Top-producing practices know these communication skills

April 12, 2011

By Anil K. Agarwal, DDS, MS

I have talked to hundreds of dentists during the 30-plus years I have been in dentistry, asking their one wish for their practices. Over and over, almost all wish for a dental team characterized by at least three of these words/phrases:

* enthusiastic
* happy
* look forward to coming to work
* reliable
* satisfied
* self-motivated
* willing to grow the practice

I tell them that there are several factors that need implementation before achieving a team that meets many of the above-mentioned qualifications, and one of the most important factors is effective communication between the dentist and his or her team in six specific areas:

1. Communicating expectations to the team
2. Valuing contributions
3. Handling concerns properly, in a timely manner
4. Rewarding initiative
5. Fostering personal strengths of individual team members
6. Handling inevitable mistakes properly

Dentists must recognize their “communicator” role as equal parts mentor, motivator, and monitor for team members. A dental practice will grow only if team members believe that they are an integral part of the office success, respected and valued for their contributions. To accomplish this, dentists must clearly communicate a specific direction and determined focus. Each practice should abide by a well-thought-out purpose or mission statement − a written document constructed and agreed to by the team. This brings synergy and harmony into the team since they are all working for an agreed-upon common cause. Dentists also need to establish clear objectives for growth on a regular basis. How can the team get anywhere if they don’t know where to go in the first place? I liken it to driving a car without a destination in mind.

Think back to the last time future plans were discussed with team members. Do they even know the future plans for the practice, or the time frame? How about just asking for their suggestions to accomplish the team’s goals, not just the dentist’s? They will be flabbergasted when asked what can be done to make their job more pleasant and productive. It takes courage, but they should also feel comfortable revealing their thoughts about the dentist’s skills and personality as it relates to the mission. A dental office without a communicated vision merely adheres to a daily routine. Everyone will begin to lose the fun and excitement, and then it will be viewed as just a job. However, when challenge and motivation are combined with some direction, people thrive. More people leave a job due to boredom and lack of challenge than salary!

Review the purpose in the morning huddle and focus on the positive aspects of the upcoming day. Present an inspirational statement, reading a “Quote of the Day” (I will provide this if you register at my website) as the foundation for daily decisions. Team members will start thinking about whether their actions contribute to the purpose of the office or not once this procedure is in place. When team members understand the vision of the practice and know that their opinions count, they will feel like part of it. Their perception of ownership in the practice will allow them to take appropriate action.

For example, my team once faced a badly leaking roof at the office while I was out of the country on vacation. My office manager orchestrated all the repairs and insurance claims without my input. When I returned, the team had already taken charge as owners. If my team hadn’t made swift decisions or had the freedom to think as part of the practice, I cannot imagine the outcome. They also knew the importance of productivity, and the office was fully functioning upon my return. Actions like these provide more freedom and time to productively do dentistry.

As a group, team members should discuss the weekly results achieved against targets that have been set, and communally discuss adjustments. This time is never used to assign blame for underperformance. Rather, use it to find solutions. I often encourage them to arrive with solutions and answers because, when it is their idea, they make sure it is carried out. Once the team feels accountable and in charge, they are forced by their own choices to keep operational checks and balances in place. This means that the dentist is free to assume the true role of a doctor, attending to patients’ care, while sharing profits with team members who handle the operational details.

Most people like responsibility when given guidelines, and they flourish when they are rewarded and sincerely appreciated for taking initiative. Of course, random movie tickets, lunch for birthdays, and flowers for Valentine’s Day are worthwhile, but what about really knocking their socks off? People who have worked with me for three years get special gifts on their anniversaries as an act of simple appreciation. I have paid for a car repair when a loyal assistant did not have the money, and handed $2,000 to an office manager who followed up on details with a very challenging, extensive case. A single-mom team member was given a nice dress for her daughter’s wedding, and then they seated me at the table for family. I have helped many team members in tight situations, either by giving them an interest-free loan or contacting my bank to extend them credit. In every situation, my recognition of their efforts was a complete surprise and made their day. In turn, they smiled for a week and worked with enthusiasm and true dedication.

The idea is not to buy their loyalty, but just give them recognition and appreciation. Use judgment in these situations, but focus on their needs, not their wants. I have a large number of team members who have been with me for 10 to 14 years because they feel like partners that participate in the successful outcomes of the practice. Notice that I do not consider them “staff,” “employees,” or “girls.” I give them the respect and honor they deserve, because we all really work for our patients, our employers.

The best method to stifle initiative is to use a judgmental attitude or verbal punishment for mistakes, no matter who says it. It is wiser to assume that an error occurred because someone misunderstood or took a chance, but failed. Rather than find fault, work toward solutions and move further along the learning curve. Replace accusatory or “You shouldn’t…” statements with “I would like you to…” and be sure to encourage their questions. Newly hired employees need to meet with the dentist, one-on-one, for an hour, at least a few times a week for several weeks so the dentist can share his or her philosophy and vision with them. Senior team members can also spend time with them on the dentist’s behalf. That opens up the lines of communication.

Individual team members must serve in positions that best suit their strengths, usually indicated by the type of work they like to do, because then they feel satisfied. It is best to use some form of personality test to assess this objectively. My office conducts a 40-minute computerized test to evaluate the strengths of a potential new hire as they relate to the job description. I do not focus on their weaknesses, because we all have them. But the point is this: When people are hired to do something they have strength in, they are more productive and less inclined to make mistakes or complain. They also exude a cheery disposition to those around them, making it possible to deliver consistent customer service and a positive attitude.

However, the reverse is also true. Before implementing this evaluation test, I had a team member who was originally working with me in finances and customer service, but she was just not performing to my satisfaction, although she seemed very dedicated and pleasant. An open, frank discussion revealed that she was interested in a position with minimal patient contact, so I transferred her to a position requiring insurance processing, recall, and follow-up in the practice, and she has done a superb job for the last five years. Amazingly efficient, she has taken over 70% of the marketing responsibilities as well. If I had fired her based on her previous performance, I would have lost a valuable team member and created a big injustice to her as well.

Team members’ behavior reflects the general tone of the office. They communicate by their actions as well as their words. Dentists need to monitor the satisfaction of each member of their team. Look for opportunities to use someone’s strengths in a new capacity, particularly when it involves cross-training. Spend energy on drawing out someone’s good qualities rather than wasting time on fixing the bad ones. By focusing on weakness, one makes weakness much stronger. Focus on the strengths, and then enjoy the benefits. However, if a team member chronically demonstrates errors and poor judgment, it is a sign that they are in the wrong position suited for their talents and one should consider termination or job reassignment.

Dentists who harness the power of effective communication can express their vision of a perfect practice with team members, resulting in more progress toward the moniker of Top-Producing Practice. The dental team should be considered the biggest asset there. Let inner thoughts create communication that spawns professional growth, and watch it reform the dental practice.

Dr. Agarwal was an associate professor of prosthodontics at Northwestern University for 21 years and has lectured both nationally and internationally on implants, adult reconstruction, and dental practice management. He practices full time in Chicago as a board certified prosthodontist. He has earned both Fellowship and Diplomate status in the International Congress of Oral Implantologists, as well as Fellowships for the Academy of General Dentistry and the American College of Osseointegration. He is also well respected in the area of personal growth. He has authored three books: “Extreme Practice Management,” “The Real Essence of Life,” and “What America Needs Now.”