You’ve overcome a lot of hurdles to get where you are today. First, you made the decision to apply to dental school and had to wait to hear whether you were accepted. Then, you made it through the program and passed the boards. After that, everything becomes focused on the biggest decision of all—continue with your education, buy an existing practice, start a practice of your own or work for an owner as an associate.
I’m familiar with these hurdles. When my husband graduated in 1999 from the University of Maryland, he decided to work as an associate for a few years before we opened a scratch practice together in 2002. (Later, I experienced business ownership a second time when I took my office manager experience and started Front Office Rocks, an online training resource that helps dental practices increase revenue by improving their day-to-day operations.) My husband and I shared a lot of ups and downs during that time.
What I learned during those years of watching my husband associate at another practice, opening our own new practice and speaking with our friend about buying an existing practice is that the biggest hurdle to overcome in all three scenarios isn’t doing the dentistry—it’s dealing with the people. You went to school to work on teeth, and you have a goal of helping people keep their teeth for life, but it’s hard to help patients if you can’t get two groups of people on your side: the staff and the patients. At this point, we hired a few associates over the years, and I’ve made it my mission to help them acclimate to private practice based on what we learned in those early years. Most of you will have to overcome this hurdle yourself soon, I want to offer some advice to you, too.
Win the Trust of Your Staff
Whether you work for another dentist or own a practice, if you want to gain your patients’ trust and take care of their dental needs, you must win over the staff first.
Why is this so difficult? Typically, the existing employees are loyal to another dentist (either the owner-dentist or the dentist who previously owned the practice) and they see you as the new kid on the block. They don’t know you or how you work. Until you have tried to blend into their world, you’ll be compared to the other dentist. If you don’t make yourself known to the staff and form relationships with them, they won’t be effective in filling your schedule or follow your instructions the way they do for the other doctor.
There are two ways to make inroads with your employees. First, get to know them individually. They need to know you as a person, not just as the new dentist. Find a time to get to know each of them. I am not suggesting you stand around the office making small talk with them—in fact, as an office manager who needs to keep a schedule running smoothly, I am begging you not to do that! However, seek out ways to talk with them one on one. Offer to take them to lunch or try to take your lunch break at the same time as the staff and talk with them in the break room. Share with them who you are and make a real effort to learn more about them. When you go out of your way to form individual relationships with staff, they will warm up to you and grow to like you for who you are. The result of this budding relationship is assimilation and mutual respect.
Build rapport with the team by inviting them into your dental chair. Once they have experienced your bedside manner and your clinical skills, they will trust you to a greater degree. Moreover, they can share the experience they had with you as a dentist with patients and describe what great care you provided while they were the patient. Even if it is just for a cleaning or an evaluation for a specific issue, getting each staff member in your chair will help them evaluate you as a dentist, build their personal trust in you and (as a bonus) help them convey that trust to the patients.
Win Over Patients as a New Dentist
Now that the staff supports you, it’s time to win over the patient. You will have a similar situation with the patients as you did with the staff, and you need to take the time to win them over. You won’t accomplish this by using big clinical terms or sharing your amazing knowledge. You’re the dental expert, but so is every other dentist in your city. Instead, win them over by taking the time to get to know each of them on a personal level. Take the time to discover a little about them and see what you may have in common. It could be something as small as sharing the love of a hobby or having both traveled to the same place.
Once the patient starts to see you as a person and you find something in common, you can wow them with your clinical knowledge and exceptional dentistry skills. Patients will remember how comfortable and positive you made them feel with that personal connection and they will believe in you as a dental expert.
Finally, if you’re working for an owner-doctor or if you are transitioning into a practice purchased from another dentist, discuss your thoughts, concerns and game plan with the current owner-doctor. You should explain your need to build trust and respect with the staff and patients and then describe how you intend to do it. Likely, the owner-doctor won’t mind supporting your plan because they brought you on to either take some of the workload off them or to smoothly transition out and have you take over. The current owner-doctor wants you to succeed just as much as you want to be a success in this new role.
What’s the bottom line? Remember, as much as we are in the tooth business, we really are in a people business. Those people are why I started Front Office Rocks—to provide dentists with a simple way to train staff how to put customer service first. In the case of starting out as a new dentist, it’s vital to treat both patients AND staff as valued customers. They want to be viewed as a person with unique needs, not just a tooth number or a one-dimensional job role in the practice. Take the time to get to know both staff and patients and share your honest self with them. Do that, and you will have the opportunity to get more teeth on your schedule to do the work you love.