the objectives of the day and focus on the details, the proper foundation for daily decisions is set. Team members will consider whether their actions contribute to the purpose of the practice or not when this procedure is in place. When team members understand the vision of the practice and know that their opinions count, they will own part of it. Their perception of ownership in the practice will allow them to make sound decisions and take appropriate actions. The best outcome is that negativity disappears.

Rewarding initiative

There are two components to staff rewards. One is noticing when someone takes appropriate action without being told, and the other is someone’s loyalty to the goals of the practice. A good example of appropriate action occurred when my team faced a leaking roof at the office while I was out of the country. By the time I returned, the team had become “owners” of the problem. They made swift decisions. The office manager orchestrated all the repairs and insurance claims with little input. They also remembered the importance of patient care. The office was almost back to fully functional upon my return.

Rewarding staff loyalty to the goals of the practice is the second component. As a group, team members should discuss the weekly results against the set targets. They should also discuss the adjustments. There is no room in this discussion for assigning blame for underperformance. The time is used to find solutions. When staff members carry out these solutions, they are accountable and in charge. They’re challenged to keep operational checks and balances in place. This makes the dentist free to assume his or her primary responsibility of patient care.

In my experience, I’ve found that most people like responsibility when given guidelines, and they flourish when they’re rewarded and sincerely appreciated for taking the initiative. Giving movie tickets, birthday lunches, and Valentine’s Day flowers often add some impact to a heartfelt thank you.

As an act of appreciation, staff who have been loyal to a dental practice for more than five years should receive gifts on their work anniversaries. Sometimes they just need assistance for specific issues—as long as the focus is on their needs and not their wants,.Here are some examples of showing appreciation to the staff:

• Paying for car repairs when a loyal assistant does not have enough money to do so.

• Giving an office team appropriate bonuses or rewards for closely following up on details of an extensive case.

• Giving a team member who is a single mother the money for a nice dress for her daughter’s wedding.

• Helping team members in tight situations, either by giving them an interest-free loan or by extending them credit.

There are hundreds of ideas to reward and appreciate your team on a regular basis!

Fostering personal strengths of individual team members

Team members’ behavior reflects the general tone of the office. They communicate by their actions as well as their words. During the interview process, our practice uses a 40-minute computerized test to evaluate the strengths of potential new hires as they relate to the job opening. I believe that team members should serve in positions that best suit their strengths, usually indicated by the type of work they like to do. I do not focus on a candidate’s weaknesses, because we all have them. Strengths are the backbone for building a practice.

I believe that when people are hired to perform tasks in which they have a strength, they’re more productive and less inclined to make mistakes or complain. They also exude a cheerful disposition, which makes it possible to deliver consistent customer service. However, the reverse is also true. Five years ago, I hired a team member to work with finances and process insurance claims. This person did not perform to my satisfaction, although she seemed very dedicated and pleasant. An open and frank discussion revealed that she was interested in a position without data processing and continual follow-up, so I transferred her to a different position, where she now does a superb job. If I had fired her based on her first performance, I would have demoralized her and lost a valuable team member as well.

Handling mistakes properly

I’ve seen many people inappropriately handle someone who has made a mistake. By far the best way to stifle initiative is to use a judgmental attitude or verbal punishment for mistakes. It is wiser to assume that an error occurred because someone misunderstood, or the person took a chance and failed. Rather than find fault, work toward solutions. Replace accusatory or judgmental statements with “I would like you to” statements. Be sure to encourage questions. The sooner this occurs, the better.

Final counsel

Dentists who harness the power of effective communication can express their vision of a cohesive family unit with team members, which results in more progress toward a top-producing practice. An added benefit is staff retention. Our team members have been with us from eight to 22 years! The dental team should be considered the practice’s most important asset. Take the time to listen, understand, and communicate effectively, and watch this transform your practice.

About the Author

Anil K. Agarwal, DDS, MS, DICOI, FACO, FAGD

Anil K. Agarwal, DDS, MS, DICOI, FACO, FAGD, is a board-certified prosthodontist who did his prosthodontic residency and master’s in oral biology at Northwestern University. He served there as associate professor and director of clinics for 21 years. He also earned three fellowships and a diplomate status in his profession. He maintains a successful multimillion-dollar practice in the Chicago area, and has authored three books, including one on dental practice management. Contact Dr. Agarwal at [email protected].

Updated February 20, 2019

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