15 tips on how to maintain successful relationships with your dental patients

As part of the 100 words from 100 dental practice management experts in 100 words or less, dental practice management experts share their tips on how to maintain successful patient relationships.

Patient Relationships

By Lauren Burns, Associate Editor
March 18, 2013

Clinical | Communication | Financial | Front Office | Having a Vision | Leadership
Marketing | Patient Relationships | Practice Management | Scheduling| The Team

Many dental professionals feel treatment presentations require them to be the main presenters of information and often “spew” their knowledge to patients who don’t understand dental jargon. They then wonder why there is too much unplanned treatment in the files. We teach our clients to use the 80/20 rule – that means speaking 20% of the time. Most of that 20% should be open-ended questions to help lead the patient to make their own buying decisions. People like to make their own choices, and letting them do it with your information helps them feel invested in your treatment plan.
-Hogan Allen, Get Results Marketing and Business Coaching

A fun team meeting project is to evaluate your practice’s day-to-day tasks and surroundings from the patient’s perspective. Sit in an operatory chair and look around the room. What do you see? Cobwebs way up high? Clutter on the counters? Clean baseboards? Are there smudges and finger prints on the overhead light? How tidy and clean is your patient restroom? It’s common to become immune to surroundings and overlook these small areas that may turn away an outsider. Don’t plant a seed in their mind, making them wonder how clean everything else is.
-Robin Besotes, The Doctor’s Rx

A proper hand-off is one of the most important steps an office can make to insure that the entire team and the patient are in sync. When escorting the patient from the operatory to the checkout desk, the assistant gives a quick refresher to the admin team member about what occurred during the appointment and what needs to occur next. HIPAA rules apply, so patient privacy must be maintained at all times. By making this hand-off a routine exchange between team members, you will make sure that your patients are always informed of their next move.
-Denise Ciardello, Global Team Solutions

It is important for the doctor and the rest of the team to be aware of your new patient’s motivating values. In other words, what do patients want from their relationship with your dental practice? If you don’t ask, you will never know – and if you don’t know, the chances are slim that you will be able to meet their expectations and desires. Unfortunately, you will base your thinking on assumptions instead of the patient’s reality. During the introduction to the practice, learn where your patient is in life. For example, ask the very simple question, “Tell me about yourself.”
-Dr. Hugh Doherty, HughDohertyDDS@comcast.net

A three-word phrase that does a lot in overall practice communications is “Help me understand.”

  • “Help me understand what is preventing you from proceeding with your treatment?”
  • “Help me understand your concerns about radiographs.”
  • “Help me understand why making your scheduled appointments is difficult for you.”
  • “Help me understand how you have been taking care of your mouth at home.”
  • “Help me understand how you plan to take care of the fees for your care.”
  • “Help me understand why it is difficult for you to arrive on time for work.”

Beginning conversations with an approach of genuine care and concern minimizes potential defensiveness and alleviates animosity at all levels.
-Debra Engelhardt-Nash, DebraEngelhardtNash.com

We live in an age of instant feedback, snap decisions, and huge competition for our patient's discretionary dollar, but you can rise above the competition by enhancing your treatment presentations. Perform a comprehensive exam on every patient that includes high quality digital photographs. Have your treatment coordinator create a concise digital case presentation where changes in your patient's smile are corrected via imaging software like Photoshop. Package it neatly and present it to your patient in a private consultation room, where the patient’s goals for their health and concerns can be discussed openly. Commit to this level of care and you will thrive during these turbulent times!
-Dr. Mark Hyman, TarheelDentist.com

No matter your position at the practice, how you communicate with your patients can make or break your success. Whether you’re making a financial arrangement, scheduling an appointment, or presenting the dentistry, your communication skills will determine whether or not a patient will comply with your recommendations or directions. The saying goes, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” You may say all the right words, but if you’re not listening or you’re using negative body language, the entire effect of your message can be misconstrued. Use active listening and positive body language to ensure ultimate success at your practice.
-Cathy Jameson, Jameson Management

