Columns , Communication

Oral agreements

Improve your staff training and enhance your marketing to persuade more clients to follow your dental care recommendations.

Oral agreements
Clients know when their pets have bad breath, but they usually don’t appreciate the need for an oral ATP.

I have a confession. Gidget, my beloved long-haired dachshund, needs dental care. She has bad breath, mild gingivitis, tartar and evidence of early infection on her back molars. So, why haven’t I scheduled her appointment? Aside from the fact that I’m super busy, I dread leaving her at the hospital and waiting for the call that she has recovered from anesthesia. And much of the time, I can easily forget to make an appointment since Gidget is eating fine and playful. It’s not like there’s a sense of urgency.

I’d bet many of you are in the same situation with your pets. My reasons, or shall we say excuses, for not immediately getting Gidget the care she needs are the same reasons that clients don’t schedule dentistry appointments. Of course, the cost of care can be an issue, too.

National averages show that general practices get only about 4% of their revenue from dentistry. This fact is staggering when you consider that most pets need some level of oral health care.

Let’s explore what your team can do to motivate pet owners like me to schedule dental procedures.

Get Everyone on Board

The first, often overlooked, step for improving client compliance with dental recommendations is to gain team buy-in and enthusiasm for the hospital’s marketing efforts. Several hurdles need to be overcome so that team members can do a better job talking with pet owners about dentistry. Remember that some of your employees might not be able to afford dentistry for their pets, which can lead them to focus concern on the owner’s financial situation rather than the value of the dental services. Another common challenge is that busy paraprofessional staff and doctors might not take the time for meaningful dental care conversations with clients, especially if a pet owner appears reluctant to follow through on recommendations.

Creating dialogue during staff meetings can help address these barriers. Engage the team with questions such as “How do you feel about the cost of our dental care procedures?” and “What ideas can you share about how to manage our time during appointments and still have excellent client interactions about dentistry?” Identify who is passionate about the value of dentistry and which team members can be your dental care champions.

The second way to get the team to improve compliance is to establish clear goals and directives. Don’t make the mistake of telling employees, “We all need to do a better job to improve dental compliance.” That’s what every hospital wants, but how will it happen?

Successful practices set specific goals and tactics. For example, the goal might be to increase dentistry revenues by 25% in 2020. To achieve the goal, the team might need to schedule at least two more dental procedures a week. Be sure to allow time for employees to contribute ideas so that they have a sense of ownership of client compliance efforts. And don’t forget to reach out to industry partners for help.

Words Matter

In my experience, the primary reason that pet owners shun dentistry services is that teams aren’t well-trained on client communication. Veterinary teams hate hearing “no,” and some default to assuming that clients will reject dental recommendations. Indeed, some clients can’t afford dental procedures that require anesthesia. But many others don’t schedule appointments that might be costly because the team hasn’t successfully communicated the value of dental services and created a sense of urgency.

Here’s how to motivate pet owners to take action.

1. Use Contemporary Terminology

Most practice teams still use the language of scheduling “dentals.” This terminology harkens back to the days when dental cleanings and the extraction of loose, infected teeth were the only services performed by general practices. Now, hospitals use digital radiography and teams perform multiple therapeutic procedures. These advances need to be communicated to clients.

More contemporary terminology is to speak about an “oral ATP,” which stands for assessment, treatment and prevention. This recommendation has been around for many years but isn’t widely embraced by practice teams.

The American Animal Hospital Association states: “The consensus viewpoint of the guidelines task force is that using the simplified term ‘prophy’ is incorrect and misleading because our dental patients often have calculus and gingivitis before prophylactic therapy is recommended. Neither prophy nor the term ‘dental’ adequately convey the breadth or complexity of oral health services offered in primary care or referral practices. The broader terminology ‘oral health’ better conveys the full scope of this aspect of pet health care.”

