You only get one shot at making a great first impression. And that’s certainly true when a new dental patient visits your office for their first appointment.
If all goes well, you may have a loyal patient for life. But if you do anything that makes the patient feel undervalued, it’s not likely they’ll return.
Making an entrance
It’s important to keep in mind that your new patient’s first appointment starts before they even arrive at your office.
“Before they ever get in your chair, before you ever meet them, every single piece of their arrival is a reflection on your dentistry,” notes Laci Phillips of Practice Dynamics.
Make sure you and your team look at every step of arriving at your dental office through the new patient’s eyes. Ask yourself the following questions and make sure everything shows that you pay attention to details:
- Is your office easy to find? Are there signs directing people? Do your online map listings show pictures of the outside of the office? Are the driving directions accurate?
- Is your signage easy to see from the street? Is it well lit, even when you are closed? Can your name and phone number be easily read at a glance when people pass by?
- Is the parking lot easy to access? Is there ample parking? Are handicapped spaces clearly marked and located close enough to the front door? Any unrepaired potholes?
- Is your entryway clean and free of cobwebs and leaves? Are your office hours displayed on the door? Does your welcome mat look worn out? Any fingerprints on the glass?
Everything your new patient sees and experiences when they enter your office for their first appointment should reinforce the expectations they already have, and reassure them that they have made the right choice in coming to your dental practice.
“Make sure the ambiance and appearance of the practice really support the branding you have already invested in. If you’re marketing yourself as state-of-the-art, your office environment should reflect that. We have to make our patients feel that they are very special and very important. We need to roll out the red carpet,” emphasizes Andrea Greer of On Point Space.
Lois Banta, founder of Banta Consulting, feels that the patient’s entry into your office is also the perfect time for your mission statement to take center stage.
“You want your mission statement to touch their heart, not necessarily just their brain,” says Banta. “Make sure the message can be matted and framed and noticeable when the patient walks in the door. When they see it in the reception room, it looks like artwork on the wall so their eye is drawn to it, and they read this message and all of a sudden they interpret the message and scan around the room. Does the message match the physical presence of the space? Do the people have the right personality that will consistently send that message to the patient that they’ve just chosen the right office?”
Making the new dental patient the star of the show
Making your new patients feel valued and special is the most important thing to focus on during the first appointment. If there is ever a time to play favorites, the new patient experience is it.
“New patient appointments should be highlighted on the schedule as most important. Your face has to light up when you first make eye contact. Then, you have an advantage from there,” confirms dental image consultant Janice Hurley.
“If possible, the person who spoke to the new patient on the phone should also be the person to welcome them into the office,” recommends Adelle Reisch of Practice Dynamics.
“I think everybody on the team, and especially the doctor, approaches the new patient appointment as sacred. We’re not going to run late. Ever. If we run late, that tells the patient that we don’t respect their time. We can’t ask our patients to show up on time if we don’t respect their time,” agrees Greer.
While being busy is generally viewed as a positive in terms of business and generating revenue, it can also have a very negative effect on the new dental patient experience.
“Patients feeling like they’re a number rather than a person is a very common thread that we see, especially in practices that are busy,” Greer points out. “We always want to be busy, but as practices get busy, sometimes we cognizantly have to slow down and just say this is the person that is important to me right now, this person in front of me.”
Don’t overlook paperwork as part of the experience. Increasingly, more offices are encouraging new patients to complete paperwork prior to their visit, whether online or hard copies. When and where forms are filled out should be presented to the new patient as an option for their convenience. If they will be completed in the office, remind the patient to arrive early for their first appointment to avoid any delays. If they are completing printed copies at home, sending them the forms in a nice welcome packet presents your practice in a much more professional way than a stack of papers stuffed into an envelope.
“Make sure paperwork reflects focus and attention on the patient as being number one,” Hurley advises. “A first class office will ask how that patient feels about dental health in general and how they would rate themselves right now, if they’ve ever had a less than positive experience, and what’s important to them on this visit. The personal history should be personally designed and read by your team so they are not asking questions during the visit that have already been answered by the patient.”
Your new patient will obviously interact with several people in your office during their first appointment — from the reception area, to hygiene, to the exam, to the check out. Handing the patient off from one person to the next must go smoothly and never create an uncomfortable experience.
“The handoff is crucial. The patient never wants to feel that awkward moment of wondering who they should talk to. The handoff, in front of the patient, should let the patient know the next person is taking the baton,” says Banta.
“Those communication handoffs happen throughout the new dental patient experience from the first phone call until the patient is dismissed from their appointment. So, whatever it is they’ve mentioned that’s important, make sure that information is passed on,” adds Reed.
Regarding the sequence through your office and what it should be, it varies from practice to practice. In some cases, the patient goes to hygiene and then the exam. For others, the doctor sees the patient first before a cleaning. For some circumstances, especially if the patient hasn’t received dental care in a while, prophy may come in a separate appointment. In those situations, it should be made clear to the patient what they should expect and why they would benefit from waiting until after a thorough exam for a scheduled prophy visit.
No matter what the flow through your office may be, starting off with a first appointment tour is a good idea to acclimate the patient to your surroundings and help them feel more at ease. As you guide them around, introduce them to members of your team who they will be interacting with. Remember… keep the experience focused on the patient, not the office team.
“The most important person in the room is the patient when doing introductions,” Hurley adds.
Building a relationship
Without a doubt, the most important connection to make during the first appointment is between the doctor and the new patient. Setting aside extra time during the first meeting to get to know each other is helpful, but many dentists aren’t exactly blessed with “people skills,” making the first experience uncomfortable and awkward for patients. For dentists who are a bit introverted and may find it difficult to strike up a spontaneous conversation, Chris Ciardello of Global Team Solutions suggests a trick.
“Something I coach doctors on coming up with a list of 20 or 30 questions ahead of time that they can just pick from, and ask anybody as a conversation starter,” says Ciardello.
Even if a dentist isn’t very outgoing, there are basic communication skills he or she can improve to help put the new patient at ease and, even more important, build trust.
“I’m not saying that I’m expecting an introverted dentist to turn into a talk show host. But any of us can be sincerely interested in other people,” says Reed. “If you become genuinely interested in other people, that’s all the patients want. They’re not expecting you to sing to them or tell them jokes or be the life of the party. If you’re quiet, it’s easier to develop listening skills.”
When it comes to dental patient interaction, Hurley believes quality matters more than quantity.
“I’m a huge believer in the science of body language,” says Hurley. “Never stand behind the new patient. Never ask questions that were already answered on paperwork. All of that is way more important than the amount of time you spend with them.”
“I think the biggest mistake dental practitioners make is we often turn our back to the patient, get on our computer and start looking at x-rays and ask them questions,” adds Greer. “The thing that we don’t remember is that patients don’t know that they are being heard unless we are making eye contact with them. We want to really make our patients feel heard. Any time you do ask a question, you need to be cognizant of your body language. Sit down, knee-to-knee at eye level. Ask them a question, stop talking, pay attention and let them answer the question before you ask the next question. Don’t cut them off. Don’t assume you know their answers. Ask the question and then listen for those answers.”
Improve the rest of the new dental patient experience
The first appointment is just one piece of the new dental patient experience. If you want to wow your new patients and keep them coming back for more, get our free guide, The Ultimate Guide to Improving the New Dental Patient Experience. It’s packed with tips and tricks from some of the dental industry’s top consultants. Get your copy today!