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At the recent American Association of Dental Office Managers (AADOM) meeting in Orlando, Fla., Cindy Sooter of Joplin, Mo., was named as the 2013 Office Manager of the Year.
Shortly after she received her award and a standing ovation from her peers, I had the chance to sit down with the Joplin Family Dental office manager to talk about her career, the devastating tornado of 2011, and the one thing she wishes every office manager and dentist knew.
Kevin Henry: Talk about your background.
Cindy Sooter: I’ve been in dentistry for more than 30 years. I started as an assistant when I was 19. I didn’t really think about getting into dentistry growing up, but I had always wanted to be in healthcare. My dad was big into customer service and would always say, “The customer is always right.” He taught me at an early age about customer service, and that has translated into knowing how patients should be treated.
Henry: What is an important trait for office managers and dentists to share?
Sooter: Communication is everything, but it has to be honest. The doctor has to be willing to receive feedback and has to be willing to engage in open, honest communication. I have had to talk to dentists about some very difficult subjects, and they usually responded appropriately and really listened to what I had to say. Attitude is so important.
The office manager looks at the whole picture when it comes to the dental practice, and the dentist has to realize that. Sometimes the office manager has to be the middleman to defuse a situation, and I love doing that. Sometimes it’s stressful but I know I am always making a difference. I’m lucky to be doing something I love so much.
Henry: What’s one aspect of your job that you find fulfilling and makes a difference to the practice’s bottom line?
Sooter: I do all of the treatment presentations. I can present them with confidence because I believe in what Dr. Fitterling and Dr. Woodward do. The financial part of the practice goes hand in hand with what I was brought in to do for the practice.
We believe that the patient has to know that there is a problem before he or she will want to fix it. We go over the patient’s oral health tooth by tooth and a patient never walks out of our practice wondering what he or she will pay.
Henry: Your practice was one of the many in Joplin devastated by the massive 2011 tornado. Take our readers through that dark day and its aftermath.
Sooter: You never think something like that will happen to you. You do your backups, but you never think that everything will just be gone. The second story was completely gone and the first story imploded upon itself. After the tornado, we had torrential rain so what was left was wet and then molded.
Henry: How did you, your team members, and the practice react?
Sooter: We knew we had to get our practice going again. We had so many patients who had been so loyal to us through the years that we knew we had to reopen. We had to get back to work, and we learned about Dental Access trailers. We rented one dental trailer along with a couple of contractor trailers for reception and business office space.
We got back up and running in less than a month. It was important for us and our entire city to look to the future and begin rebuilding. We had two operatories in the trailer so our doctor worked from 7-1 and our hygienists worked from 1-6. Our entire team was phenomenal, even with all of the challenges, and it brought us closer together than we had ever been before.
Henry: And how is Joplin Family Dental now?
Sooter: Amazing. Because we had the opportunity to start seeing patients so soon after the tornado, we received an abundance of new patients as well as our current patients. It took one year to complete our new beautiful and spacious office. In our previous facility, we were locked into a space and had no room to grow. Together, we worked to rebuild and now our practice is better than ever. We have added a full-time dentist, a part-time dentist, and five additional team members. We are so excited about the future of our office and the Joplin community.
Henry: What’s the one message you wish every dental practice could hear from you?
Sooter: Communication, trust, and honesty are so important. With so much going on in dental practices, there really isn’t time to beat around the bush. An office manager wants what is best for the dental practice. An office manager wants everything to go well and for the practice to be as productive as possible.
That sometimes means there must be tough conversations between her and the dentist about difficult things. The dentist, as a leader, has to be able to understand and both need to react accordingly, with mutual respect. An office manager must be comfortable communicating with dentists, team me