Value Every Patient’s Experience

Maggie Augustyn, DDS
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When I first began writing this article, I intended to elaborate on how to elevate your practice’s “new patient” experience. But then it hit me. It shouldn’t be about the new patient experience. It should be about every patient experience.

Each time I walk into my bank, I see large banners offering a $500 reward for opening and depositing money into a new account. As I’m wondering how I would spend that $500, though, I realize the offer is only for new clients.

Shocked and offended that there doesn’t seem to be any reward for my loyalty, I begin to plan, in my own self-interest, how I can switch to a bank down the road to gain that bank’s $500 of credit.

Here’s how this relates to dentistry. Dentists advertise new patient promotions all the time. Sometimes it’s free exams and X-rays. There also can be free cleanings or whitenings. The list can go on and on, all promoted in mailers, specials, and discounts.

As an existing patient of the advertising dentist, I would be shocked that a random person is getting a free cleaning while a loyal patient of more than 15 years like me gets nothing.

Of course, not all dentists run these specials. But many webinars, consultants, and gurus continue to measure the pulse of a practice by how many new patients are scheduled each month.

Thus, as a sort of payback to the bank that refuses to give me $500 for keeping my money where it has been for more than a decade, I am taking a stand for the existing patient.

Our Reputation in the Community

Many patients have a lot of information sources that shape their opinion about us. This starts before the initial visit and continues later between visits. Google reviews and rankings certainly play a very important role.

But sometimes, the overall impression of our own reputation begins within the community. This is especially evident these days, and your practice may be a subject of discussion on local Facebook mom groups, where certain communities can be very vocal about their relationships with providers.

These comments and posts vary, from our own brand ambassadors’ raving about our services to those unconnected patients who shed an unflattering light on the one and only time they visited our practice.

Our reputation also flows from how people perceive our website, including the ease with which they can find our contact information, as well as how our team answers the phone. The etiquette and demeanor of the people answering our phones play a role in whether or not a patient will choose to make an appointment and if they will follow through with it.

While these factors all affect the impression we leave on potential patients, they also affect how likely our existing patients are to return. When it comes to growing our practices, we’re not only competing with other providers for new patients, but also for our existing patients.

If we continue to come under fire from our competition with fliers, mailers, and discounts, we ought to evaluate what makes our loyal patients stay. So here’s a simple recipe that I’ve been using. If employed with consistency and focus, and with the entire team on board, you will see a steady stream of patients returning.

First, roll out authenticity.

Add a generous dash of a genuine smile.

Stir in two cups of uninterrupted listening and eye contact.

Bake it all together with attentive follow-through.

Authenticity at the Base

Authenticity is the main ingredient in making this formula work. It means being true to who you are and living out your story wholeheartedly. It is the opposite of following a formula invented for the sake of someone else.

It can also mean relating to the patient on a personal level. It is a moment where you meet the patient where they are at, allowing them to do the same with you. Offering a part of yourself will make your patients feel important and relevant, and it will make you relatable and human.

In the past, I’ve attempted to put into motion other people’s advice for success. We’ve all read articles that have said, “I’m successful, and if you do this, you’ll be successful too.” But in my hands and in my body, following that advice felt awkward, plastic, and artificial.

I finally discovered that a prefabricated formula will never feel real. Patients aren’t stupid. They can sense if you’re stretching yourself past what feels comfortable to you. They also will know if you’re pushing their buttons just for the sake of your own success.

But when they see a genuine interest and smile coming from you in conversation, the groundwork begins to be laid down for practice growth and success.

A Genuine Smile

Two things make patients feel welcome and relevant. The first is greeting them when they walk through the front door. The second is a genuine smile.

I like to give my practice concierge no more than 10 seconds to recognize patients as they enter the office and extend the practice’s hospitality. Even if they’re on a phone call with another patient, someone making eye contact and kindly waving to the patient will go a long way.

Also, use the patient’s name as much as possible, from the moment they walk in the door until they check out. To most people, their name is the most important sound in any language. We can certainly use that as a tool in creating a connection. I’m always surprised when someone other than my family calls me by name, and I love it!

Meanwhile, the genuine smile starts as early as the phone call making the appointment. Have you ever “heard” a person smiling or laughing on the other end of the line? It’s quite simple to imagine. It can put the whole conversation on a trajectory worth pursuing.

But an in-person smile is even more powerful. Patients notice the difference between an office full of people with a positive outlook and offices filled with people who are less than enthusiastic about getting their gums poked and their teeth drilled.

