Sell that Smile!

I told my dentist my teeth are going yellow. He told me to wear a brown tie.  — Rodney Dangerfield

By Janet Hagerman, RDH, BS

“I told my dentist my teeth are going yellow. He told me to wear a brown tie.”Rodney Dangerfield

Have you ever failed to recognize a patient’s emotional or social need, or turned a deaf ear to their seemingly trivial cosmetic concern? In an effort to focus on being clinically correct, do you sometimes overlook your patients’ emotional and esthetic concerns as superficial (think of the 60-year-old patient)?

While your response may not be as dramatically insensitive as Rodney’s dentist, you may have inadvertently ignored many patients who do want whiter teeth. Case in point: What percentage of all your current patients has received whitening products or services from you? If you’re like most offices, this number is far below 25%. Why is that?

It’s no secret that a person’s smile is typically the first thing that gets noticed. Those of us in the dental industry are keenly aware of this, and studies show that this is true even of people outside the dental field. A great smile can light up a face. Conversely, a smile of crooked or discolored teeth can be so distracting as to take attention away from any message or communication that person is trying to convey. So why doesn’t everybody have a great smile?

Madison Avenue “knows” that everybody wants and deserves a great-looking smile. Over-the-counter whitening products abound. And why shouldn’t they? They are filling a marketing need and would not be on the shelves if they were not selling. If we, in the dental industry, can take off our “clinician’s hat” for one moment, we can learn from Madison Avenue marketing.

Whitening has been called the window to cosmetic dentistry. Once your patients begin to care about their smiles, they typically become more open to many other dental services you offer. But you must lay the groundwork carefully. By carefully, I mean not just thoughtfully, but with the utmost care in mind for your patients.

Selling dentistry has gotten a bad rap. Is SELL really a four-letter word? Too often it is associated with negative connotations and an assumed lack of clinical care. But nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is, as a clinician, you and your team MUST learn to sell your services and products or you will not be successful. Here’s why. If you don’t, someone else will! Not only are our patients being educated — and sold — by mainstream advertising and the Internet, they are being informed by friends, family, and other dental offices.

Two cases in point

1. I was working as a temp for my friend, who happens to be a wonderful dentist. One patient had recently gotten beautiful veneers, which surprised me because I couldn’t find any reference to this in her chart. She informed me that she’d had the procedure done in Florida. Her sister had gotten cosmetic work done by her dentist and was proudly displaying her beautiful new smile. My patient, mistakenly assuming that Dr. Wonderful didn’t do these procedures (because no one had ever told her!), had her smile redesigned by her sister’s dentist. My patient had never been told about the cosmetic procedures that were available to her from her own dentist, so she went elsewhere.

2. Another great dentist-friend of mine told me that he used to not offer implant options to patients who were just too old to make that kind of investment. (This example could easily apply to whitening cases.) How old is too old? Dr. Great almost lost a patient due to this implant philosophy. Dr. Great was reluctant to place implants on a 91-year-old patient until the patient insisted, saying if Dr. Great didn’t do it, he’d find someone else who would. The case was successful! I learned this story while discussing implant options for my own 86-year-old mother, who, by the way, also got her teeth whitened!

Both of these cases involve selling, or the lack of selling, dentistry, and these cases could easily have involved whitening. Are you losing whitening opportunities to the local mall kiosk or another dentist?

Some call this selling. I call it giving your patients enough information to make a well-informed decision. Then let the patients make their decisions, not you! The challenge is to sell whitening, or any dentistry, in an elegant manner that creates value for your patients, without feeling like you are selling. None of us likes to “be sold,” but we all like to buy! Great selling feels effortless and helpful.

Here are some strategies for success:

• Believe in your product. Don’t buy cheap products to entice new patients with free whitening, thinking you will up-sell them on more services and your office. You will lose credibility and the patient. Use quality products that work!

• Personally try all you sell. Every member of your team should have sparkling white teeth with the product you sell/recommend.

• Use your new-patient form. The form should have a question that asks, “Would you like whiter teeth?” Upon patient review, ask your patients about this. Have they tried whitening before? Was it an over-the-counter product? Were they satisfied with the results? What results do they want? Use this question on your new-patient form to explore patient concerns, questions, and answers.

• A separate smile assessment form can be a great tool to gauge how your patients value their present smile situation. You can create your own or, better yet, find an existing template to suit your practice.

• Discover your patients’ values and hot buttons. Once again, use the new-patient form or smile assessment form, which should give you a plethora of information to discover what is important to each particular patient. You can then use this to relate to their dental and cosmetic concerns.

• Prepare the foundation for quicker case acceptance with the treatment triad. During the exam process, particularly the initial exam, prioritize treatment into these three categories: urgent, preventive, and cosmetic. As you examine a patient’s mouth, dictate your findings aloud to your assistant to document with the following preface: “Mrs. Jones, as I examine your mouth today, I will look for three things: urgent treatment that must be completed ASAP to keep you out of pain, preventive treatment that should be done but could be completed over time to meet your budget, and cosmetic treatment that is not necessary but fun to consider.” This way your patients feel enlightened and educated, rather than overwhelmed, as they are introduced to cosmetic dentistry (whitening) along with needed restorative dentistry. I’ve had dental teams tell me that this simple treatment triad presentation method has doubled and tripled their treatment enrollment!

• Jump-start your whitening sales skills with the shade guide exam. This is done on the initial evaluation and every subsequent periodic exam. The hygienist or assistant can do this. Let each patient hold the shade guide, not you. This is critical to gain a patient’s attention and interaction. Ask the patient to match the shade to his or her cuspid and tell you the corresponding shade number, which you will document in their chart. The conversation should sound like this: “As time goes by, our teeth tend to change color. We want to document that change.” Please use the phrase “as time goes by” and NOT “as we get older”! This simple step, the shade guide exam, opens up opportunities for questions and answers, and paves the way for patient interest in whitening.

• Stop! Look! Listen! … to your patient. Is your patient well groomed, paying attention to his or her appearance (for example, does a woman have manicured nails)? What are the patient’s hobbies, business/job, and special life events (weddings/divorce)? How do these things change over time? This will give you even more clues to discover your patient’s values, which you can then use to relate to his or her dental and cosmetic concerns.

As a dental health-care provider, it’s your job to ask about and understand your patients’ wants and desires about their smiles. What is the whitening trend in your office? Are your whitening services gaining in popularity and sales? Or is your whitening percentage the typical 25% or less? If so, why are you not serving your patients’ wants? Why are they getting their whitening needs met at the closest kiosk? Maybe it’s time to revisit your approach to whitening in your office.

Use these tools to become a master seller of whitening and dentistry, in an elegant manner that creates value for your patients. Implementing these “selling” strategies will bump you up out of that 25% category, and make you feel great about the whitening services you and your team can offer patients.

Janet Hagerman, RDH, BS, is an author, international speaker, and consultant. A graduate of the Medical College of Georgia, she has practiced clinical dental hygiene for more than 20 years, and helped hundreds of dental offices in her roles as coach, consultant, and clinical director. Contact Janet at (678) 371-8234 or

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