April 2021
Volume 42, Issue 4

The Power of Patient Communication in Facilitating Practice Growth

Jay Geier

There is more to patient communication than case presentations and financial negotiations. Many subtle communication points, both verbal and nonverbal, speak volumes to patients long before the dental team ever gets to those important conversations. For example, does your lobby and office convey your care about patient comfort and easing their anxiety? Do team members, including the dentist, communicate a patient-centric culture and a genuine happiness to be working there? Are potential new patient first phone calls resulting in appointments? What does your new patient welcome process say to patients?

All of these aspects of communication strongly influence patients even before the dentist reaches the point of trying to persuade them with case presentations and asking for referrals, both of which are vital to practice growth. The concept of influencing others in a positive way is important for the benefit of both the practice and its patients.

Influencing Others

In his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, best-selling author Robert B. Cialdini identified three types of people when it comes to influencing others: (1) The Bungler doesn't know anything about influencing people and typically doesn't even realize his or her role in effective patient communication. Outcomes are usually "lose/lose." (2) The Smuggler is a thief who uses the power of influence to mislead and manipulate in order to achieve a one-way gain, ie, a "win" for the practice that's not necessarily in the best interest of the patient. (3) The Detective of Influence is aware of his or her level of influence and intentionally applies principles to the benefit of both the practice and the patient; outcomes are always "win/win."

The term "influence" is often equated with a negative connotation of manipulation. Only the Smuggler uses influence in the wrong ways for the wrong reasons. Dentists need to change their paradigm by reminding themselves that patients visit because they need what the dentist has to offer. Dentists know better than their patients what that need is, and it is their responsibility to help patients make good decisions about their oral health. Communication must be done with the confidence that you as the dentist are influencing them to make those good decisions, and not manipulating them into doing something they may not need or want.

The Four-Minute Rule

Becoming a good "detective of influence" takes practice; using the four-minute rule is a great first step. When meeting patients for the first time, dentists should take about four minutes to learn about the patient before asking why they have come in. By spending these first few minutes conversing with new patients, information can be gathered that can be used to influence them later to both their and the practice's benefit. For example, ask the patient where they live and for how long they've been there. Ask about their family, what their interests are, what they do for a living, and who referred them. By showing authentic interest, dentists will garner valuable information that can help them make the most appropriate treatment recommendations. In addition, they may be surprised at how much they enjoy getting to know their patients.

Influence Is a Process

Influencing patients-for the right reasons and to create "win/win" outcomes-is a process. It begins with the small communication touchpoints mentioned earlier and follows through to advantageous treatment recommendations. The principles of influence can be applied to the dental team so that they can consistently execute a well-orchestrated process for every patient, thereby delivering a great patient experience and supporting practice growth.

Learning to be a good influencer becomes the basis of an effective process that leads to repeat visits, larger purchases, and a continuous flow of new patients through referrals. A patient visit can be divided into three main parts, with the principles of influence used in each. First, is the time from the call to the appointment, to increase new patients. Next, is from the moment the appointment is scheduled through when the patient is in the chair; this part of the experience is a major factor as to whether or not the patient stays, pays, and refers. Lastly, is the time from the chair through the end of the appointment where treatment is presented and consented to and which most doctors think is what determines whether a patient will consent to treatment. In fact, whether or not they consent starts from the first phone call interaction through the entire process. Each part of the process builds on the previous part, with the principles of influence being applied along the way.

Practitioners should critically assess every aspect of their patient communication process to improve new patient growth, conversion, and compliance, and learn how to set new expectations and change behaviors that will lead to a "win/win/win" situation for their patients, team, and practice.

About the Author

Jay Geier
Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Scheduling Institute (schedulinginstitute.com), a results-focused practice management firm that specializes in team training and doctor coaching

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