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Do you know why your dental patients are sailing away?

Oct. 9, 2019
There's a reason your patients are bailing on you. And there's a good chance you can't figure out why they're leaving. Here's what patients have to say.
Laura Nelson, BS, MS, FAADOM, Founder of Front Office Rocks

Can you guess what patients complain about as a dental practice grows? They will tell you that when they started coming to the practice, it felt like family—welcoming and personal. But as the practice grew, they started to feel like they were simply a number.

This happens a lot in growing businesses. Initially, staff members have time to spend one-on-one with clients, and that individual attention becomes one of the defining elements of their service. As the business grows, the focus inevitably shifts to the numbers, and the focus on patients decreases. Naturally, no business owner can provide the same client focus when the quantity of clients significantly increases. There is a delicate balance that a practice has to find between treating patients with care and concern and making sure that the business is being run effectively for long-term growth, without losing patients along the way.

Let’s start by talking about why quality of care and quantity of patients are both important. Without question, patient care and customer service are key and should be the focus of every dental office. Obviously, practices need to put patients first and offer them amazing care, because that’s how they’ll help people receive their dental care and keep their teeth for life, which is the reason the service exists in the first place.

It’s also important to keep in mind the other side of the equation: without patients, dental professionals don’t have jobs. Patients are the reason practices exist, and if patients go away, dental offices go away. Therefore, every office should do everything possible to meet patient expectations and exceed them whenever possible.

On the other hand, a dental office is a business and needs to be run as such. A business must monitor numbers, set goals, manage the team in relation to those numbers, and make changes to grow the business. As you know, the main numbers in a dental office are production, collections, new patients, and overhead. However, I’ve heard team members complain that the only thing their doctors or office managers care about are the numbers. I’ve witnessed this myself when an office becomes so focused on the numbers that they lose focus on patients. Managing the numbers is smart and necessary because these determine how viable the business is and whether it can reach its goals, which means jobs. However, it is important to recognize what those numbers represent—how many people the practice is helping and its capacity to do so in a profitable way.

Make it smooth sailing

I’m going to use a sailing analogy to help you visualize the importance of balancing numbers and customer service. Disclaimer: I don’t actually have much sailing experience. However, I have been on a sailboat and watched how others do the work. I even helped out a little, although at the time I had no idea what I was doing, and I was eventually encouraged by the experts to sit back and enjoy the ride. If any of you are sailors, I hope you will forgive any inaccuracies in my analogy.

Here is what I noticed as a passenger on a sailboat. When the boat started to lean or turn too much one way, the crew went to the other side of the boat to put weight onto the high side, and turned the sails so the boat would turn and straighten out. Then, when the boat started to go too far in the other direction, they switched sides and got it back on track again. (If you haven’t been on a sailboat and can’t visualize what I’m referring to, get on YouTube and watch sailing videos. It will help you follow along with this analogy.)

This effort of switching sides to adjust course is what I feel we in dental offices need to do to make sure our dental “sailboat” stays on course and reaches its destination (goal). One side of the boat represents patient care and the other side business care. When the boat tips too far toward patient care and doesn’t have an equal balance focusing on the business, it’s the leader’s job and the team’s goal to move to the other side of the boat and turn the sails.

Why do we need balance? Well, in a sailboat, if the crew does not work to straighten the boat, it will eventually tip over on its side and no longer be able to sail. If the dental office puts too much emphasis on one side of the line without eventual course correction, a similar thing will happen.

If the office focuses only on patient care without equal attention to running the business smoothly, they will eventually “tip over” by not making enough money or by not growing. An office that is too focused on patients and not watching the business has problems like these.

• The office doesn’t follow through with collecting money from patients
• The office does too much dentistry for free or at extreme discounts.
• The office doesn’t consistently get enough new patients to grow.
• The leader or office manager focuses on the day-to-day aspects of the dentistry without a big-picture view of whether those day-to-day operations are actually profitable.

Now, if the office tips too much to the other side and focuses primarily on numbers and not enough on patients, this is not a sustainable course, either. This often happens when an investor group or corporation buys a dental office and runs it by the numbers and percentages. They don’t have a true connection to the patients, and therefore patient care suffers. Though the business might be running appropriately in the quantitative sense, most patients will end up leaving, giving bad reviews, warning friends and family away from the practice, and so on.

Therefore, everyone on the team needs to help steer the sailboat by paying attention to balance and working together to adjust course when necessary. Finding a long-term balance between patient care and business care is the key to keeping your dental practice afloat, reaching your destination together as a team, and having some fun together along the way.

Laura Hatch, a keynote speaker, author, and coach, is the founder of Front Office Rocks, which offers virtual training in all areas of the dental office and teaches exceptional customer service. Using nontraditional methods, Hatch loves to help dental teams learn the systems and methods to achieve results. Hatch is the author of “Step Away from the Drill,” a National Speakers Association & Speaking Consulting Network member, Academy of Dental Management Consultants board member, SCN Spotlight on Speaking second place champion, a Smiles at Sea speaking winner, and was named one of the 2016 Top 25 Women in Dentistry.