Is dentistry asking the wrong questions?

small question ladyWhy do some practices flourish and some struggle? Kevin Rose enlightens us on the fundamental approaches to dentistry

Given everything that we now know about business, marketing, telephone training, sales techniques and communication, and given that we all have access to the same resources and information; why do the results vary so much between one dental practice and another?

How can some dental businesses have enough loyal patients in the markets that they choose, with the right financial resources and motivations to proceed with the treatments that they want, that you have recommended; and yet others are constantly battling to fill white spaces with the next list of top ten tips, a sales technique or by searching for some kind of magic solution?

Finding slightly different ways to do what you have always done will get you so far but for how long do we try and reinvent the wheel and in doing so completely miss the point; that we live in a small island, packed full with 60 million people, most of whom have teeth at some point in their lives… and yet despite all of our combined efforts, not enough people even go to the dentist!

Why don’t more people go to the dentist?

When you look at things from this perspective, something doesn’t seem to stack up because even though we are getting better at explaining what dentistry does and how it can help people, too many dentists seem to struggle to attract and retain patients. I often discuss this issue outside of my dental circles and frankly most people are bemused by it because the common perspective is that surely dentists must have enough patients?’
I think that the fundamental problem is that dentistry is asking the wrong questions and these are the questions that most business owners start with when their businesses are stuck;

‘How can I get better at the marketing and selling of what I do and how I do it?’

‘How can I make more people say yes to what I want them to buy?’

Healthcare not healthsell

Unfortunately these questions have resulted for some in the false assumption that dentists have to be in sales, despite the fact that most of our experience of being sold to tends to be negative and manipulative. In fact as soon as we feel like we are being sold to then up come the barriers, you brace yourself for the techniques and the manipulation and wallop, here comes the sales pitch, the features and benefits followed by the close and an attempt to deal with your ‘objections’.

The revealing question is that if you don’t need a sales technique to help somebody where you have a relationship built upon trust, like you have with your best patients, why do you need a sales technique in healthcare at all? Surely trust should be implied in the relationship between a dentist and patient, it’s called healthcare after all not healthsell.

More regulation?

This is what really worries me when I read about the march of periimplantitis and similar issues. I can’t comment on the clinical aspects, that’s your job, but just what has gone wrong in the relationship between a patient and a dentist when the best solution for the patient is to try and get his own back rather than at least giving you a chance to resolve the problem? Why would a patient go running straight to the GDC if they genuinely trusted you in the first place and didn’t in some way feel wronged? It doesn’t matter how many pages the consent form grows to or how much information the CDO can cram into the patient information and consent process; we are back to the fundamentals of trust between dentist and patient and if that trust has been in some way breached by the patient feeling like they have been sold to then the ambulance-chasing lawyers will have a field day, once they have dealt with the backlog of PPI claims of course. More regualtion, longer consent forms, cooling off periods imposed by regulators; none of these have worked consistently, so why do we expect dentistry to be any different?

What questions should we be asking?

The likelihood is that from a patient’s perspective, what you do and how you do it can look pretty similar to everybody else and whilst you can differentiate it, your patients don’t make decisions based upon what you do and how you do it anyway. Of course they will rationalise their decisions based upon this but the actual decision to do anything comes from a feeling, not features and benefits. And what is the most important feeling that you need to generate with your patients? TRUST. The purpose of your dental business and how you communicate it has to trigger a feeling of trust. The question that you should be asking therefore is: ‘Why do we do what we do. What is the real purpose of our business, what are we really about and how do we communicate it so that it builds a relationship of trust with our customers?’

You don’t have to look far outside of dentistry to notice that highly regulated professions with an historic problem of trust being breached are now rebuilding based upon the exact same question. Banks, PPI, financial advice et al have all fallen into the trap of thinking that the customer is something that needs to be sold to and just look at the mess that they left behind. Their past behaviours have given the regulators a field day and there is evidence (Dentistry 18th September 2014) that dentistry is next on their hit list. The ‘timebomb’ in dentistry that I have referred to before is still ticking away.

Think about it, way before any patient considers what you do and how you do it they have to trust you. Let’s not confuse clinical ability and certificates on the wall with real trust, the feeling that your patients get when their internal dialogue says: ‘I don’t yet know what this dentist can do for me or how it will be done, but I do trust them – that he or she will do the right thing and has my best interests at heart.’

This starts to explain why your potential patients are shopping around, and it’s not just for price I’m afraid. This starts to explain why anything that feels like being sold to is going to turn people off in healthcare. This explains why recently my colleague Jan met with a friend who had spoken to and visited three dental practices, none of whom he felt that he could subsequently trust. He felt that he was being sold to on every occasion and at one point likened it to feeling like he was buying a used car, not a personally invasive medical procedure!

Awareness and understanding

There are of course some ways that through your communication, you can build better relationships with your patients, including understanding how your patients make decisions. But at Rose & Co we start with the presupposition that you are already perfectly skilled at influencing and persuading others, because you have been doing it perfectly well since you were two years old! Everything that you have achieved and done so far in your life has come from this ability. It isn’t therefore a technique that you need to help more people benefit from dental care, it’s simply time to understand what works for you and why and then learn how to adapt your communication skills for different patients and different situations. This just simply requires a higher level of awareness and understanding.

The patients that genuinely trust you are the ones that you look forward to seeing, they tell all of their friends about ‘my dentist’ without needing to be asked or prompted with a sign in reception, they keep their appointments, have the money for the treatment that they want to have done after you have recommended it and there are plenty more of them out there. It was never really about what you do and how you do it, it was always about WHY you do it. Dentistry is asking the wrong questions.


Kevin Rose is the owner of Rose and Co and partner at Dental Excellence at Harewood. Kevin and the team at Rose and Co work with values-based dental business leaders and their teams to improve business satisfaction, results and dental health.



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