How practices can make a good first impression

When dentists are considering the new patient experience for their practice, they should think of the saying, "You only have one opportunity to make a best first impression."

Whether a dentist chooses to analyze their practice's new patient process or not, the first impression can be the longest-lasting impression for each and every one of the patients. Designing a positive and caring new patient examination and consultation is much easier than recovering from a bad patient experience, according to CDA Practice Analyst Michelle Corbo.

"Think about how potential patients are learning about your practice. There is a significant amount of decision-making that happens before the patient ever picks up the phone," Corbo said.  

Today more than ever, patients are savvy shoppers doing their research before contacting any practice. Corbo lays out the following scenario.

The patient runs an online search and finds 10 practice names within their preferred ZIP code. Of the 10, they see that seven have links to a practice websites. They visit the websites and find that only five are easy to navigate and have updated pictures. They then cross-reference those five practice names with their dental benefit plan coverage and narrow the list down to three. The patient then calls the three left on their list.

"Now the true competition begins," Corbo said.

The new patient phone call

The person answering the phone at a dental practice may be in the most critical position in terms of generating new patients. When interviewing for this position, dentists should consider hiring based on how that individual represents the practice. Will this individual convey the image you want to convey, both over the phone and in his or her professional presentation? Does this person make you want to learn more about the practice or leave much to be desired?

"Many practice owners overlook the importance of the first call a patient makes to the practice," Corbo said. "Again, you may be one of many practices this potential patient intends to call, therefore, your staff member needs to tell the potential patient about the wonderful experience he or she will have in your practice, and share how your practice is different from the rest."

A welcome checklist is available in the Practice Support resource titled "The New Patient Process: Making the Best First Impression With Your New Patients," which is available on cda.org/practicesupport.

Before the patient's first appointment

Dentists should have their staff mail or email a friendly, upbeat welcome letter, which further validates the service-oriented aura of the practice. The letter should be signed by the doctor or staff member who took the call and should focus on a few of the benefits that make the practice and its new patient process unique. Consider including new patient forms with this letter.

A few days in advance of the appointment, a staff member should contact the patient to confirm the appointment, but more important, ask if the patient has any questions about the upcoming visit to the practice, Corbo said. Ideally, the same person who the patient spoke with on the introductory call to the practice would conduct this confirmation call.

On the day of the new patient's scheduled appointment, the scheduling coordinator should bring up the patient's name in the morning huddle and share any pertinent information with the entire team. Because the team prepared for the patient's arrival in the morning huddle, the patient should be greeted by name and the staff members should introduce themselves when the patient arrives at the practice.

"A staff member should make the patient comfortable and offer water or any other available beverages and reading materials. Show the patient where to find
the restroom and begin the relationship-building process by letting the patient know the name of the dental assistant or treatment coordinator who will be greeting them shortly," Corbo said.

This ends the first step of the positive first impression process. It then shifts to the dentist and the dental assistant who will be seeing the patient.

The dental assistant who meets with every new patient should be outgoing, courteous and service-oriented. The dental assistant should engage in conversation with every new patient, and should adopt the role of "best supportive employee" to the doctor. They are responsible for introducing the doctor to the patient and making sure the patient is comfortable with this transition.

"The patient should never be left alone in the operatory and should feel that the dental assistant is the glue that binds all elements of the examination together," Corbo said.

During the examination, it is critical for both the dentist and the dental assistant to observe the patient and identify the barriers, if any, that the patient is expressing. Look at the patient's body language and listen carefully to the subtle comments that reveal the patient's fears, concerns or limitations. Technology, such as an intraoral camera, will help the patient not only see the benefits of treatment, but see the potential result if treatment is not performed. Education is power in the examination and will begin the process of a collaborative treatment plan agreement between the dentist and patient, Corbo said.

"Walk the patient through the examination and do not assume they know what you are doing simply because they have visited the dentist in the past," Corbo said. "Look to your dental assistant for support, especially if the patient is demonstrating a stronger comfort level toward your assistant."

The consultation will be successful if the patient believes the dentist, as the expert, has reached his or her recommendations based on what is in the patient's best interest.

"For many dentists, the consultation needs to be carefully crafted and a second consultative appointment is necessary," Corbo said.

After the consultation, a practice should develop a structured follow-up process and have a designated staff member to manage the system. Just as the confirmation call is centered on customer service, so is the follow-up process.


Let's not forget one of the most important members of a team – the office space and surroundings. The dentist and team should pay attention to the appearance of the practice itself. Is the outside signage up to date and easy to find and read? Is the front door area outside neat and tidy? Have potted plants been tended to, cobwebs knocked down and debris swept up? How does the reception area appear to a new visitor? Is there dust, trash, carpet stains or out-of-date magazines? Are the desks of the front office cluttered and stacked with patient records and coffee cups? Has the restroom been cleaned and refreshed?

"While there's no expectation that a practice owner remodel or spend a great deal of money on high-end or new items, keeping your surroundings neat and tidy is important," Corbo said. "To support this, remember that if a practice is subject to a quality assurance audit by a dental plan – cleanliness of the office is one of the things they look at. Including these details in the new patient experience leaves a lasting impression."

For more guidance on making a good first impression with patients, view "The New Patient Process: Making the Best First Impression With Your New Patients," available on cda.org/practicesupport, or call 916.554.4968.

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