As clinicians, we seldom think of our patients as potential buyers. And rightfully so; we are not in the business of “selling” a product so as much as we are trying to help our patients achieve a sustainable level of oral health.

However, how do we achieve that goal? How do we “convince” patients that the treatment options we present are in their best interest?

The solution may lie in embracing the concepts of the buyer's journey.

What is the Buyer's Journey?

For years now, marketers have structured their work around what is called “the buyer's journey.” According to search engine optimization software company Conductor, the buyer's journey is “a framework that acknowledges a buyer's progression through a research and decision process ultimately culminating in a purchase.”

To put it in the proverbial nutshell, marketers are no longer solely focused on pushing their products into the faces of potential buyers. Instead, they are acting as guides and educators, providing people with the information they need as they progress through each stage of the journey:

  1. Awareness
  2. Consideration
  3. Decision

That's what we need to do as dentists. In this age of Google and WebMD, we need to take the time that is necessary to provide patients with the information they seek. Done right, this makes the buyer's journey the ultimate form of treatment planning with your patient. Consider: treatment planning is nothing more than being fully aware of a problem, considering all of the possible solutions and deciding upon the best course of action.

How do you help your patients become aware of the treatment they truly need? It all starts with listening.

Awareness Stage

Buyer's Journey - Awareness StageThe first part of the awareness stage requires inquiry on both the part of the dentist and the patient. As a clinician, you cannot conclude the awareness stage after only hearing the patient's chief complaint. As we discuss in much of the Spear curriculum, you must look at the entire intraoral condition and the patient's face when treatment planning. In the same way, you must get the patient to discuss any and all issues related to the current state of their oral health before moving to the consideration stage.

There are many hurdles to overcome in the awareness stage. Some of these include:

  • Pre-appointment research - The patient may have already done some online research about his chief complaint or asked friends and family for advice. If he read the wrong research or his friends had an inadequate experience, the patient may be misled as to their condition. (This seems to be more prevalent with treatment, including osseointegrated implants)
  • Previous experiences – The patient herself may have had her own inadequate experiences with dental treatment. This could make it more difficult for you to get through to her.
  • Your own communication skills – Unfortunately, we clinicians are not always perfect in our communications. We may come across as intimidating or aloof.

They key to overcoming each of those hurdles in this stage is to ensure you are listening. The reality is that patients will not care how much you know until they see how much you care. Ask your patient if they've already researched the complaint and hear them out. Listen for possible hints of other issues and ask follow up questions.

Read more about terms that may unintentionally offend patients.

Once you're sure you know what the patient's issues really are, you must have content prepared to make them aware. This is where prepared content comes into play. I myself use a couple of different types of content. First, I use the Spear Patient Education videos, which shows patients their condition and the consequences of inaction. I usually then follow this up with a digital slide presentation of similar cases that I've treated. The idea is to deliver the information as simply and straightforward as possible without becoming condescending.

After presenting the content, you must then again ask questions and listen to ensure the patient understands their condition. Only then should you move to the consideration stage.

The Consideration Stage

Buyer's Journey - Consideration StageJust as with the first stage, the consideration stage puts the ball back in your court. As the dentist, you must figure the possible solutions that will get the patient's oral health from Point A to Point B. The consideration of such solutions has to be the byproduct of understanding what the problem is as well as the different ways in which we can tackle such problems. For instance, if the patient presents an esthetic issue, can you utilize direct composite or would indirect ceramic veneer be better … or are both viable solutions?

After you have considered the best of all viable treatment options, present a few to the patient. This is where prepared content again comes into play. Just as in the awareness stage, I utilize Spear Patient Education. Besides conditions videos, there are also videos that succinctly – and non-threateningly – describe the basics of various treatment options.

I also again use slides depicting similar cases, but this time showing the outcomes of the treatment options that we have treated and recommended. I recommend doing this for two reasons. First, by giving patients visual aids, you take away a lot of the guessing game. The patient will better understand the difference between Solution A, Solution B, Solution C, etc.

Second, showing slides of your previous cases reinforces in the mind of the patient your expertise in treating cases like theirs. This is important when it comes to the decision stage later.

As you lay out the potential solutions, you must be careful to avoid giving the patient too many choices. A book I highly recommend on this topic is “The Paradox of Choice,” by Barry Schwartz. To sum up this theory, if you give someone too many options, you will confuse them beyond their ability to really come up with a solution with which they're comfortable. As the number of choices increase, so do the negative effects choices can have on our mindset – stress, anxiety, etc. Therefore, you have to stay with only a few choices so that the patient can understand what they're getting themselves into.

Speaking of understanding, you cannot just assume that the patient will instantly be able to grasp all that you've presented. What's taken you years (sometimes a lifetime) to understand through study and experience cannot be fully grasped through a 20 or 30 minute consultation. That's why you must again play the guide. Encourage the patient to ask questions, but make sure to get them back on track if their line of questioning is not leading toward a solution.

At this point, your patient should be aware of their condition and the need for treatment as well as given time to consider the treatment options. Now it's time to make a choice.

Spear Resources

From No to Yes: Increasing Case Acceptance

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The Decision Stage

Buyer's Journey - Decision StageThis final stage of the buyer's journey can be one of the toughest. This is where you patient is going to decide whether or not to go through with one of the solutions you presented in the consideration stage.

Why would this be tough? Didn't the two of you go through all of the information in the earlier stages?

The problem here is the contemporary idea of instant gratification. People are used to getting things “right now”: downloadable movies and music; a quick Wikipedia or IMDB look-up; online purchasing; FaceTime, etc. So when a patient says she'd like to try Treatment A and you tell her it will take months to complete, it could be a deal-breaker for her. She may even decide to go to another dentist for a second opinion. (I will talk more about second-opinion patients in an upcoming article.)

That is why, whichever solution the patient decides to go through, they have to understand the advantages and shortcomings of taking one route versus another. For example, no adult patient is going to be excited about going through orthodontics. But if the patient understands that by doing orthodontics, we're not going to excessively prep their teeth, we're going to be less aggressive in treatment, then they do see and are totally able to embrace the benefit of that type of therapy.

That means you must prepare educational content for all three steps of the buyer's journey. First, it ensures you are prepared for any doubts or fears patients may have when it comes time to make that final decision. Second, when patients feel fully informed and that they've been given the right tools to come up with the right decision, they are more likely to put their trust in you. And that's a decision you want them to make every time.

The Journey Continues … In Your Practice

One thing to remember as your begin to utilize the buyer's journey in your practice is that each step must be completed in order with each patient. You cannot jump your patients into the decision stage if they did not go fully through the awareness stage and consideration stage. How can you get them to listen to your solutions if they are not aware of the full scope of their condition? How can you make them feel comfortable deciding if you did not present the most viable solutions?

It's called a journey for a reason: It has a beginning, a middle and an end. And just like any worthwhile adventure, it will take some preparation and determination. But if you follow this guide, you should be able to successfully lead every patient to the ultimate destination: a beautiful, healthy mouth.

Click here to read more articles by Dr. Ricardo Mitrani.)

Ricardo Mitrani, DDS., MSD, Spear Faculty and Contributing Author


Commenter's Profile Image Eric M.
February 24th, 2016
Great article! I've always thought we should be educators, not salesmen/women. I shared this with my staff.
Commenter's Profile Image Scott S.
April 22nd, 2018
Well written and quite true. This is where the dental schools have fallen short. We are all initially trained to say what a patient needs, rather than explain the pros and cons to their treatment options. This has really taken the burden off of me when I present care.