Updated: Jan 17, 2022
Can we agree that Starbucks is not selling a product that directly harms their customers?
Can we also agree that Starbucks does not engage in any unethical marketing? Or that they are forcing their customers to buy something that they do not want to buy?
Why is Starbucks interesting for dentists?
If we can agree on all that. Then I'll take the liberty of writing that dentists should learn from the way Starbucks does business in general. Because Starbucks does more business in the US than the US dental industry combined!
Although Starbucks is bigger in the US than in Europe, I feel pretty sure you can follow my example when I express that I find it challenging for public health when our patients spend more money on coffee than on their teeth.
Teeth must be fixed first
It's not that I don't think people should be allowed to buy coffee. They should be allowed to, and in the quantities they want. I just think they should get their teeth fixed first!
This post will be about what it takes to reach the top 2 levels of the communication triangle. I'm not going to go into detail - it will be too extensive. But you will get an overview of level 4 and 5, giving you an idea of what it takes to achieve a higher acceptance rate on your complex treatment estimates.
If you agree with my take on barista-produced coffee sales versus dental care, read on. Because I think dentists can learn a lot from the way many of the world's biggest brands communicate. I'm not just referring to external communication - i.e. marketing. But rather very, very much about the way we communicate 1:1 with our patients when they sit in front of us in the practice.
Why does it work?
How is it that more bottled water is sold than dental treatment in a country where the water in the taps is cleaner than what is sold in the bottles?
The answer lies in behavioural science.
People do not act according to what is rationally reasonable. If that were the case, everybody would have an ideal pension plan, be non-smokers, maintain an optimal BMI and obey the speed limits on the roads.
So let's take a look inside the human brain and see how a part of it works. I find it super interesting that it's the right hemisphere of the brain that makes all the decisions. We know from studies of people with brain injuries that people with a disconnection to the right hemisphere can't make a decision.
Right vs left hemisphere
The interesting thing about the right hemisphere making all the decisions is that it is the part of the brain associated with emotions. It is known that every decision is made instantaneously in an extremely short time, after which that decision is difficult to reverse. Once the decision is made, the emotional part of the brain searches for logical and rational arguments that the decision made was the right one.
If we look at levels 1 to 3 in the communication triangle, it is obvious that here we are communicating to the logical part of the patient's brain. As long as we are dealing with simple treatments with minimal impact on patients' privacy in general, making a decision is relatively simple.
The influence of emotions on the patient's choice
The more complex, time-consuming and financially extensive the treatment the patient has to accept. The more impact it will have on the patient's life. In other words, it becomes a bigger and bigger decision and thus requires a greater emotional impact on the patient. Since it is the emotional part of the brain that makes the decisions.
This does not mean that we should make the patient angry or sad. That is rarely a good idea. Thinking back to the beginning of this blog post. What, then, can we learn from Starbucks? Starbucks, and all other major brands, generally speak to their customers' emotions. They make their customers DESIRE their products.
If dentists can make patients have a desire to invest in the treatment they need, patients are more likely to accept our treatment suggestions. At the same time, if we know about the elements below and can adapt the treatment plan to the patient's life, the likelihood increases further.
A challenge for many dentists
The paradigm shift between level 1-3 and level 4-5 is quite significant.
At level 1-3, we communicate primarily to the logic.
At level 4-5, we target communication to the emotions.
For most dentists, this is a completely new and unfamiliar way to communicate. It can feel cross-border and for some even uncomfortable the first times you try it. Not that it's unethical. But because it requires us to be honest and share something of ourselves. In other words, we can't hide behind our title.
When communicating with patients at Level 4 in the Communication Triangle, we need to know, among other things:
Dental values (What teeth does the patient really want?)
General values (What is going on in the patient's life?)
Readiness (Is the patient ready to start treatment?)
What diagnostic findings the patient knows and does not know about
What worries and does not worry the patient
Once we have a knowledge about these elements, we should be able to structure our presentation of the more complex treatment in a way that we able to:
Remember what to say
Present the plan as effectively as possible
Use as few words as possible
Present the plan in a way that the patient wants to avoid compromises
Present a plan about finances to fit the patient
As I described in the last blog post, it is too extensive to go into detail with the elements listed above here on the blog.
If you are interested in going into more detail and learning how to compose your communication in a way that suits your personality, sign up for the course: "Get to yes - patientkommunikation 2.0".
The reason it feels particularly unfamiliar for dentists to communicate to and with the emotional part of the brain is that we are inherently bad at it. To become a dentist, you need a fairly well-developed left brain. Without a well-developed logical brain, you can't get into dental school.
That doesn't mean we CAN'T get good at using the emotional part of the brain. It just takes a lot of practice. If you are not prepared to exercise, you can look at the possibilities the team offers. Within the dental team, it will typically be the dental assistants who are the absolute best at communicating to and with the emotional part of the brain. In short, this is linked to the reason why they have chosen to become dental assistants.
Levels 1-4 are about all the things we can do as individuals to increase the acceptance rate. Step 5 is about how we can increase acceptance rates very significantly by involving our entire team and creating a seamless experience for patients.
Step 5 is the smallest field in the communication triangle because only a few practices in the world achieve this level of mastery.
It's NOT easy.
Looking at the top levels of the communication triangle, I know they can look relatively daunting. Unfortunately, there is only one thing to say about it: If it was dead easy to implement a form of communication that would make 90% of all patients accept complex treatments, ALL dentists would already be doing it.
To reach the top levels, we need to spend time practising and implementing step by step the elements needed to become better communicators. Practical courses, theoretical aids and a personal coach can help a lot. But in the end, it's all a matter of taking communication as seriously as any clinical discipline.
Although it is not easy, it is certainly not impossible!
It's just important to break down the complex into small edible chunks and implement them one chunk at a time. Moreover, we have to accept that we need to practice - and make mistakes - before we get better. If we keep at it, we will eventually reach a level of competence where we are ready to take on the next level of improvement.
My team and I were able to reach the 5th level. It wasn't because we were all super-talented. We were just good at continuing to train together. If we could do it, I'm sure you can too!
More specific descriptions
In the next blog post I will write more about the elements of emotional communication at levels 4&5 in the communication triangle.
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Many kind regards
Jesper Hatt DDS
Phone: +41 78 268 00 78