Habits are an important part of both our work lives and our personal lives. Remember the old saying: “Watch your thoughts, they become words. Watch your words, they become deeds. Watch your deeds, they become habits. Watch your habits, they become character...and character is everything.”
It should be no surprise, then, that Stephen Covey's book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, is still a bestseller, despite being written 30 years ago. And while those timeless principles for effectiveness are great, it can be a little hard figuring out how to apply them to specific situations, let alone an entire career path.
The difficulty in application holds double for dental practices, and the dental industry in general. Part of this has to do with the changing nature of practices, the increasing popularity of DSOs, and the wealth of new technologies for both clinical practice and business management. Part of it also has to do with changing perceptions of dentistry in general: Smaller “hometown” practices with a single dentist and office assistant are disappearing or being bought, even as new tools bring more engagement between practices and patients.
But a big part of it is experience. Who can possibly know what it takes to run a successful practice, unless that person has “been there, done that”? This last reason is what prompted us to share our own seven habits of highly successful dentists.
1. Put Important Things First
Many dentists who are growing a practice (or starting a new one) will come up with a list of a dozen new ideas they can try. That list adds a growing stack of other lists: New equipment to buy, new things to learn, new people to get to know…
It doesn’t take too long for burn-out to set in. New ideas get left half-implemented, with no actual effect on the practice at large. At the end of the day, 10 things have been tried, but none of them consistently. Sound familiar at all?
Fortunately, the fix is simple. It takes prioritizing, and delegating. Start by prioritizing what needs to get done. Some things might be urgent and important, like putting patient privacy controls in place, or updating your billing system. Other things, like sharing some cool social media posts or trying out a new piece of equipment, might be more fun, but they are ultimately less urgent and less important. Make a list of all your ideas and then arrange in order of priority. Don’t try to tackle more than two items on your list by yourself at once!
But notice that we said “don’t tackle more than two items by yourself.” This is where delegation comes in. As a dentist, you need to concentrate on those things that only you can do—which is most of the clinical side of the practice—and then learn to hand off other functions like billing, marketing, communications, and finances. These can be done by members of your staff, or by a dental support organization (DSO). Delegating these responsibilities allow you to put important things first.
2. Get the Right People in Place
Once you know what you need to prioritize and what can be delegated, it’s time to get people who can help you. It’s important not to rush this step, hiring just to fill vacancies: Hiring the wrong person will hurt your practice more than it will help!
In an article for Dentistry IQ, CEO Sally McKenzie suggests these steps for hiring:
- Develop detailed job descriptions. They are worth the effort.
- Make your job listings stand out by using action words, and be sure to include a salary range.
- Carefully review resumés. Don’t just look at the list of skills, but look for red flags, too.
- Conduct phone interviews to get to know the person behind the resume.
- Ask open-ended interview questions to get potential hires talking.
- Conduct pre-employment testing. Modern assessment tools can help you find the best “fit” for your practice.
- Check references. This is an absolute must these days!
If you are working with a DSO, they should have already used these steps to build their own staff, saving you much of the trouble. Leverage that expertise!
3. Get Advice from People Who Have Been There Before
It’s shocking that this advice is not given out more often. There are plenty of veteran dentists and dental practice owners out there, and they have tons of experiences to share—both about what they did to be successful, and about the mistakes they made that you can avoid.
The best way to tap into those experiences is to seek out a mentor (or two). A good mentor can help you sound out ideas, make informed decisions, and avoid common mistakes in starting and running a practice. And the great thing is that mentors don’t have an agenda—they are just as invested in your success as you are!
(If you are interested in mentorship opportunities, contact us. Our supported offices can tap into our network of available mentors.)
4. Go Beyond Customer Service
The basics of good customer service still hold. For example, you should smile when speaking to clients. Always use a calm tone of voice, even when (especially when) they get angry or pushy. Seek to listen and understand first, and only then speak. And so on.
But, to grow a practice these days, you will need to go beyond basic customer service. You will need to get to know your patients in order to figure out who you are serving, and how best to do that. For example, where do most of your patients live? What kind of work do they do? Do they have families? Do they have a DIY streak? Or do they live busy professional lives?
Getting to know patients on this kind of deep level does two things. First, it builds rapport with patients. They will feel more at ease with you, which will make all of your interactions that much easier.
Second, getting to know your patients is a first step in basic marketing. For example:
- Are all your patients from a specific neighborhood? Maybe you should advertise more in that neighborhood. You could even ask your current patients from that neighborhood for a testimonial!
- Do any of your patients have a DIY streak? They might be trying things like tooth whitening at home; you might want to educate them about using professional tooth whitening instead.
- Do they have busy professional lives? Maybe you can add extra office hours early in the morning or during the lunch hour to work these people in.
Remember, your practice is a healthcare service. So you should always be on the lookout for new, proactive ways to serve your patients.
5. Learn Basic Marketing
Learning about your patients is only a start, however. You will need to learn the various ways to reach out to potential new patients, too. These days, that means not only having a website, but also a social media presence, a referral system, and some basic SEO help. It also helps to be up on more traditional advertising methods, like direct mail, event marketing, and volunteering in the community.
Marketing is more than just a list of tactics, tools, and technologies, however. It is learning how to craft the right kinds of messages for patients, based on what they know, what they want, and what problems they are trying to solve. A well-crafted social media post that addresses a concern for people in your community will do much more for your practice than a dozen social media posts that no one really cares about.
6. Change to Grow
At first, growing your practice will be a matter of doing the work: Building the website, getting listed, asking for referrals, and so on. There comes a point, however, where doing “more of the same” just won’t grow your business the way it did initially. You will reach a plateau.
The dentists that survive this phase of their practice are the ones that are open to change. They understand that what it takes to run a practice with one dentist is different from what it takes to run one with five dentists, and they are willing to plan accordingly.
We see this attitude play out a lot when we contract with dentists as a DSO. Our own DeAnn McClain described it well in this 2014 interview in Efficiency in Group Practice:
“...all dentists...should be open, positive and mentally flexible. In order to fully thrive in a DSO environment, affiliating dentists need to embrace change for the sake of progression, value or adopt a strong leadership mentality, and possess a continuing commitment to best serving their communities.”
7. Keep a Work-Life Balance
Indeed, we’ve found that dentists who keep a reasonable work-life balance are better able to engage their clients, make fewer mistakes, and report being happier with their overall career. We’ve also noticed that they have a better perspective when it comes to growing their practice.
This all makes sense, as most dentists get into the field to care for patients. This is why we offer affiliation opportunities that allow dentists to focus on patients while thriving both professionally and personally. If this sounds like something you’d consider, watch some of our testimonials to hear what Heartland has done for other dental practices across the country.