Can't Buy Me Love: Leveraging Your Relationship Capital

July 29, 2009
Try to attract patients who want to be in your practice and who will follow through on treatment recommendations. That's simple. Getting them — and keeping them— that's not as easy! Leverage comes from the relationships you have and the relationships you're making right now.

by Wayne D. Pernell, PhD

You’ve got to be tired of hearing yet another battle cry and being given yet another chance to cringe during “these challenging economic times.” Many dentists have paid out a lot for ad campaigns to bring in patients, only to find their efforts and expense yields “the wrong type” of patient. You are trying to attract patients who want to be in your practice and will follow through on treatment recommendations. That’s simple. Getting them — and keeping them — that’s not as easy.

So what to do, really? Begin with your core values and reflect on your vision. What did you set out to do during the “good” times? What clouded your vision of the future so much that you contemplated a significant change in your path? Did you lose your values along the way? If you stop looking outwardly and focus back on yourself as a leader, you’ll notice that it’s not any kind of external crisis that has caused you to sway from your vision of what you wanted your practice to be. To the contrary, it’s completely internal — it’s a crisis of confidence! Those feelings are a normal part of the roller-coaster of life, so pull back a little bit and strategize.

Strategize, yes, but not in the way you may be thinking. You may want to engage in cut backs if your revenue stream has dropped off. But your first instinct should not be to cut back, lay off staff members, or stop ordering supplies. Rather than reacting by cutting back, focus on how you might better reach out. The strongest capital you have to leverage is your relationships with others — specifically, those with your patients.

Leverage comes from the relationships you have and the relationships you’re making right now.

The transactional world of the dental office mandates that you “be there” for your patients. In return, you can expect them to be there for you. You might have to tell them about your expectations, but that’s a topic for another article. The trick here is in knowing how to reach out in the right way. What, really, do your patients want and need? There are basic needs that each patient coming through the door has. Start with the security of having a clean, professional-looking office and then go to acknowledging the patient, and as a foundation for that, assessing the needs of your patients.

How do you know what a patient wants or needs or what matters to them? The answer is simple: ask them! Once you have the answer, make sure your patients know you’ve heard them. Asking questions for the sole purpose of filling in forms serves no one. Asking questions to learn more about the patient as an individual — a human with real concerns, not a case or tooth number — serves you both. The patient feels validated. You earn relationship capital points.

Relationship capital is predicated on the concept that you actually have a relationship with the patient. It means you’ve taken the time to build a relationship by asking the right questions and really listening to the answers you receive. When a patient reveals something about himself or herself, take the time to recognize why that information is important to that person, thereby building a relationship, one patient at a time.

The relationship begins from the moment there’s any contact with a patient. That’s usually the very first phone call where you will have an opportunity to glean information and insights about the patient and to reassure them that they’ve called the right place and are in great hands. Trust is the true foundation for a relationship. To build that, you need to create it. From the first contact patients have with your practice, they’re judging their experience. What do patients hear when they call the office? No, not what words are used, but what do they hear? Each patient needs to feel taken care of from the start.

During the first phone call, you — as a practice — need to begin planning how to make the patient’s visit special. Prospective patients need to experience feeling cared for right away. Utilize the information in your morning huddle. Discuss what’s needed clinically in addition to what matters to patients. By anticipating their needs, you’ll create a unique, positive experience. Huddle topic: What little extra something can you do for this patient to provide a great first impression and lay a solid foundation for a long-term relationship?

Patients need to walk through the door and feel welcomed so that they know they’re in the right place. Meeting with the dentist in the preclinical interview offers a great opportunity to delve deeper into who the patient is and what he or she truly cares about. They could come to you complaining of lower-left tooth pain and, in your head, if you’re thinking “crown for a crack on #19,” then you’ve missed the person behind the tooth number. Lower left tooth pain, for example, could mean that your patient won’t be able to enjoy that special picnic with family. Have that conversation!

Asking open-ended questions that engage a patient to tell you more allows that patient to feel more connected to you. What would it mean to the patient if or when you fix that tooth? What will it really mean? Remember that asking open-ended questions allows for a conversation rather than an interrogation.

The best way for someone to feel heard is through active listening. Feed back to patients what you’ve just heard from them. If you can capture an emotion or feeling in what they’ve said, be sure to note it as, for example: “It seems like you’re pretty excited about getting that tooth fixed and being able to participate at the picnic.”

During the clinical interview, reference what is important to the patient. Don’t get lost in the land of dental-techno-speak. For example, saying, “This PFM on 19 is the best way to go” is a very different statement from saying, “Putting a reinforced crown on that back tooth will allow you the confidence to chew and smile at the family barbeque this summer.” Patients want to chew and smile. They may not want that PFM thing that you’re threatening them with. Tie your clinical recommendations to their “wants.”

The bottom line is that by listening and then responding to the patients’ needs at the beginning of the conversation, you’re creating a relationship based on trust.

That trusting relationship is based on what the patient is feeling. Patients know whether they’ve been taken care of or not. Take the time to get to know what matters and establish the foundation of the relationship that you’ll go back to time and again.

Create the “feeling.” Give patients somewhere to belong to and someone — a team of “someones” — whom they can trust. Feeling like you matter is a basic human need that goes to the root of personal identity. When you can do that for each patient that comes through your door, those patients will come back.

Use your excellent verbal skills to let patients know how much they matter to you. Focus on the patient in front of you as if he or she were the most important person you’ll be seeing all day. Draw patients’ attention to the things you’re doing to make them feel comfortable. By building on the relationship you have with each patient, you’re investing in the future. Patients will say “yes” to treatment recommendations — wanting what they need —- because you have instilled a level of trust in them for your entire practice. They will feel taken care of and, in terms of a transactional return, they will take care of you!

Dr Wayne D Pernell holds a doctorate in clinical psychology. He’s been a full-time consultant with Pride Institute for over four years and boasts many successful clients across the country. Prior to joining Pride, Wayne provided management consulting and executive coaching services for leaders and their teams in companies such as Charles Schwab and Co., Whole Foods Market, and AAA. For more information on the Pride Institute, visit or contact Dr Pernell directly by phone at (800) 925-2600 or by e-mail at [email protected].