The Evolution of the changing dental consumer

Internet-savvy baby boomers and preventive technology mean today's dental patients are different — they know what to ask.

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By Roger Levin, DDS, MBA

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Dentistry has changed in 25 years. New procedures and technology improve oral health with minimal amounts of discomfort and recovery time. Dentists must realize, however, that dental patients have changed during the last 25 years, as well.

Dental advances have reduced need-based restorative dentistry because preventive technology has allowed patients to maintain higher levels of oral health for longer periods of time. Meanwhile, the "information age" has turned baby boomers into savvy consumers — including dental care consumers.

How can dentists keep their practices profitable and provide the best in dental care to an evolving patient base?

Today's consumers are different

Today's dental consumers have more information available to them than ever before. In the age of the Internet, patients have innumerable resources to research dentists, practices, and procedures. For example, patients may go online to any site that carries information about local or state dentists and find whether a practice in their area has received any kind of recommendation or awards — or even the quality of customer service it provides. Patients use that information to decide where they will make appointments. What's more, patients are more likely to come into practices and ask about certain procedures, even if they know little about the procedures. In these situations, practices should use effective management systems and scripting to communicate with patients.

Because of this increase in available information, most dentists realize the days of simply hanging wooden nameplates in front of their offices and waiting for patients to come waltzing in are over. Some patients go to particular dentists because they and their families have gone there for years. When the need for a new dentist arises because of a move, more convenient office hours, or a change in insurance, patients select new practices as they do any significant purchase. Patients shop for things such as the best price, best location, convenience, and the widest array of services. Dentists need to be prepared to address better-informed, discerning patients. Dentists also should emphasize their competitive advantages with patients and train entire staffs to enthusiastically and intelligently discuss services their practices offer, clinical skills, and customer experiences that are critical to satisfying savvy patients' needs.

Managing savvy consumers in your practice

In dealing with educated consumers, a dental team's ability to excel in case presentation becomes more important to the financial success of a dental practice than ever before. Improving case presentation systems to ensure higher levels of case acceptance is one of the fastest ways to increase production and profitability in any practice. At a time when patients are comparing practices based on price points and service received, case presentation affords practices the best opportunity to position themselves as the right place for patients to receive the highest level of service and clinical dentistry.

Three questions patients will ask you

Every time a new patient makes an appointment in your practice, it is critical that he or she receives the highest level of customer service possible. A patient who receives "WOW" customer service is more likely to return to your practice, accept treatment recommendations, and refer friends and family to you. All of these factors can boost practice production and profitability. Systems that train the entire dental team to provide "WOW" customer service to patients during every interaction with the practice must be documented and implemented into the practice.

In addition, the dental team must be trained to use scripting in answering three questions every patient uses to judge whether he or she will accept dental treatment.

Teach your team to answer:

1) What is it?
2) How will it benefit me?
3) How much does it cost?

Patients who get satisfactory answers to all three of these questions will convert into long-term patients. Based on those three questions are some recommendations that, if followed, can assist the dental practice to successfully deal with the savviest dental consumers.

1) What is it?
Answering this question is particularly important when it comes to elective, comprehensive, and cosmetic procedures because — with the exception of whitening — many patients have not been educated about all of the cosmetic dentistry options available to them beyond what they may have researched themselves. Whitening is a little bit different because there are over-the-counter whitening products available, and recently, there has been a tremendous focus on whitening in television and print advertising campaigns.

For all other cosmetic, comprehensive, and elective procedures, a key to case presentation success is educating patients about recommended treatments. Patients may research dental practices and procedures, but few will have the clinical expertise necessary to understand how major procedures are completed. Patients are not doctors and likely will not understand complex clinical terms. Dentists should keep this in mind when scripting treatment presentations. Be clear while educating patients about diagnoses and recommended treatments. For example, instead of describing the clinical reasons for performing a particular portion of a treatment, you should say, "Mrs. Jones, during the main part of the procedure, we will actually repair the broken tooth and make it look like new again. This simple, painless part of the procedure should only take about 15 minutes."

2) How will it benefit me?
This question is most important when it comes to the selective buying patterns of savvy consumers — especially relating to comprehensive dental care.

Now, this may seem odd, because some of you reading this surely think most consumer decisions are based on, "How much does it cost?" But procedure costs are not as critical to patients if their dentists build value for the recommended treatments. Consumers want to get as many benefits as possible out of purchases. Most consumer decisions do not revolve around clinical treatment features, but rather patient benefits from treatments. This is true almost universally in retail, and it is true of your patients, as well. Focus on your patients' benefits for all procedures, and use supporting statements that reinforce how much better patients will look and feel after recommended treatments are performed. For example, when talking to a patient about whitening, say, "Mrs. Jones, after this whitening procedure is complete, you will discover that you not only have a whiter, healthier-looking smile, but you will possess more self-confidence and a better overall feeling about how you look and project yourself toward others."

3) How much does it cost?
Cost is always a concern for consumers, and despite signs of economic recovery, consumers are still wary of paying significant amounts for items or services they do not perceive as critical.

Dentists must talk comfortably about procedure costs during case presentations, rather than shy away from the subject. If you educate and motivate patients, then treatment will make sense for them aesthetically and in terms of oral health, and cost will not be an objection — even to your savviest consumers.

One way to ensure high case acceptance rates is to develop systems that make dental treatment more affordable. Levin Group Method calls for practices to consider offering a 5 percent courtesy for paying in full upfront, accepting credit card payments, dividing payments through the treatment time, or offering services of a patient-financing company that may pre-approve patients for financing before their cases are presented. For example, you should clarify during case presentations what the fees are, but along with that, highlight possible financing options: "Mrs. Jones, the fee for your procedure is $1,400. I'd also like to remind you that if you pay the full fee upfront, you would save 5 percent, meaning the total fee would then only be $1,330 — a savings of $70."

Summary

Patients are part of a generation that is more value-centered and educated in its purchasing decisions than ever before. The new savvy consumers have access to more information than any generation before it. That combination means dental practices must adapt and understand fully what patients are looking for before they enter. Practices can meet this new standard by always providing the highest level of customer service possible combined with meeting patients' needs when it comes to services offered and focusing on patient benefits at affordable prices. Doing this ensures steady patient flow and maximum profitability, and will establish your practice as the leader of your area.

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