On October 1, 2018, I retired from my solo private practice of 28 years in the rural town of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. For 28 years, I practiced dentistry without the influence of dental insurance, never participating with any PPOs or premiere programs with set fees. In spite of that, my practice thrived. Was this because I was good at my craft? Maybe. I attribute my joy, fulfillment, and financial success to the deep relationships I fostered not only with my patients, but also with my staff.
Early in my career, I admit that I focused too much on the “numbers” and financial side of my practice. My mood was like a rollercoaster. When the numbers were up, I was up. When the numbers were down, I was down. In addition, patients frequently refused my treatment recommendations. It was an unhappy time, and I was headed toward burnout. I was often angry and frustrated, and I made everyone in my path miserable. I knew I could not continue this way, so I set out to change, even though this scared me a bit.
I knew this self-examination would be humbling as I took a hard look at myself, my poor communication, and my poor leadership. I knew that before I could lead my staff, I had to get myself straightened out. On occasion, my wife would tell me, “I know that in your heart you mean well, but sometimes your delivery stinks.”
In my searching, I learned that “you can’t give away what you don’t own.” Through lots of study and reflection on my less-than-stellar communication skills, I was able to change my “me” focus to a “we” focus. Instead of my usual focus on money or “the golden eggs,” I focused on my staff and patients, the “geese that laid the golden eggs.” As a result, an interesting thing happened regarding my practice’s income—instead of me chasing it, it chased me.
Lots of today’s practice management courses emphasize the transactional or money aspects of running a dental practice: scheduling, collections, website design, and marketing. There’s no question that these areas are important and necessary aspects of running a dental practice. However, in my opinion, lasting change and growth starts with the dentist’s thinking and his or her ability to communicate effectively.
As you continue to read, keep in mind that the steps I’m outlining are transformational and lifechanging concepts rather than a list of transactional procedures. My hope is that you, the dentist and leader of your team, will be as courageous and excited to learn about how to be a better communicator as you are to learn about implants or smile design. If and when you take the plunge, get ready to work hard yet experience a more joyful and fulfilled life.
Take a look at yourself
As I mentioned, the first step to developing your communication skills is to take a look at yourself. This can be a difficult step as you dive into investigating who you are and why you do the things that you do. One of the most beneficial things I did to help myself in this area was to take the DiSC Personality Assessment. This detailed report helped me better understand myself, my personality style, and my motivation. Not only did it provide me with new information about myself, it gave me hope that yes, I could learn how to relate more effectively with others.
Develop your team
Once I understood my personality style, I was able to better connect with my team. I had each member take the assessment to help them discover for themselves who they were and how they communicated with each other. This exercise proved to be an eye-opener for all of us. This new personal insight was like an eyeglass prescription change. Instead of seeing each other’s faults, we were able to more clearly see each other’s strengths and work together more harmoniously.
Honesty, authenticity, and accountability became part of our daily lives. When conflict arose, instead of burying it, we resolved it. As a team we were able to see each other’s uniqueness rather than our strangeness. At this point, dentistry became more fun and productive, and the practice income—the “numbers”—rose dramatically. Keep in mind that all this growth occurred before tackling the transactional details such as appointment scheduling and collections.
Get to know your patients at a deeper level
Next, we set out to better understand our patients—their needs, wants, fears, and desires. We embraced the thoughts of Theodore Roosevelt, who said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” A few things we did to better connect with our patients included being aware of our posture, our tones of voice, and the words we used.
We had training and developed our listening skills, meaning we asked more questions and talked less. Other changes included performing thorough new-patient exams and always keeping the conversations focused on the patients. As Dale Carnegie said, we became interested instead of being interesting. Collectively, we agreed that we would not talk about ourselves unless the patient asked us. We embraced the use of positive language. The phrase “no problem” was banned from the office.
Continually develop your technical and verbal skills
As a team, we committed ourselves to continuing education, seeking excellence in both our technical and communication skills. Our desire was to better understand the needs of each patient, with the goal of helping them achieve optimal dental health. We valued helping our patients see what we were seeing. We embraced the idea of co-discovery by asking thoughtful questions and involving patients more in their dental exams and treatment discussions.
For example, we use the phrase “gum health measurements” instead of gum disease or gum pocket probing. We take intentional steps to make sure that our patients feel well cared for and well informed. We work within our shared values, which include timeliness, cleanliness, politeness, and technical excellence. “Inform before perform” and “quality is not a variable” are important parts of our practice culture. When situations don’t go as well as planned, we talk about it using after action reviews, (AARs), a system developed by the US Army.
Putting it all together
Once we figured out who we were as individuals and how we could best work together as a team, we started to delve into and fine tune our systems. A sampling of some of the areas we developed were patient greeting and checkout, telephone skills, collections, scheduling, morning huddles, staff meetings, job descriptions, and a personnel policy manual. As we became better communicators, our office became a fun and more productive workplace. As a side benefit, at the end of our workday, we had energy left to share with our families.
My goal with this article is to help you see the importance and benefits of great communication. For me, it was the key that allowed me to experience more joy, fulfillment, happiness, and financial success in both my practice and personal life.
I’m challenging you to be contrarian in your thinking. Instead of looking solely at the transactions of your practice, focus on how you communicate with yourself and others. When you do, your life will never be the same. When you become a great communicator, everyone wins. And remember the quote from Theodore Roosevelt: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”