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First Impressions

Most of us, since a very young age, have heard and learned some variation of the following phrase: “You only have one chance to make a good first impression.”  While I hesitate to argue or find fault with conventional wisdom, when it comes to your dental office and new patients, I propose that you actually have several opportunities to make a good first impression.

To my way of thinking, the first FIRST IMPRESSION probably occurs when a prospective new patient picks up the phone and calls your office.  How this call is handled is crucial to whether or not the caller actually becomes a patient in your office.  I suppose it could be argued that in order for the person to have called they would need to have somehow found your phone number and the printed message (paper or electronic) would actually be the VERY FIRST IMPRESSION, but that’s a topic for another time.  For now, let’s just focus on personal contact.  Do you know how well (or poorly) your phone is answered?  Is there a specific protocol for answering the phone in your office?  Does everyone who potentially answers the phone know the protocol?  Do they understand that the main reason why nearly everyone calls a dental office is to schedule an appointment?  Does the conversation consistently lead to the caller actually making an appointment?  Do you track this?  Why not?  It would likely be very revealing to compare the number of incoming calls with the number of appointments made.  In many offices, we find that advertising dollars are being squandered because the person answering the phone is not focused on simply making the appointment.  Remember, this is usually the first personal contact a prospective patient has with your office.  Be sure it is done right!  Be sure the person answering the phone is being perceived as friendly, caring, compassionate, concerned, smiling, helpful,warm, understanding, empathetic, etc.  Be equally, if not more, sure that the person answering the phone is NOT perceived as rushed, surly, dour, unfriendly, unconcerned, not caring, noncompassionate, flippant, etc.  This isn’t rocket science, but you’d be amazed at how many offices completely drop the ball with the initial phone call.  (TIP: If you’ve never heard Jay Geier lecture on this topic, you’re missing a huge opportunity to learn from the best).

The next FIRST IMPRESSION occurs when the patient arrives at your office.  Is the signage great, or does the new patient have to circle the block a few times to find you?  Is the front door spotless?  What does the office smell like when you first come through the front door?  (HINT: If you never enter the office through the front door, you’re probably missing these things).  What does the furniture look like?  If it is more than 5 or 6 years old, it is probably beginning to look “dated”.  What about the paint or wallpaper?  What about the carpet or flooring?  If you aren’t paying attention to the details of these simple housekeeping duties, what makes you think the patient won’t wonder about the cleanliness of those “tools” you’re putting in their mouth?  How clean is the patient restroom?  Do you ever check on it?

The next FIRST IMPRESSION occurs when someone at the front desk personally greets the new patient.  This should happen immediately.  Don’t make a new patient stand there awkwardly and wait.  Know the schedule.  Be expecting them.  Remember, most new patients to your office are nervous.  Again, your “greeter” needs to be friendly, smiling, warm, caring, etc.  The goal is to make the patient feel immediately comfortable and reinforce the fact that the decision they made to visit your office was a good decision.

The next FIRST IMPRESSION is, to me, critical —- don’t make them wait!  Do you realize that one of the main reasons given by people when asked about why they hate to visit the dentist or doctor relates to waiting?  Do you enjoy waiting?  For anything?  Most of us are much more inclined towards instant gratification.  Get this right and I guarantee that your referrals will go up.  Get it wrong and you face an uphill struggle in convincing patients to refer their friends and family.  Remember: No one likes to wait.

The next FIRST IMPRESSION occurs when the assistant or hygienist comes into the reception area to escort the new patient back to the treatment area.  Now the patient is really starting to evaluate and grade the total experience.  This first encounter with the clinical staff must express professionalism and confidence, along with the aforementioned friendliness, caring, concern, etc.  It is helpful if the assistant or hygienist can walk beside the patient as they move to the treatment room.  If this isn’t possible due to a narrow hallway or some other physical obstacle, then definitely walk behind the patient and gently guide them.  The worst scenario is for the assistant of hygienist to use the “follow me” method and march off ahead of the patient.  Remember: The new patient is nervous.  Everything they see and hear is a new experience.  Make sure it is positive.  This is also the first experience they have in the operatory.  Make sure it is perfect.  Don’t forget the ceiling, since they will be looking at it for extended periods of time.  Be sure the corners are clean, the windows are clean, the chair itself is clean, the counter tops are neat (uncluttered) and clean, etc.  Everything doesn’t have to be new, but there really is no excuse for it not to be spotless and gleaming.

The next FIRST IMPRESSION occurs when the doctor meets the patient.  Same general requirements apply: be friendly, smile, call them by name, and be sure to thank them for coming in.  Always listen more than talk.  Ask questions.  Focus on the patient and his/her concerns.  Your goal is to find out exactly what the patient wants.  It is also important to find out what the patient does not want.  Then strive to give them more of what they want and less of what they don’t want.  Simple.  Do this and you’ll be creating a life-long patient who keeps their appointments, pays their bill, and refers everyone they know!  If you choose to spend your time attempting to impress them with your infinite knowledge of dental anatomy and “telling them what they need” you will likely experience a lower than desired treatment acceptance ratio coupled with below average referrals.

The next FIRST IMPRESSION occurs when the patient moves back to the administrative area to discuss finances (money) and schedule the next appointment.  You and your team could have done an absolutely fantastic job at all of the previously stated FIRST IMPRESSIONS, but if this step is mishandled, it is all for naught.  You simply must have a bullet-proof system for patient checkout.  This step must not be perceived by the patient as being disorganized or clumsy.  It must be highly organized and as brief as humanly possible.  When the patient gets out of the operatory chair, they generally believe the appointment is over.  They are starting to mentally process and plan the many details of life that will occur after they leave your office.  Making them wait or be delayed at the end of the appointment is possibly a more serious error than making them wait when they arrive.  Both are practice killers.  So be sure you have a very efficient system in place.  It might take a few minutes extra for a new patient, but I would establish a goal of five (5) minutes or less.  For subsequent visits, shoot for two (2) minutes or less.

Get all of this right every time and you’ll see your practice grow exponentially.