2. Focus on Value

When the cost of services isn’t fully explained, clients are left to wonder why a dental cleaning is so expensive. Teams need to take time to convey the value of dental radiographs and all therapeutic procedures, including surgical extractions. Be sure everyone knows how to focus on the benefits, not just the features, of services. I find that veterinary nurses and doctors often describe the medical care but then don’t convey the patient benefits.

Here are two examples of how to better communicate value:

  • “Mrs. Jones, the dental radiographs help us fully evaluate the health of Bella’s teeth. They reveal conditions such as bone loss, tooth root tip infections and other abnormalities below the gumline. The benefit is that Dr. Smith can then perform any necessary treatments to make sure she stays healthy.”
  • “Dr. Taylor will remove Sophie’s infected tooth and look for evidence of other teeth that may need to be extracted. She will suture the gums after the extractions. The benefit of these procedures is to eliminate any pain and prevent the progression of disease.”

3. Solicit Client Feedback

Rather than assume clients will refuse or can’t afford dental care or will go to a lower-cost provider, simply ask about their concerns. Always ask an open-ended question such as “What concerns do you have about Bentley’s oral health care plan?” or “Tell me your thoughts about the dental health care recommendations I’ve made for Molly?”

Be sure to give a voice to fearful clients. I’m a veterinarian, but I still experience fear when my pets have to go under anesthesia. Many clients share this fear. Or they worry about what the doctor will find, whether the procedures are painful, how they’ll take care of the pet at home, and whether other family members will support their decision to spend money on dentistry. Their body language and reluctance to schedule an appointment are indicators that fear might be an issue. If so, check in by using reflective listening statements such as “It sounds like you’re concerned about Gidget going under anesthesia” or “I sense you’re worried.”

How To Improve Your Marketing

When implementing initiatives to increase dental care compliance, do this:

1. Increase Awareness

Clients know when their pets have bad breath, but they usually don’t appreciate the need for an oral ATP. Increase awareness through hospital signage, client communication skills training and social media. Engage pet owners rather than just share educational articles. Post fun facts, common myths and before-and-after photos of pets that had dental procedures. Another idea is to share photos of success stories, such as a pet that had an infected tooth removed.

2. Communicate the Value of Care

Helping pet owners understand the value of dental care begins on the phone when they call to ask about the cost of a “dental.” Client service representatives need to respond in ways most likely to result in an appointment. The key to successful client communications training is to have team members practice out loud what they will say to convey value and differentiate the practice.

Visual tools are a must-have when communicating the value of dental care procedures to clients. In addition to using brochures, put together a notebook of before-and-after photos. Be sure to include photos of pets that had dental cleanings, radiographs that revealed pathology and all types of oral-cavity procedures.

Another effective visual tool is to create a short video that highlights all aspects of a dental appointment from the time of arrival to discharge. The video can be created in-house, or you could hire a professional videographer.

3. Convey a Clear Call to Action 

Getting clients to act starts with the communications outlined above. Veterinary teams also can inform pet owners about any promotions or discounts. For example, the practice might add a stamp to a client loyalty card when an appointment is scheduled within 30 days, or the clinic might offer a free bag of treats or a dental home care product after an oral health care procedure.

Don’t forget that one of the most important call-to-action steps is to train the team to confidently and actively present payment options. We know the cost of dentistry is a concern for some pet owners, and yet I frequently see clients leave a practice after having not heard anyone talk about a payment plan that could make saying “yes” easier.

I encourage practice leaders to implement only one or two marketing initiatives and action steps at a time. Teams quickly lose enthusiasm and momentum if they have too much to focus on during an appointment. Hospitals that increase compliance focus on a few new ideas and set measurable tactics to achieve goals. They also strive to increase compliance with dental care recommendations year-round, which helps more pets like Gidget get the care they deserve.

P.S. Gidget now has her appointment because I know the value of her oral ATP and I want the best for her.

Talk the Talk columnist Dr. Amanda L. Donnelly is a speaker, business consultant and second-generation veterinarian. She is the author of “101 Practice Management Questions Answered” and serves on the Today’s Veterinary Business editorial advisory board.

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