When I hire new employees, I look at their personality more than I look at the bullet points on their resume. Life is a winding road, and it’s difficult to teach people to smile. Finding employees who smile naturally will set you apart from other practices.

Beyond the reception room, an exceptional attitude continues to be the backbone of the appointment. But what comes next takes practice and patience, as it brings patients back for follow-up appointments and creates your own brand ambassadors.

Regardless of how many gadgets you have in your office or how much time you carve out for a patient appointment, the strongest factor in creating a long-lasting relationship is the effort you put into building that relationship.

Digital radiographs, CBCT machines, intraoral scanners, lasers, and digital impressions don’t stand a chance against authenticity, a welcoming smile, and human-to-human connection.

Uninterrupted Listening and Eye Contact

My favorite consultants, Dr. Bruce B. Baird and Victoria Peterson, SsD, of Productive Dentist Academy, have drilled this great pointer into me: connect before you correct.

Everyone’s unique ability and mission will create a variation in what they choose to focus on during this time of connection. Some people discuss sports. Others may catch up on the buzz of the neighborhood.

I begin each appointment with a genuinely inquisitive conversation about how that patient is doing that day. I no longer provide lip service. I don’t ask “How are you?” and turn away to load the anesthetic. I listen to their answer, make eye contact, and respond accordingly.

During hygiene appointments, I allow myself a window of at least five minutes (well, more like 15, if you ask my team) to catch up on life. This takes time, but as the conversation ensues, it creates a much needed foundation toward getting to know the patient’s needs and maybe even their wants.

This conversation breaks up the nerve-wracking appointment, which patients sometimes have been dreading for days. It shows a heartfelt interest in the patient’s life and in their dental philosophy. It humanizes the patient, as well as the dentist.

But this conversation also is a game changer because it collects this information in an earnest fashion. You let go of the pressure and time constraints of what’s going on in the other operatories, and you give your patient your full attention with eye contact.

And if you have a genuine laugh during this process of co-discovery, it is an indisputable win for both parties. Your patient will feel like they matter and that they aren’t just a ticket waiting to be cashed in.

Plus, you will set yourself apart from the competition by creating these experiences. This conversation will help you develop a level of trust and construct a bond that’s difficult to penetrate for mailers and Groupon deals for free whitening.

Bake It All Together

The last part of this recipe for success involves attentive follow-through and follow-up. Patients usually appreciate offices that make time to contact them the next day. Some offices resort to having their assistants make these phone calls. But patients tend to be more favorable when the providers themselves reach out.

I handle all of these calls myself and make sure that each one of my patients has my cell phone number in case they have questions, concerns, or arising issues. I also let my patients know that they can share my cell phone number with anyone who may need a dentist or a second opinion or who may be experiencing a dental emergency.

Despite the fact that I have given out my cell phone number to thousands of people, I can count on one hand how many times that privilege has been abused in the past 20 years. In my follow-up calls, I not only check on the patient’s well-being, but I also reconnect with them and refer back to the conversation we had the day before.

“Did you finish the quilt you were making?”

“How was your boss’ retirement party?”

“Did your kid score a goal at the soccer game?”

I hear them smile on the other end of the line, and that carries me through the rest of the day. I’ve made them feel like I have listened, and now they know I actually do care.

Your Turn

I don’t mean to dissuade you from taking in new patients. That would be laughable. But I do simply suggest that if you train your team or move your strategy forward, drop the “new patient” routine and make it an “every patient” routine.

Don’t put on a dog and pony show for new patients and make your existing patients feel left out or less relevant. Your loyal patients who return appointment after appointment to your practice will repay you for creating unforgettable experiences.

Your patients will serve as your brand ambassadors and will be your top internal referrals, helping your practice grow. Their experiences of being treated with a smile, held in by a laugh, and followed up with a call will be the talk of the town.

Dr. Augustyn is a practicing general dentist. She earned a DDS from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2004. She has completed the course sequence with the Dawson Academy’s continuum in oral equilibration and cosmetic dentistry. She participates in at least 50 hours of continuing education each year. Additionally, she is a moderator of Dental Nachos, a Facebook group. Dr. Augustyn also is an avid writer who enjoys listening to nonfiction books, vacations by the water, and spending time in nature. She lives with her husband of 18 years and daughter in a Chicago suburb. She can be reached at maggie.augustyn@gmail.com.   

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