Even (or perhaps especially) amid the pandemic, making patients’ visits relaxing and even fun can be a key competitive advantage. Here’s how to do it.

LET’S FACE IT: It’s tough to compete in dentistry when every practice offers essentially the same treatment options. This is true of other industries, of course—think hotels, grocery stores and ride-share services—and what we’ve found is that the customer experience has become the last true differentiator among brands.

What, then, can dentists do to stand out from the crowd, attract new people to their practice and maintain the loyalty of existing patients? Focus on the patient experience.

Dr. Marina Ambridge of the Smile Institute in Peoria, Arizona—she’s one of this year’s 40 Under 40 general dentists; see page 23—has made patient experience her competitive differentiator by focusing on three key factors: comfort, technology and the human touch.

Comfort: “We want to make going to the dentist more enjoyable,” Dr. Ambridge says, “so we really try to make things comfortable.” Her office appeals to the human senses in a unique, strategic way that changes people’s expectations of a dental visit.

Patients are treated to relaxing chairs that have a gentle massage feature built in, as well as warm towels. There are three TVs in every operatory—one on the ceiling and one on the wall for the patient to watch Netflix, and a third to provide X-rays or digital-scanner images. Noise-canceling headphones help drown out the sound of the drill and other dental equipment.

Dr. Ambridge has even perfumed the office with a relaxing scent. “We have patients who are nervous, and they appreciate the fact that it doesn’t feel or smell like a dentist’s office when they come in,” she says. “They’re not as nervous to get their treatment done.”

Patients appreciate all these efforts Dr. Ambridge makes—and, importantly, tell others about them.

Technology: Dr. Ambridge is a big fan of tech and has invested heavily to be sure her practice has all the latest equipment. She calls her CBCT system and 3D printer “a really big practice game changer” because of the accuracy and efficiency gains they offer, and because “we can literally make things on the printer.” Her full-color intraoral scanner, too, has made it easier to have difficult conversations about treatment.

“Patients will watch their scans and see their teeth coming together,” she explains. “They think it’s very cool, but they’ll see the cracks on their teeth, they’ll see the calculus, they’ll see the decay that they haven’t seen.”

The purchases have paid off: “Patient understanding is so different because they can actually see what you’re seeing. Lifting those communication barriers is a huge thing, because you’re looking at the teeth with the patient, and they don’t need a dental degree to diagnose certain things.”

The result? Greater understanding, more trust between doctor and patient—and, usually, an immediate booking of the next appointment.

The Human Touch: Dr. Ambridge has pledged not to rush patients, even scheduling them far apart to ensure she leaves them feeling like her top priority. Some days, in fact, she has just a single appointment.

The Smile Institute sent patients a video telling them about procedural changes due to the pandemic, which has led to fewer questions and more confidence about safety. Dr. Ambridge has decorated the office with some of her own artwork, giving patients a look into one of her passions outside of dentistry and creating a connection point.

Finally, one fun investment that has led to plenty of social media engagement: the addition of a photo studio in the office for patients to show off their dental work. Each shoot comes complete with a makeup artist. “That’s cool, because [patients] can share those photos with friends on Facebook and Instagram,” Dr. Ambridge says. Unsurprisingly, those friends often become the Smile Institute’s newest patients.

DAN GINGISS is the Interim Director of Brand & Communications at Benco Dental, and an independent speaker and customer-experience coach. To learn more, please visit dangingiss.com.