Are you too much of a car salesman?

March 21, 2012
Renee Knight
Issue 4

Your patients don’t care about your production goals. They don’t want to hear about the great products and services you can offer them if those offerings don’t fit in with their overall goals. And they certainly don’t want to feel like you’re trying to sell them something.

Your patients don’t care about your production goals. They don’t want to hear about the great products and services you can offer them if those offerings don’t fit in with their overall goals. And they certainly don’t want to feel like you’re trying to sell them something.

If you and your team members take the salesman approach to dentistry, your practice likely struggles with case acceptance. Patients tend to turn off when you or a hygienist starts talking about how great whitening can be for their smile when they have zero interest in getting it done. And that’s not to say you shouldn’t educate your patients about the many great services your practice offers-you should. You just have to remember it isn’t about what you want and what’s best for your practice; it’s about what your patients want and how you can help them get there.

Why it happens

Whether it’s an advertisement touting how a product can help you sell beautiful smiles or a journal article telling you how to use a certain technique to sell a more expensive treatment plan to a patient, there are a lot of materials designed to teach clinicians how to make the sale, said Dr. Ann Boyle, Dean of the Southern Illinois University School of Dental Medicine. While it might be easy to get caught up in that, selling products or services to your patients, whether they need them or not, should never be your No. 1 focus.

Even though you’re a health care provider, you’re also running a business, and that can make it easy to lose focus on what’s most important. And yes, you have to make money to pay for your staff as well as the equipment and materials you need to provide your patients with the best possible care. This creates a conflict of interest, knowing that your job is to provide that care but also realizing you have to think about the profit margin on any given service you provide. This can be a difficult line to walk, but in the end you have to put your patients’ needs first.

“We’re always going to have that conflict of interest, but what we have to do is keep in mind that the patient view of us is that we are going to make decisions that are in their best interest, not our best interest,” Dr. Boyle said. “Their view of us is not the same as their view of a salesperson. If they start to sense we are trying to sell things because of how we approach telling them about their care options, they’re going to trust us less.”

Crossing the line

It is your job to educate your patients, to make   sure they know about any dental problems they have and what can be done to fix those problems. But when you charge staff members with selling a certain product to patients, and offer rewards for each sale they make, that’s when you’ve moved from educating to selling, Dr. Boyle said. The discussion in the office should be centered around what type of care your practice can provide, not how many implants can we sell this week or how many patients can we get to try this product, even if they don’t need it.

“The difference is in the language,” Dr. Boyle said. “We need to advise patients on their choices, but when we start using the language of a salesman to do it, we change who we are in the eyes of our patients.”

The new patient interview

Before you can talk to patients about some of the elective services you offer without it seeming like a sales pitch, you have to know what they want. The only way to know what your patients want is to ask. In about 10 minutes, you can use the new patient interview to find out what your patients expect, what their goals are and what motivates them, said Robert Spiel, MBA, of Spiel Consulting. This interview can be the start to building a relationship that includes trust. And the more your patients trust you and feel like you’re truly on their side, the more likely they’ll be to accept treatment.

“Take the time to ask the patient, ‘What are your goals? What have your prior experiences been? Why are you here?,” Spiel said. “Get to know them in general. That can help you truly understand how to present treatment as well, if you really know the patient and his or her desires.”

When you find out what the patient's goals are, you can ask questions that coincide with those goals, said Penny Reed Limoli, owner of the Reed Limoli Group. By asking  questions, you’re essentially getting permission to talk about products and services that can help your patients reach their oral health goals. And if you focus on their wants and needs, they’re a lot less likely to become irritated than if you try to tell them, and then sell them, what you think they should want or need.

How patients react

Most people don’t like it when someone tries to sell them something they don’t need. If you notice a patient suddenly becomes quiet or tries to end the conversation with an “I’ll think about it,” that patient probably is feeling a little uncomfortable, maybe even annoyed, and just wants the conversation to be over. This isn’t the time to push, Limoli said. Let these patients know you and your staff are there as a resource should they change their mind, but don’t push by telling them how much better you think they’d look with Lumineers or Invisalign.

The cost

If your tactics become too pushy, you may actually cost yourself money-and patients. People want to buy items and services from people they trust, Spiel said. If it gets to the point where they don’t like or don’t trust you, patients don’t have many reasons to remain loyal.

In general, patients tend to trust health care providers, Dr. Boyle said. They believe they got into the profession for a reason, and that reason is to help people. But if you or your team members focus on selling to them rather than caring for them, that view becomes distorted and your practice becomes a place they really don’t want to be.  

Realize they may not trust you

Many patients who walk into your office for the first time carry memories of bad dental experiences. Maybe their last dental home was made up of a team that was a little too salesy in their approach to care, or sold them on an expensive service they didn’t particularly want or need. Even though those experiences have nothing to do with you and your practice, these patients may find it difficult to trust any dental professional.

This may seem like a challenge, but Spiel said it’s actually a great opportunity if you take the time to treat these patients the way they should be treated.

If you interact with these patients, ask them questions and put them back in charge of their dental care, they’re going to notice and appreciate your efforts. These patients are great prospects, and you have the opportunity to win them back.

“If you’ve ever driven a car that’s really a lemon and then you get a new car you absolutely love, you go around and tell all your friends,” Spiel said. “The same thing happens with providers. But without asking your new patients questions, you’ll never know what their experience was like. You’ll never know what land mines to avoid.”

So how do you win them back? Provide good dental care, Dr. Boyle said. Do a comprehensive exam and tell them what you’ve found. Give them their options, complete with how much it costs, what it involves, benefits, long-term prognosis, possible side effects and how long it takes. Talk with them and give them the information they need so they can determine which option best fits their goals and their lifestyle.

“The choice is theirs, you just give them the information,” Dr. Boyle said. “We have an obligation to educate patients on their choices. There are many things that present as problems in the dental office that have optional ways they can be treated. You’re not pushing patients in any direction, but giving the pros and cons of each treatment option and then they make a decision that factors in money, time and what their goals are for their mouth.”

It comes down to the approach

If you simply focus on selling to your patients, you’re not building relationships. If you’re not building relationships, you don’t know what your patients want. And when it comes down to it, the practices with the most case acceptance are the practices that are good at asking questions and focusing on what their patients want, Limoli said. It’s the dentists and staff members who act as coaches rather than salesmen who are the most successful.

“Whether it’s an in-office case presentation or a follow-up phone call, you have to focus on the relationship, not the treatment they need or the dollar amount,” Limoli said. “We think patients get irritated by a sales pitch, but what it really means is we stopped focusing on what they wanted and started focusing on what we wanted in terms of production. Ultimately you win short and long term when you can bear that in mind and say, ‘Hey I may be the doctor and the only one who can tell you exactly what’s broken and the best way to fix it, but you’re in the driver’s seat. Where do you want to be next year or in the next five years?’ Again it’s more focused on the relationship than on this patient needs two crowns so I’m going to call him up.”