Practice Perception Part II: What messages might your staff be sending?

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In the first installment of Practice Perception, I asked; Does your physical plant represent your practice mission? We looked at the elements that contribute to painting a fuller picture of what your practice is about and is often the primary way patients can assess who you are and your level of professionalism and expertise.

Of course, there are other factors that contribute to your practice image.  One of the most powerful influencers is your staff. They can be a primary reason why patients are attracted to or end up leaving your practice.

Inside the practice, you certainly would want your team to be on their best behavior and represent you in a positive light. However, you can’t assume they will behave or act appropriately without being specific about your expectations. Make sure your employee manual contains specific guidelines for things as basic as the following:

PERSONAL APPEARANCE – include specifics on what you will or will not tolerate regarding: jewelry, piercings, tattoos, hair, personal hygiene, oral health, cologne or perfume, or tobacco smoke or smell.  

CLOTHING – if you supply uniforms, this should not be an issue. If you don’t, you must be specific about what is and is not appropriate.

CHATTER – quite often, dentists complain that the staff banter gets in the way of patient care. Patients who hear staff talking amongst themselves while they sit idly waiting will feel ignored. The hard and fast rule should be that the content of staff conversations in places outside the staff break room should be focused exclusively on patient care. In addition, remind your staff there should be no bad-mouthing or negative comments to other staff members or patients at any time.

PRIVACY – and of course, any conversations relating to patient care should be private and discussed in a place where they would not risk being overheard by others.

TEXTING, CELL PHONES AND SOCIAL MEDIA – team members gripe all the time about patients who use their phones during their appointments. Imagine how patients feel when a staff member diverts their attention from patients to text or use their phone or check their Facebook. It is rude and inappropriate. Period. Patients should not see or hear a staff member’s personal phone – not even a buzz when it’s placed on silent.

You cannot stop team members from using Facebook or other social media outlets outside of the practice, but you can remind them that what they post about their job or the practice is up for scrutiny. Depending on the comment, it could present the practice in a bad light. Comments can also cross privacy boundaries.  In order to protect themselves and the practice, you should request that they refrain from commenting on anything related to the practice.

ATTITUDE – you have probably experienced your share of passive-aggressive behavior by your team. It manifests itself in ways in which you may not be aware until it is brought to your attention by another team member or a patient; being surly or short with someone, slamming doors or banging things, ignoring others, sarcasm and responding in an overly exaggerated sweetness that is “put on”. Patients pick up on these behaviors and it reflects poorly on the practice and you as their leader.

OUTSIDE THE PRACTICE:

How many times have you been in public and seen one of your patients?  Whether it’s at the grocery store, gas station, sporting event or the countless other places you might go, you are keenly aware of how you might be perceived by your patients outside the practice. Your staff?  Not so much.  

When they aren’t working, your staff are probably not thinking about patients seeing them in a less-than-flattering light. And there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. However, you can encourage them to be on their best behavior. Remind them that they can be a powerful influencer to encourage patients to stay active in their dental care by the warm greeting or response they give patients outside the practice.

Enforcing these expectations can be difficult but it is essential that your staff understand  how vitally important they are in influencing practice perception. They are a huge part of the equation.

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Practice Perception: From the inside out

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In my previous post, I mentioned a dying bamboo centerpiece we discovered in a restaurant to illustrate the importance of practice perception. My main point was that patients have no way to judge your clinical abilities and the indicators they will use to determine what your practice is about or gauge your expertise are the physical plant, the environment you create and the way you engage your patients in the process. Let’s take it one step further.

Does your physical plant represent your practice mission and is it in alignment with what you offer?

In this and future posts, I want to focus on the physical plant and environment and shed light on those areas you may want to evaluate in your practice.

For example, for new patients, the most important place in your practice is the reception area. This is where the look and feel of the practice is established and should be congruent with the image and messages you are sending into the marketplace. You want this space to set the stage for what the patient can come to expect from you and your team.

Let’s use a simple exercise and approach this process by using the five senses as a guide. If your practice specializes in working with anxious or fearful patients, how would you want your reception area to look, feel, sound, smell and even taste? Visualize in your mind how a person might enter into and experience the environment.You want to project the image of clean, soft, comforting, soothing, uncluttered space.

Sight

The colors would be blues, greens or violets to calm the mind, provide harmony and balance and encourage meditation. Artwork would be minimal and serene – no generic smiling people portraits. The space would be accented with side tables and you wouldn’t find ratty magazines or stand up displays promoting procedures or electric toothbrushes.  Instead, visitors might discover hardcover picture books about photography, travel, animals, or inspirational short stories. Plants would bring in the natural environment and remove the clinical feel. A couple of carefully-placed live flowers might dot the room showing your care and attention.

