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Your Team Is Everything

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Dentists spend a long time learning all there is to know to provide patients with the best dental care in the world. Patients should understand that and praise and brag about their dentists on every occasion possible.

But, in reality, patients have very little understanding of the quality and skill of their practitioners. Unless there is an egregious lack of clinical quality, they most often judge the quality of care based on the relationships they develop in the office. Sometimes it’s the dentist, but more often it’s a member of the team who has taken the time and interest to create a positive bond.

In spite of our great efforts to impress patients with the quality of our treatment, the beauty of our preparations, our almost painless injections, the excellence of the laboratory work and finished restorations, patients are most often impressed by our service. In fact, dentistry is mainly a service business. We don’t sell crowns, we sell smiles. We sell efficient chewing. We sell comfort at every level. And we sell concern for our patients’ welfare. We even sell family-like relationships. Team members who work closely with patients on multiple levels are the practice representatives that sell these things best. To totally impress our patients, we need teams that understand the power and effectiveness of their role in the practice.

To train team members in the art of relationships, begin with a clear understanding of the importance of those relationships. Use examples from outside dentistry that demonstrate how consumers chose certain businesses. We may just want a new hammer from the hardware store, but we return for more supplies when we appreciate the time the clerk spent with us to patiently educate us about the differences among hammer choices. We like the food in the restaurant, but come back again because the wait staff is solicitous of our choices and seems eager to please. And we’ll be impressed by the haircut we receive, but will return because it’s a very comfortable environment and stylists take their time to make sure we are satisfied.

Once team members understand the importance of their roles as ambassadors for the practice (in addition to the job description duties that keep the practice functioning), they can begin to learn specific techniques that will have patients raving about the care they receive.

First of all, team members should be professional, but also personable. Every team member must try to develop a personal relationship with every patient. Team members should be curious about the whole patient: where they live, how long they’ve been in the area, what they do, what they study, who else they know in the practice, who referred them, what they like in music, sports, travel, etc. Use the notes area of the chart to document information about the patient and remind the whole team at the morning huddle so that everyone can build connections. What are their kids’ names? Where did they last travel? Who passed away recently in their family? The opportunities are endless to construct a relationship with the whole person.

Specifically, a well-trained team knows that they need to go the extra mile. At the front desk, they don’t just acknowledge a new patient with a wave toward an empty seat. They stand up, welcome with a hand shake, look them in the eye, and smile. In fact, it’s well known that people can often see a person smiling even when they are talking on the phone. Smile first, talk second.

Treat every single patient with respect. Some patients just draw you in with their warmth and openness, and it’s easy to respect them. But others take work. They need that extra mile. They need the whole team to treat them with respect so that one or more can reach them. Hygienists, with their 50-plus minutes of providing gentle care to patients, are often the best to break down barriers and make patients really feel welcome. One disgruntled patient can spread a lot of bad press about the office to family and friends, just as an impressed patient will do the opposite.

Remove negative comments from the practice. “How can I help You?” “It’s my pleasure!”  “Certainly, I can take care of that.” Even, “I’m not sure but I’ll be happy to look into that for you.” It’s a common cliché in management that some team members in a business look at the customer (our patients) as the person who gets in the way of doing their job. But it’s exactly the opposite. We need to let every patient know continually how grateful we are that they chose us for their dental care. We do that by doing the best we can and showing true interest in them as a person.

A final note: finding the team members who will provide the awesome service that the practice needs is not an easy job. Most of the best dental team members are already working somewhere else. When one comes available, it’s a wise dentist who hires that employee and does what it takes to keep him or her. In this employment environment, the best team member candidates will be interviewing the practice more than the practice interviews them. Make the practice a magnet for quality team members by providing good examples of patient care, by showing real interest in every patient, paying team members a decent wage, sharing in financial and practice success, and mostly complimenting team members wherever possible and in front of patients at every opportunity. Most excellent employees have a choice of where to work. Get them to choose you!

Dr. van Dyk practices general dentistry in San Pablo, California, and teaches in the department of Dental Practice at the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry at the University of the Pacific. He lectures throughout the US and Canada. He can be reached at or at