Do you see what I see?

June 1, 2012
Your professional image through the eyes of a new patient

by Stacy McCauley, RDH, MS

Sociology and psychology were two of my favorite subjects in college. It was in these courses that I was first introduced to the science behind how humans perceive, think, process, and relate. I distinctly remember an exercise where the class was shown a series of random photos of people. We had to write down our first thoughts as to what we thought of each person. Were they rich? Were they poor? Were they smart? Were they trustworthy? Were they friendly? The list went on for several minutes, flashing dozens of photos of people. At the conclusion of the exercise, we learned that humans have the unique ability to make an assessment of others within a split second of seeing them. So what does this have to do with dental hygiene? The answer is, everything.

Image matters

Several years ago, I heard the wonderful Linda Miles give a seminar where she detailed her top three most important traits to look for when hiring a dental team member. Linda said, “Skill and experience are important, but not as important as attitude, personality, and appearance.”

I really began to ponder that last one — appearance. Essentially what she was saying was, image matters! Before we continue, I’d like to clarify: Appearance does not mean beauty. Appearance has everything to do with professional image. A polished professional image might just help you land that dream job in the great new practice in town. A polished professional image will also be your biggest asset when establishing first impressions with new patients in your practice.

The first one-on-one relationship for new patients

For many new patients, the first one-on-one relationship they’ll form in the practice is with the dental hygienist. The hygienist has a wonderful opportunity to make a great first impression on this patient, and this is first done with your professional image. All the diplomas in the world won’t matter if your image doesn’t make a great first impression. If we look at the science behind human behavior, we can’t ignore the impact of image. According to author Malcolm Gladwell, in “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” he confirms what I learned 20 years ago in college. He also concludes that humans make an almost instantaneous decision about someone simply by sizing up their appearance at first glance.

From the business side of dentistry, one must consider the financial benefit that a new patient brings to the practice. Most experts agree that each new patient has a first-year value to the practice of at least $1,000 in production revenue, and they also estimate a new patient brings along with them the opportunity to refer at least one to two additional new patients to the practice within their first year. Without a doubt, the financial health of the practice is enhanced greatly by “winning over” the new patient.

In order to make that great first impression with new patients, what are the key areas to consider about first impressions and your professional image? I’m going to break them down into two sections: nonverbal signals and verbal signals. We’ll begin with nonverbal communication.

Nonverbal communication do’s

• Walk with confidence and purpose. Having great posture and an upbeat gait can instantly project a favorable image. Consider how you currently walk out into the waiting room to greet your patient. Are there opportunities for you to stand a little taller and walk with a little more purpose?

• Make eye contact. In most Western cultures, making eye contact with someone is a sign of respect. For many of us, having someone make eye contact with us lets us know they are actively listening and are interested. When you go to the waiting room, are you calling your patient’s name while looking down at their chart? Are you calling your patient’s name while still looking at another team member with whom you’re still in a conversation? These can be inadvertent nonverbal communication errors that will certainly send the wrong message about you.

• Smile! In dentistry (especially dental hygiene), this should be a no-brainer, right? After all, this IS the profession built around THE SMILE! In my role as a dental consultant, I observe dentists and dental teams across the country. You’d be amazed how often I see team members greet their patients in the waiting room with NO SMILES on their faces. The smile is one of the best ways to convey your friendliness, your confidence, and your warmth instantly to your new patient. No matter how stressful your day has been, we owe it to our patients to always greet them with a warm smile.

• Shake hands (the right way — no limp noodles or death grips!). With society becoming more casual, the formal handshake is being used less often in professional settings. A proper handshake can send a message of professionalism, sincerity, and strength. Visit www.careerbuilder.com/Article/CB-431-Getting-Hired-Six-Tips-for-a-Perfect-Handshake/ for some great tips on giving the perfect handshake. Practice with a few close friends to ask their opinion of your shake. Once you’ve perfected your shake, try it out on your new patients and watch their faces light up. It’s quite possible their previous dental offices didn’t greet them this way. Score one for your team!

