How to motivate your patients

I’m on the road a lot, sharing systems with thousands of dentists and their teams. Recently, a dentist asked me: ‘What is the most limiting “mistaken certainty” that dentists have?’

I’d like to share with you my response by first revealing what the largest field survey ever conducted on success says. As you may know, the great steel magnate Andrew Carnegie was obsessed with why some folks fail and others do well, and he endowed the Carnegie Institute with millions to find out why.

After extensive research, its study concluded that only 15% of any professional’s success is contingent upon clinical and technical expertise picked up in school or on-the-job training. That low percentage is universal and applies equally to a CEO, an MBA, a DDS, a Doctor of Divinity or a salesperson.

The remaining 85% of one’s success is contingent upon people skills: how you interact with others (patients, peers, team members, community) and how you interact with yourself in terms of managing time, setting goals and developing inner resources.

Lest you read me wrong, technical mastery should be the standard of every health professional. But if dental school convinced you that clinical training was all the education you needed, I have to say they probably convinced you that selling dentistry is evil and beneath you too! In the world we live in, part of the dentist’s job description is helping your patients want the complete and comprehensive dentistry they need.

People do things for one of two reasons: to avoid pain or to seek pleasure. Most of the dentistry of the past was need-based which, in terms of a patient’s perspective, was almost exclusively pain avoidance. This required very few people skills. A dentist did not have to promote the practice in order to do drill-fill-and-bill dentistry. The ‘sale’ was determined by the logic of the situation: the patient was often in pain and the visit was an emergency.

Moreover, the cost of care was covered in most of these cases. So a dentist could rely on the usual patch-and-pull approach and know that he or she would survive.

Ninety per cent of the future financial growth in dentistry will not be need-based, but want-based. Everyone buys with their emotions and justifies the purchase with logic (just open any clothes closet in your house) but want-based dentistry is a particularly emotional buying decision.

It is appearance related, not emergency induced, and it requires a totally different vocabulary, one focused on beauty, comfort, pleasure and harmony rather than on pain or its avoidance.

Put diplomatically, approaches to want-based dentistry and need-based dentistry are as different as night and day. To borrow a comparison from the medical industry, visualise a hospital’s emergency room and the office of a high-class plastic surgeon.

The entire profession, not just cosmetic dentistry, would do itself a great service if it balanced better the language of pain, a negative, with the seeking of pleasure, the positive side of our human nature.

While we know so much of a practice’s profitability comes from pain-motivated treatment, our surveys reveal that dentists do not include enough beauty and comfort talk and are overwhelming at pain, drill, and drain talk.

And that doesn’t just mean the words you speak! Since 93% of all communication is non-verbal, you might want to re-evaluate everything you do, both inside the office – from the way your team answers the telephone to the wallpaper in the bathroom – and outside the office (the way you make partnerships with related beauty-industry services to the promotion of the practice in your community). This will help you overcome the look of doom and gloom and create a congruent image of health that matches the expectations of your patients and joins them to your philosophy.

Giving people what they want begins by informing them a little about their options. The advances in the art and science of dentistry are among the best-kept secrets in contemporary medicine. How is a patient going to know what is possible with their oral health and appearance without your help? They most certainly didn’t come to the office wanting veneers or inlays or even a whitening – they might not even know what these things are.

Educating patients to expect the optimum oral health they came to you for in the first place and creating a dialogue for what is possible with their appearance has everything to do with the impression you create. As a dentist, you have to learn how to talk persuasively to these people.

The ability to present want-based dentistry has now become a necessity for future success. No owner of a small business, let alone a professional as highly regarded by the community as a dentist, should be crippled by a fear of rejection. But there is no point in going after the higher-end case presentations unless you are willing to do some homework.

Making a commitment to develop better people skills and patient rapport also improves your quality of life. When patients are emotionally ready, they will say ‘yes’ to your treatment recommendations. Your job is to present information that makes immediate, urgent and emotional sense to the patient rather than hide behind the rigid technical language. Although it requires a vivid vision by you, the leader of the practice, this must be a team effort.

Everyone on board has to know three things: who they are looking for in terms of your ideal patient, how to talk about you and what you do, and what role they plan in promoting and positioning the practice in the community. Only by a commitment on the part of everyone on the team can a continual stream of high quality new patients be ensured.

Steven Anderson is a founder of several dental organisations including The Total Patient Service Institute, The Crown Council and the Smiles for Life Foundation. Over the last 16 years he has worked with thousands of dental teams and spoken at every major dental meeting in North America and Australia.

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