Are you closing the deal? Many times we see dental teams who are not “closing the deal” on their treatment plans. First things first, make sure the patients understand the “why.” They need to know how important the treatment is, and what will happen if they do not have it completed. Often times we see the team assuming that the patient cannot afford the treatment. You would be surprised what people can afford if they know the “why.” Make their teeth a priority over the big screen television or new pair of shoes.
-Janice Janssen, Global Team Solutions

Retaining patients while attracting new ones is vital to the long-term health and profitability of your dental practice. Yet, many patients simply fade away. Make sure you and your staff are effectively following the “three Cs” to help keep patients engaged and invested in their oral health: customer service, communication, and continuing care. Ensure that you are providing excellent customer service to every patient in every interaction, that you and your team’s communication skills are exceptional, and that you have a continuing care program in place that is understood and embraced by all.
-Jan Keller, Jan Keller & Associates

Learn to love your “bad” patients. The patients who always accept your treatment recommendations are easy to love. But it’s the ones who don’t value dentistry, the ones who are the source of the most frustration, whose mouths reflect years of minimal dental choices, who are the ones you can change the most. This is why you became a dentist – to help people like this. You need to help them see the possibilities, to get them past their insurance mindsets and to another level. Love the “bad” patients because that’s where the greatest opportunities lie – for you and for them.
-Imtiaz Manji, Spear Education

Have your treatment options and post-operative instructions available for the patient, parent, or guardian to read at home. Most people do not listen well and need to review the information in a more relaxed environment. You may choose to have verbal instructions with photos and illustrations. There are also ways to send this information electronically to your patient via email or on the website. The ADA, the AAPD, and many others have valuable resources for this purpose. There are also companies that have illustrations and explanations, such as Guru.com. You may choose to send a welcome letter to the patient prior to the first visit as an introduction to your practice.
-Dr. Fred S. Margolis, Institute for Advanced Dental Education, Ltd.

Ever forget your patient’s name during treatment? Sadly, we all do, since often the patient’s name can’t be seen – it’s in small writing on the chart, away from your line of sight. Try this absolute pearl: prior to bringing the patient in, write the patient’s name in big letters on a yellow Post-it and stick it on a nearby bench. Before beginning treatment, take the Post-it from the bench and adhere it to the near corner of the bib on the reclined patient. Now their name is right there in front of you, beside their head, every time you need it – priceless!
-Dr. David Moffet,
The Ultimate Patient Experience

Never underestimate the power of patient retention. Most practices have hundreds, maybe even thousands, of patients due to come in. One of the most successful actions is to implement a reactivation program. Utilizing your software, learn which patients last visited between seven and 36 months ago. Mail a unique card to this group three months in a row. Closing the back door is more important now than ever before. Patients have more choices and dentistry is becoming more competitive. Focus on customer service and having skilled staff that work with you on making your practice a pleasant experience for your patients.
-Sandy Pardue, Classic Practice Resources

Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials and the Cyber Generation are all terms describing your diverse patient base. The generation gap has never been larger! Realize that you no longer can use a universal language in communicating with your patients. Learn which patients are Internet savvy and those who prefer more direct communication. Determine which patients prefer a sit-down conversation instead of a video presentation of their treatment. Understand which patients want a text message instead of a recall postcard to remind them of their appointment.
-Susan A. Spear, SAS Transitions Dental Practice Brokers

Front office team members are a crucial part of cultivating lifelong patient relationships. This is not so much a job as it is a skill. It is always making sure to put your patient first. It is having the ability to relate to your patients and taking the time to get to know them. A team member who is always ready with a smile and can remember the patient's name will always be an asset to any dental office team. These are the people who build the foundation for those relationships.
-Lisa M. Spradley, TCB Dental Consulting

Lauren Burns is the editor of Proofs magazine and the email newsletters RDH Graduate and Proofs. She is currently based out of New York City. Follow her on Twitter: @ellekeid.

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