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The New Patient Effect

One thing I notice while speaking with so many dental professionals is an obsessive focus on getting “more new patients.” It makes sense—we need to get new patients in the door for a dental office to thrive. But many offices focus so much on the new patient numbers, they don’t realize that they are losing a lot of existing patients out of the back door. If you look at the statistics, most dental offices in the U.S. are losing more patients (i.e., they haven’t been in the office for 18 months or longer) than they are gaining, which means dental offices overall are shrinking.

What would it mean to give just as much attention to existing patients as to new patients?

There are two aspects to providing exceptional ongoing management of the existing patient relationships:

  • Systems need to be appropriately adjusted and maintained.
  • Customer service must be paramount.

Constantly focusing on bringing in new patients doesn’t fix the problem of your office shrinking.

Instead, it contributes to the problem. A doctor I spoke with recently said that he thinks of this problem as a disease: “New Patientitis.” This happens when a dental office is focused almost exclusively on how it treats new patients, so the team ends up pretty much ignoring existing patients. Follow-ups aren’t done, or they are done in a manner that is about checking a task off a list rather than maintaining the customer service relationship with the patient.

When the team continually drops the ball on maintaining systems or on striving for excellent customer service in each interaction with every patient, that’s when we see existing patients start to disappear because they are not receiving the quality of care they want and need. Good care for our patients doesn’t just mean providing top notch dental care for their teeth—it also means they feel taken care of as a customer. They’re not being ignored (that’s a systems problem if you don’t do follow-ups or don’t do them effectively) and they’re not feeling less important to you now than they felt when they first walked in the door (a customer service problem).

Systems issues and customer service issues are both big problems to tackle. The good news is they have one thing in common, and if you can effectively address that one thing, then both issues will naturally improve.

What do systems and customer service have in common?

Training.  Every dental office expects its staff to maintain systems and to offer amazing customer service, and yet very few dental offices have provided enough training to their team to demonstrate exactly how to do this. Staff doesn’t get enough training on the front end when they are first hired, and don’t get training at regular intervals to catch them up with changes that organically happen in the office over time. This is why I started Front Office Rocks: to make it easy for dental offices to provide thorough training that is consistent regardless of when a team member was hired or who hired them. It’s also why I encourage dental offices to have everyone train together, not just the new people or the ones who show a need for a refresher on customer service.

Part of effective training for your team is to reiterate “why” we are here in this industry and in this office, and how that affects “how” and “what” we do to serve patients. When your team is clear on these things, then they will be able to convey the “why” to patients as well – not just new patients, but everyone that we serve. Our why as a dental professional is to help our patients get stable and healthy and help them keep their teeth for life. We are the only ones in our patients’ lives that focus on their oral health, and it is our job to do all that we can to help them in that area.

Many patients will only think of going to the dentist as a dreaded chore they would rather procrastinate on forever—they are only considering drills and needles in their mouths and how much they have to pay. But, if we reframe this as a lifetime relationship where they trust us to care for them well, then patients will not only come back to us again and again but will often refer to friends and family as well. We must do the work of reaching out to our existing patients with the mindset that not only are we reaching a goal of reappointing them, we are also maintaining that customer service relationship because we care.

When you give your existing patients as much of the focus as new patients, you will see a difference in your bottom line because fewer patients will leave out the back door.

Related Dental Training Resources

Laura Nelson

Laura Nelson, BS, MS, FAADOM is the founder and driving force behind Front Office Rocks, and the leading provider of on-demand virtual training and resources for dental practices.