Taking on a new associate happens regularly in many dental practices, and each and every time it occurs, it presents the same challenges.
The first, of course, is that of recruiting the right associate – one who will fit in well with the ethos of the practice and not move on a year or so later. The other is perhaps a bit more difficult, that of persuading patients to be treated by the newcomer rather than their current dentist. This is vital if the associate is to make the maximum possible contribution to the practice, and relies heavily on effective communication with patients.
So let’s look first at recruitment. The process has two sides to it, First, you need to make sure you take on the person most suited to the needs of your practice. Second, you need to ensure a candidate actually wants to join you.
Before you do anything else, you need to be clear about the role your new associate will play in the practice. For example, do you want them to carry out the NHS work while you see private patients, or do you want them to take on some of your current patients so you can have more time for holidays and so on? Even if you are simply replacing an associate who is leaving, it is worth re-examining the role, to see if there are other ways in which an associate could be of more value to the practice.
Make sure you have a sound recruitment process in place before you advertise too. You need to know in advance how you will handle queries about the position, how you will filter candidates for the interview stage and what your final decision will be based on. Set aside an appropriate amount of time in your diary for each key stage and ensure that the whole process will be completed in no more than four-to-six weeks. Having such plans in place makes recruitment far easier and will reflect well on your business, which again will help in terms of attracting the right candidate.
Having your recruitment criteria worked out in advance will also help you avoid the ‘halo effect’. This can happen at the interview stage, when you find you share common interests with a candidate. This is fine if the interests you’re sharing are professional, dental ones, but not if they happen to be, say, a shared love of golf, scuba diving or a certain author.
One of our clients, for example, is a lovely lady who usually displays a lot of business sense. But when it came to recruiting, she rejected a candidate who might in retrospect have been more suitable for one who shared her love of cats! Unfortunately, after only two days in the job, our client discovered that her new employee simply wasn’t cut out for the role and had to be dismissed.
To avoid falling into this trap, recruiters often use a process called ‘competency-based interviewing’. This is where you ask an applicant a set of questions that are designed to elicit suitable information to enable you to judge whether they have the key competencies you require from the new jobholder.
Given the difference in impact on your business between making a good and a poor recruitment decision, it’s worth brushing up your recruitment skills. There are plenty of good books or short training courses available that can help you with this.
Once you have recruited your new associate, it is imperative that your patients see the new appointment in a positive light. Remember that many people shy away from change, particularly when it involves their dental or medical care. Understandably, they tend to prefer to be treated by someone they have seen before and with whom they feel comfortable.
So as well as letting your patients know about your new associate, you also need to tell them why you felt the need to take them on. If they are replacing a former associate, let your patients know where and why they went – or at least acknowledge them by wishing them all the best in their new post.
Make your patients feel comfortable with the new associate by giving them some information about them. Your patients will be reassured by learning of the associate’s skills and expertise. Even if they are fresh out of dental school, you can still refer to ‘softer’ skills such as their friendliness, understanding and good chairside manner.
Include some personal information too – whether the associate is married, has children, what their hobbies are and so on. A brief synopsis will do. This helps to ‘humanise’ the new dentist and make your patients feel they have something in common with them.
Your patient newsletter is of course the ideal way to communicate these messages, and gives you the chance to include a photograph of the new associate, perhaps being welcomed to the practice by you.
If you plan to migrate to the newcomer patients on your list or those of other dentists at the practice, you need to communicate this clearly to patients too. A well written, personal letter to each of the patients concerned is perhaps the most professional approach.
Give the patients a good reason for moving them – wanting to spend more time on the golf course is, sadly, not good enough from their perspective! So tell them about other benefits it will bring them. For example, it may free you up to spend more time improving the practice, ensure waiting times for appointments are minimised or give all your dentists more opportunity to attend courses and acquire new skills.
Introducing your new associate to the rest of the team should be much easier but, perhaps because it is seen as ‘the easy bit’, it’s not always done properly and can be overlooked and forgotten.
Make sure the associate knows what the other team members’ roles are – not just their official job titles but the nitty-gritty of who is responsible for what. And, of course, there are other small but vital details, such as where everything is kept and the proper way of dealing with patients.
Finally, make it clear from the outset how much or how little you expect them to contribute to the practice. There is little point in asking them to give you ideas if you do not intend to implement them.
Once your new associate has been hired and introduced to everyone, it is vital that they build a successful working relationship with their patients, who need to feel comfortable with them and confident about their dental skills. This can make a huge difference to the success or otherwise of your practice.
A good associate with great dental and people skills can boost turnover because patients will be happy to ask them about additional treatments, take their advice on board and provide new referrals. Conversely, if patients are unhappy with the associate they are quite likely either to insist on seeing another dentist or go elsewhere for their dental care.
As you clearly cannot be in the room watching your associate interact with patients, you need to find another way to establish how patients feel about them. A patient questionnaire is a great way to do this, but rather than have it focusing solely on your new associate – which could, understandably, make them feel uncomfortable – make it more generalised so it applies to the practice and your team as a whole.
Some answers you need to know include whether treatment options, procedures and so on are explained properly to patients; whether the patients feel they are being listened to and understood; whether their queries and concerns are dealt with properly and whether they think your team is kind, gentle, caring and so on. Other areas you could invite comment on include customer service, waiting times and patient communication.
Asking patients to complete such a questionnaire is a great way to find out which aspects of your service are being well received and to identify areas for improvement. Make sure patients can respond anonymously, though – you will get a much more honest response that way!
If, like many of our clients, you would like to carry out more cosmetic treatments, then one way to do so is to encourage your associate to help you promote aesthetic procedures to patients. But many associates struggle with this, as they may not feel very confident about their cosmetic dental skills or they may simply not know how to approach the subject with patients.
One way to get around this is to encourage patients to ask the associate for treatments. You can do this by making them aware of what your associate has to offer, using such methods as case studies of previous work and testimonials from previous patients. Again, this can easily be achieved by including it in your patient newsletter.
Sometimes there can be little or no incentive for an associate to make the effort to promote treatments. Many work to an income target, and as long as they achieve it they have little desire to work differently or harder to earn more.
Offering team rewards, rather than personal financial ones, is a great way to get everyone at your practice to pull together. So your associate will be motivated to talk to patients more, your receptionists will try their best to follow through any casual enquiries, and so on. It might even be worth providing your team with professional training to help them to develop their promotional and customer service skills.
Taking on a new associate is not simply a way to generate more patient throughput – it is a chance to expand the services and enhance the reputation of your practice. The key to unlocking their full potential is communication with them, your team and your patients.