Boutique surgery

So there I was, in Herefordshire at 9pm on a cold Monday night in early March, following directions to an unfamiliar hotel to deliver a dental workshop the next day. The fact that my destination, the village of Trumpet, was barely on the map did little to raise my expectations of the venue – probably some grotty little pub/hotel, rebranded on a theme of pasta and real ale and doubtless featuring a creaky old staircase leading to a tiny room with primitive facilities.

In the darkness I finally pulled into The Verzon, a large Georgian country house with a gravel drive and a welcome light spilling from the ground-floor windows. The front door was locked, however, and as I rang the bell I admit I was feeling a bit grumpy as I stood there in the dark with my bags.

But when the door was opened, by the manager no less, I instantly felt welcomed and appreciated. He introduced himself by name – Mark – shook my hand, took my bags and walked me to my first-floor suite. There was no check-in as the hotel has dispensed with such formality, and the staff greeted me as if I were a visitor to their home.

My room was stunning. It was in the modern, contemporary style and, in this setting, it looked fantastic. The room was massive and decorated to a unique and rather funky theme, with a giant bed and Victorian bathtub, and an equally large flat-screen plasma TV above the bath.

After unpacking I spent a little while in the bar with a nice glass of wine, catching up on a few phone calls and chatting to Mark about what I needed for the workshop. After I went to bed I had one of my best night’s sleep ever ‘on the road’. The next day I delivered the workshop, in the main meeting room in front of a roaring log fire. Later we all enjoyed a beautifully prepared lunch and some first-class hospitality.

The Verzon is privately owned. It can’t compete with the ‘big boys’ on leisure facilities, movie channels or business centres, so it competes on personal service and an individual style of decor. I believe it is called a ‘boutique’ hotel.

And, of course, it got me thinking about what a ‘boutique’ dental practice would look like and whether such a thing would positively differentiate your business. I was reading a dental newsletter from the US, where the writer suggested that branding is defined as how your customers see you, not as your name, your logo or website.

If you are going to offer private dentistry, or private treatment options, to your NHS patients, the first step will not be to calculate your prices, re-equip the surgery or upgrade the literature and the website – even if I do harp on about that. The first step is to make certain everyone in your team is in tune with the philosophy that:

• Private dentistry commands a higher price and that it is ethical to charge it

• Patients of all socio-economic backgrounds will be willing and able to pay

• That the fundamental attraction of private dentistry to patients is that they can avoid delays and be treated with respect and courtesy – it’s not about dentistry, it’s about customer service.

So what’s the biggest mistake dental principals make in starting the conversion process? Well, have you ever been to a new restaurant that has spent thousands on trendy fittings and with a fancy menu prepared by an award-winning chef – then spent the evening fuming at the apparent incompetence or indifference of the staff serving the meal? I’m not suggesting that dental team members are incompetent or indifferent, rather that they may be ill-prepared for what will happen when you convert or when you offer private options.

Here is what I bet your teams, especially the reception team, don’t know:

• How to answer the questions people ask at the telephone enquiry stage or at reception after leaving the surgery

• How to answer the ‘do you do NHS?’ enquiry in a positive way that will still have the enquirer book an appointment

• How to deal with potential new patients who are shopping on price alone

• How to deal in a positive way with patients who express concern at your prices

• How to deal firmly with patients who are rude or disrespectful

• How to impose charges confidently for missed appointments

• How to encourage and endorse what is said in the surgery

• How to keep a watchful eye on associates and hygienists who may not be towing the party line

• How to maintain enthusiasm during the tough days

• How to cover respectfully for a dentist’s own lack of understanding regarding the availability of future appointments.

These are just some of the issues raised by my own clients week in week out. But I repeat, this isn’t about your team doing the wrong thing, more often it’s about them having to do their best in the absence of some system. They have no written protocol to follow, so naturally are fearful that any initiative of theirs may be wrong or invite a negative response from the patient, clinicians – or you!

So here is my plea. If you want to create a ‘boutique’ practice or offer that experience to a privileged selection of patients prepared to pay extra, your first step must be to make certain you have drawn up written protocols with your team for performance and behaviour. Get the ‘Patient Journey’ sorted, including those little personal touches that make private dentistry such a better experience for patients, and they will come back for more and tell their friends.

As I said, it’s not about the dentistry, it’s about a great team delivering excellent customer service. The Verzon may have been a lovely place to stay, but it was Mark the manager’s attitude when I arrived and the helpfulness of every member of his team in the subsequent 24 hours that made all the difference.


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