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Why small talk makes a big difference to patients


Building trust and relationships will keep patients coming back to your practice.

You’re having an awful day. Something went wrong with your schedule and now you’re running behind. As you rush from patient to patient, you begin to form a plan. You’ll dispense with the small talk, focus on being Dr. Efficient for a few hours and get the day back on track.

Congratulations! You’ve just discovered a fool-proof way to aggravate your patients and devalue your practice.

What you value vs. what your patients value

It makes sense that your first impulse is to cut the social time out of the appointment. You do good work and patients should appreciate your skills. The thing is, unless they’re in severe pain or they have constantly failing restorations, patients don’t tend to judge the quality of their dentist’s work. You have the degrees and the practice, so they assume that you, and all dentists, are competent until proven otherwise. The reason they keep coming back to your particular practice over and over is the relationships they have with you and your staff.

Trending article: 6 stories that prove the dental industry is the weirdest

This isn’t unique to dentistry. Researchers writing for the Harvard Business Review have discovered that, across industries, the emotional connection a customer has with a business is more important than his or her satisfaction with the products or services provided. Relationships matter and the way you build that relationship is by taking the time to make your patient feel special and appreciated as a person.

What does that mean for a busy day? You literally can’t afford to rush through the small talk.

When you ask patients how their kids are doing, how their vacation went, or if they’ve got any new hobbies or projects, you’re building an emotional connection. They feel valuable to you as a person. They’re one step closer to becoming the sort of patient who enthusiastically refers their family and friends.

Sandwiching work between the small talk

How do you handle relationship building when you’re running behind and in a rush? First of all, take a deep breath and remember that small talk doesn’t really take that long. Make sure to:

  • Enter the operatory calmly and deliberately so that you don’t look rushed.

  • Smile, greet the patient and ask a few personal questions. Make a little small talk.

  • Carefully explain what you’re doing today. (It doesn’t matter if your assistant has already explained it. Hearing it again from you, in simple terms, helps build the relationship.)

  • Once you start working, you don’t have to talk. You can focus on what’s in front of you and work quickly. The patient won’t remember it if you’re not chatty during this part of the appointment

  • When you’re done, make sure to engage with the patient again before you hand his or her care back to your assistant. Tell him or her what you did and how you expect it to improve his or her life. Say goodbye and that you hope you’ll see him or her again soon.

All in all, you’ve spent maybe three to five minutes engaging with the patient. You worked quickly and you’re closer to being on schedule. You haven’t really sacrificed any time, but you’ve gained a new fan.

Read more: 5 ways to reactivate inactive patients

What your patient is going to remember from this appointment is that you were friendly, you showed concern for him or her, and you did something to make his or her life better. Your patients won’t care that you worked more quickly and talked less than usual. Instead they might remember you as hardworking and efficient. The relationship building happened at the beginning and the end of your time with the patient. Even though you were having a bad day, even though you were rushed, from the patient’s perspective, you were the same friendly, caring dentist that he or she expects to see at appointments. You’ve averted a disaster and built your practice simply by paying attention to the “bread” portion of the appointment sandwich.

For more tips on how to establish stellar patient relationships and take your office from an ordinary practice to an extraordinary one, check out Dr. Etchison’s newly released book, “Dental Practice Hero,” available on Amazon.

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