The lighting would not come from harsh overhead or can lights but instead would be a mixture of floor and table lamps and sconces, providing soft, warm pools of light through the space.

Touch

There would be soft, inviting comfy chairs or loveseats, perhaps with pillows. Massage chairs might be another option. The floor would be carpeted or would have throw rugs, which also softens the sound of footsteps and voices.

Sound

Patients might hear instrumental spa music just loud enough that sounds from the clinical area would be masked. A water feature like a fountain, or a live or virtual aquarium would support the calming environment and add a distraction for anxious patients. No loud phones ringing, no speaker phone, and the volume of voices would be kept low.

Smell

Candles or wall plug-ins would dispense the aroma of lavender, mint or jasmine to aid in calming fearful visitors. No clinical or “staff lunch” smells would be detected.

Taste

A coffee, tea and water station would invite visitors to make themselves at home with an assortment of flavors, including calming camomile.

Can you begin to see and experience this reception area in your mind’s eye? This sets the stage for what they will experience throughout their visit. The physical space and everything you do should be congruent with this.

You may want to gather your staff together and perform this exercise in your own practice.  Paint a picture for your team of the way you would like to treat your patients and how you want your practice to be perceived, based on your specialty and mission. Start with the physical plant. Come up with ways you can support the message.  Walk through the space and evaluate what is in the space now. What doesn’t belong? What would you want to change or how would you improve the features? Then do this same exercise for each area of the practice:

Entrance
Reception
Front desk
Clinical areas
Business office
Treatment consultation room
Other public areas: hallways, bathroom

I would love to see photos of your reception area to see how you welcome patients.

In my next blog posts, I will look at the following equally important areas of perception: Staff, external messages and marketing messages. Be sure to click on the “Follow” button so you will get notification of the next post.

The Dying Bamboo

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Recently, Sandy and I had dinner with a dentist and his wife before we visited their practice for observation. The restaurant was in the airport hotel where we were staying.  We were greeted and seated immediately and as we settled in, both of us noticed the centerpiece; a trendy looking slate stone vase that held a single bamboo shoot.  Sounds like a great concept, right?  If only the bamboo wasn’t falling over and the leaves weren’t yellow and wilted.  It was downright sad.

Immediately, this symbol of good luck became a depressing sign, so we removed it from the table.  It might also have been a sign for the lack of attention the restaurant received from the management and employees. As the dinner progressed, I noticed the bread was stale, the water glasses sat empty without a refill, and the meals were plated with little care. I began to wonder whether the food prep area was sanitary. Was the walk-in refrigerator temperature to “code”? Did the employees wash their hands? I didn’t have high expectations for the meal. Luckily, our server was decent and our food was acceptable but the experience was less than what I expect from this type of restaurant. I left underwhelmed.

What we discovered were telltale signs that no one was paying attention to the details. If those details weren’t being tended to, what about the things that really mattered?  In their book,“In Search of Excellence,” Peters and Waterman make the following observation:

“When there are coffee stains on the tray tables, passengers wonder about the quality of the maintenance of the airplane’s engines.

These signs undermine confidence. The same is true in your practice. For example, on a recent consultation visit to an upscale cosmetic practice, I immediately noticed something that seemed out of place. The sign in front of the building and the landscaping was top notch. The reception area was gorgeous and it was obvious an interior designer was consulted. The environment was warm and the sounds were soothing. Then I saw it. The spot on the carpet. It did not belong. When I asked the group about it later in the day, most of the team had no idea what I was talking about. Two staff members did recall the spot and said that it had been there for as long as they could remember. No one seemed to feel it was a big deal. That spot was as significant as the dying bamboo centerpiece.

Point 1: Patients have no way to judge your clinical abilities and the indicators they will use to gauge your expertise are the physical plant, the environment you create and the way you engage your patients in the process. If the little details aren’t tended to, your patients will wonder if the things that truly matter – proper diagnosis, clinical expertise, sanitation standards – are also being overlooked.

Point 2: Your team must be vigilant all the time. Create a culture where your staff is encouraged to pay attention to the little things – the stain on the carpet, the full trash can in the patient’s bathroom, a patient’s concerned look or the negative comment he or she might make on their way out. Everything matters. Patients notice. You can’t let down your guard.

Over the course of the next several articles, we will review the physical plant and environment and shed light on those areas you may want to pay more attention to in your practice. If there is a specific area you would like for me to address, please comment below or email and let me know.