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18th November 2011

First Impressions Count

When a prospective patient walks into a dental practice for the first time it is vital that the best possible impression is made. For quite some time now we’ve all heard that an opinion can be formed extremely quickly, with varying estimates ranging from 20-60 seconds. However, research from Princeton University conducted by Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov has shown that a definite opinion is formed within a 10th of a second! It would also seem that this initial opinion is rarely changed, so making a strong first impression on your would-be patient is absolutely vital.

When considering how to form a positive first impression you need to look at three key areas: (1) The presentation of the practice – the reception area in particular; (2) The communication skills of the practice staff; (3) The quality and quantity of physical material made available to the patient. Points 1 and 3 should be the easiest to address.  How many times have you visited a practice and experienced some of the following within the reception area: grubby walls, or at least dulled paintwork; out of date posters; cheap and worn furniture; masses of out of date magazines etc.  It doesn’t matter how impressive the dental treatment room is, if the patient is required to spend 10 minutes sat in a reception area/waiting room which is seemingly austere and very Soviet bloc inspired. Ensuring that it is thoroughly clean, regularly painted in warm friendly colours, has presentable furniture and has informative posters on display as well as magazines which are at the very least current, can and will make a difference.

Perhaps more than anything, the communication skills of all dental practice staff will have the biggest impact on the impression formed by a patient.  Receptionists must be warm, welcoming and helpful at all times.  There is nothing more off-putting for a patient than encountering a receptionist who is either (a) giving the impression that they are too busy to deal with you and therefore perfunctory in their answers - bordering on rude with their responses; or (b) seemingly uncaring and lacking in any real social skills, so that the impression gained is that they just don’t care.  The same also applies to other dental staff, whether a dental nurse, hygienist or the dentist him/herself. Greeting your patiently warmly and giving them clear, unambiguous information is what everyone should strive to deliver.  It should not be informal, but at the same time it should not be over-formal to the point that the patient feels like they are merely a number, clocking in for a routine appointment.  Customer service in a dental practice is just as valuable as it is within a Knightsbridge retailer.  Get it wrong and they will not come back.

Communication is one of most difficult area to address, but this is where the QCS Dental Management System can help you.  In its entirety, communication embraces everything from the welcome at reception, through to information policy and procedures, monitoring of business communications, daily communication meetings, patient referrals and patient feedback.  If we take just one of the QCS policies and procedures which can help you here, namely Administration Communication and Action Form, you will find documentation which ensures that all information which affects patients’ experiences of services is recorded in an accountable and auditable format. The Dental Management System contains many other useful communication protocols, policies, procedures and forms which will help you to achieve the desired outcome.

Spend time with your dental practice staff to ensure that they are trained in delivering excellent and hospitable customer service.  Think about how you would like to be treated should you be looking for a new dental practice, but also don’t neglect the experience of existing patients.  Just because they are your patients now, does not mean you can let standards slide. One of the best ways to see how you are doing is to ask your patients directly.  Ask your patients if they would complete feedback about the service they received, rating each element of the appointment.  If need be, make the feedback anonymous, so that your patient feels entirely comfortable about giving their opinions honestly and constructively.  But remember to include some options for them to leave comments, not just tick boxes.  Great recommendations for changes can come directly from the service user, rather than just the provider.

When thinking about communication skills and patient needs, consider the types of patients you have attending the practice.  If you have a larger than average representation from certain ethnic or overseas groups, consider whether it would be prudent to have a multi-lingual receptionist in place, or at the very least, custom designed hand-outs, leaflets and posters in more than one language.  If you have nervous patients, then why not ask them to come in for a chat on a date prior to their appointment, so that you can try and alleviate their nerves. Alternatively, you could schedule a telephone appointment to achieve a similar effect. It may take up your time, but your patient will appreciate it all the more.  Being empathetic with every type of customer is crucially important. When planning a patient’s treatment, you must be aware of their clinical history and any problems that may have, e.g. dental phobia/anxiety. This pre-treatment appointment will only enhance that treatment planning.  Aside from being a regulatory requirement of the Care Quality Commission, a failure to understand your patient’s needs could have legal ramifications if the treatment fails to go according to plan. Understanding phobias is just one of the more obvious conditions you can uncover via good, clear and open communication.

To achieve excellent service delivery, isn’t really that difficult.  Practice staff need to be willing and open to coaching on communication, procedures and policies need to be in place to back up these endeavours and accountabilities need to be instilled so that staff take ownership for their actions. Dentistry is like any other service provider: get it wrong and your patients will go elsewhere, get it very wrong and the CQC inspector will come knocking!  But get it right and your practice will flourish.

Topics: Dentists

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