How a South African safari got me thinking about dental assistants

DAD editor Kevin Henry learned a lot from his trip to visit dental assistants in South Africa. He shares what he learned from his safari that DAs can apply to their jobs every day.

Nov 21st, 2018
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During our recent trip to South Africa to speak at the South African Dental Association’s annual Congress, my wife and I had the chance to take a little time off and check something off of our bucket list. Shortly after landing in Johannesburg after an all-night flight from London, we hopped on a small plane destined for Kruger National Park.

This is one of the world’s top areas to go on a safari and was an opportunity for us to see so many animals, that we had only seen in a zoo, out and wandering in their natural habitats. We had elephants (16 at one time) drink from our cabin’s watering hole. We followed a leopard as she looked for her cub. We saw giraffes, zebras, rhinos, hyenas, wild dogs, and so many other amazing animals as they live every day. It was wonderful.

The team at Arathusa Lodge was simply incredible. They made our experience during our few relaxing days truly wonderful and made us want to come back in the very near future.

While there, I took note of some of the things that stood out to me about this incredible lodge and how the staff took care of their clients. I thought about how these same tips could be applied to dental practices, and I hope you’ll see the connection as well.

Anticipate questions

Our ranger, Rein, was one of the most knowledgeable people I have ever met. His wealth of knowledge about animals and their habits was fascinating. His explanation of why animals act in a certain way or live in a certain area was amazing and added so much to our trip.

There were eight of us (four couples) in our safari car. We each asked him questions during our four days with him and we never stumped him once. I asked him on the Friday before we left how he could possibly know so much, and he told me something very interesting. He said he not only worked hard to learn as much as he could, but he also remembered questions from previous clients and built his answers on those he had given in the past.

In a way, he knew what we were going to ask because others had asked the questions in those situations before. He was prepared with an answer based on this and the time he had invested in his education. Together, those things made his explanations to us simple, straight-forward, and knowledgeable.

The same can be said in your practice. You’re asked the same questions countless times during the week. How do you answer them in a way that makes your patients believe you’re excited to give them the answer? What are you doing to expand your knowledge so that you can help your customers feel special and know you’re at the top of your game?

Know your customers

The lodge had done its homework on us before we got there. We were asked about Colorado (our home state) by several people shortly after we arrived. Also, I’m allergic to iodine if it’s rubbed on my skin prior to giving blood and I noted that on our pre-arrival questionnaire. Because of this, I was never given anything with salt for dinner (since it was iodized salt). I told my wife I had never even thought they might think my iodine allergy would extend to salt, but the lodge staff took no chances and thought ahead.

Rein also knew each of our names on the safari car before we took off, and he asked us each day what we were expecting from the morning or evening drive. What animals did we hope to see? What did we hope to learn that day? He often changed his own plans to make sure his customers were happy.

What about your practice? What efforts are you going through to make your patients feel special? What are you doing to make each patient feel like he or she is the most important person to walk through your doors that day? Little personalized touches make a huge difference, so make sure you and your practice are incorporating them into your daily routine.

Be proud of what you do

At each meal, the Arathusa chef would come to our table and say, “Today, I’m proud to present my menu for this meal.” He would then explain what choices we had for dinner. You could tell as he talked with us that he had put a lot of thought into the preparation and, for him, sharing this was one of the highlights of his day.

Do your patients get that same feeling from you? Do they sense the pride you have in your work and profession? Do they feel like talking to them is one of the highlights of your day (even if it really isn’t)?

What parts of your day do you take great pride in, and how are you sharing that with your patients? You don’t have to make it all about you, but you can certainly present with pride what you’re doing to make your patients’ oral health the best it can be.

Believe in yourself and your skills

What if the chef or Rein had acted like they were not sure of what they were doing? What if they had said they were “just the chef,” or our animal tracker, Debeer, had said that he was “just the tracker,” and that Rein was more important? I guarantee you we would not have had the same experience if anyone had said any of those things.

You see, when you say you’re “just” something, it means that you don’t believe in your importance. You’re demeaning yourself before someone even has a chance to know more about you and what you do.

Never say you’re “just an assistant.” As I’ve said countless times, you’re the dental assistant. You’re the backbone, heartbeat, and soul of the practice. Be proud of that and be proud of what you do every day to help your patients!

You’ve worked hard to learn your job and get better at it as your career has moved forward. Be proud of the hard work you’ve put into your career. Also, never forget that you’re an advocate for your patients. That is a huge responsibility that should never be taken lightly. Be proud of how you help so many people!

We loved our time in South Africa and would encourage you to put it on your “one of these days I will visit there” lists. But, until you make the journey, put these safari tips into your arsenal and you’ll have a little taste of South Africa with you every day.

ALSO BY KEVIN HENRY
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