• All hygienists must pay attention to grooming.

Men ...

• Be sure to wear clean, wrinkle-free lab jackets over your scrubs or work attire. Wearing a lab jacket is not only an appropriate piece of personal protective equipment, but it also gives you a much more professional image. Work clothes (scrubs or street clothes worn under lab jackets) must be clean and wrinkle free.

• Work shoes need to look new. Soiled running shoes convey an image that you are sloppy and unprofessional.

• Whatever your personal hairstyle preference is, just be sure your hair is clean. Be sure to have your barber or hair stylist trim your eyebrows, nose hairs, and ear hair.

• Cologne is acceptable, if kept to a minimum.

Women ...

• Be sure to wear clean, wrinkle-free lab jackets over your scrubs or work attire. Besides being an important compliance piece for proper infection control, having a crisp lab jacket makes a great first impression on patients. Keep the patterns to a minimum. I’m a fan of crisp white lab jackets. In my opinion, it conveys a very professional image to your patients.

• Work clothes (scrubs or street clothes worn under lab jackets) must be clean, wrinkle free, and appropriately sized. Clothing that is too tight can send a message that is unprofessional. Conversely, clothing that is too big can come off as sloppy and unprofessional.

• Work shoes need to look new. Soiled running shoes or scuffed clogs will not convey a professional image.

• Women should wear a hairstyle that is able to stay out of the zone of contamination during patient care.

• Perfume is acceptable, if kept to a minimum.

• Makeup, if worn PROPERLY, will always convey a more professional image. Take time to visit the cosmetics counter at your local department store at least once every one to two years to get a complimentary makeup consultation. A lightly applied makeup application is very appropriate in the dental setting and can send a professional, “put together” look that bodes well for that great first impression with the new patient.

• Jewelry should be kept to a minimum.

Verbal communication do’s

• New patients will always perceive an upbeat, friendly, confident tone of voice from you favorably.

• If you’re not sure how to pronounce the patient’s name, ask your front desk administrator. (As someone who lived with Chichester as her surname for 33 years, I know how exciting it is to have someone pronounce your last name properly!)

• Introduce yourself by name and by profession.I’m Joe and I’ll be taking care of you today doesn’t give the patient much information. A more professional introduction might sound something like this: Hi, Mr. Mitchell. I’m Joe. I’m Dr. White’s dental hygienist. It’s so nice to meet you. We’re glad you’re here.

• Grammar counts. Brushing up on the basics of grammar can enhance your professional image greatly. Visit your local bookstore and purchase either of these two resource books: “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing” by Mignon Fogarty or “A Grammar Book for You and I (Oops, Me): All the Grammar You Need to Succeed in Life” by C. Edward Good.

Making a commitment

Making a renewed commitment to defining and continually refining your professional image is one of the best investments you can make in yourself. A great resource for dental hygienists looking to get clarity on their professional image is the website www.janicehurleytrailor.com. Janice shares great tips on how to ramp up your professional image. After all, the positive first impressions that the dental hygienist can make on a new patient ultimately set the tone for shaping the lifetime value of the patient in your practice.

Think of the line from the Tom Cruise movie, Jerry McGuire, where Renee Zellweger says, “You had me at hello.” So, when the next new patients are scheduled to see you, what kind of first impression are you going to make? Are you going to wow them at hello? If you do, you’ll win them over and likely have some practice fans for life.

If you are interested in subscribing to Inspired Hygiene’s free weekly e-zine, where topics such as professional image are discussed, please visit www.inspiredhygiene.com. RDH

Stacy McCauley, RDH, MS, has 19 years of experience in dentistry. She has worked in private practice, dental hygiene education, the corporate dental industry, and as a hygiene productivity coach. She is currently a lead hygiene productivity coach with Inspired Hygiene, Inc. and is an adjunct assistant professor at the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry. Contact Stacy at [email protected].

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