A Dentist’s Guide to Understanding Patients

[This Guide to understanding patients will teach you some of the most important psychological aspects driving consumer behavior. Once you digest these concepts you will be able to improve every facet of your dental marketing.]

A market is simply a group of buyers and sellers. A dental practice’s market is the sum of all the potential patients a practice can draw from AND the competition vying for said patients. This article will equip you with the needed tools to understand what makes consumers tick and then how to influence them. It is these research-backed insights that help any business effectively market to their ideal customers (or patient in your case).

Sun Tzu wrote, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” (The Art of War, Sun Tzu, Chapter 3)

The Big 3 Obstacles Between You and New Patients


59% percent of adults forgo dental care due to cost. Your practice brand will dictate how you approach this concern. For most people, money is the #1 deterrent from accepting dental care and is the #1 criteria when choosing a dentist.

What does this mean? It means that for some people, no matter how attractive your practice appears, or how amazing your patient experience is, it won’t be enough to tip the scale for some consumers. And that’s okay, because these people might not be a great fit for your practice anyway.


The second conflict you face is consumers’ mild-to-insane level of dental fear. According to a Dentavox survey of 18,000 people around the globe, 61% of people report some level of dental fear. Millennials are not breaking that pattern. Hello Products polled 2,000 adults and found that millennials are afraid of the dentist at a higher rate than any other age group!

So? Even wealthy people are scared of the dentist. Make sure your messaging communicates the fact that you take the extra steps to help your patients feel relaxed and comfortable during their visit. This will set you apart.


Finally, the third obstacle standing between you and your potential patient is the consumer’s demand for convenience. 44% percent of consumers indicate that a convenient location is a MUST when choosing their dentist. Easy scheduling and short-notice visits are also increasing in importance in consumers’ dentist selection process.

What should I do? Make scheduling as easy as possible for your potential patients. Offer online scheduling. Promote emergency dentistry. Make your patient intake protocols flexible to accommodate short notice visits.

A Good Dentist Should Be a Good Salesperson

The Proper Sales Process

When seeking to influence a potential patient via a sales conversation, following an established pattern generates a higher rate of desired outcomes. The reason for this is that a well-designed sales process conforms to a buyer’s inherent decision-making process. Below are the four standard stages of a sale-

Need Analysis

Think of the need analysis stage as a new patient examination. In fact, Zig Ziglar (a legendary sales trainer) even compares this stage to taking x-rays. In this stage, your objective is to listen as closely as possible to what the patient says AND doesn’t say. You want to discover what their needs actually are.

Need Awareness

The need awareness stage is when you come to a mutual understanding of what the patient’s needs actually are. In the previous stage you listened to what the patient said their needs were, but now you can either confirm what they said OR identify what you think they didn’t say. In either case, the object of the need awareness stage is a proper, agreed-upon diagnosis of needs.

Need Solution

Now is the time to present your solution to the patient. When doing this, remember to focus on benefits. Benefits. BENEFITS. People do not buy products. Nor do they buy services. People buy benefits. The famed Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen refers to this principle as “The Theory of Jobs-to-be-done.” The idea is that whenever a consumer purchases a good or service, they are hiring that good or service to do a job for them. They are NOT buying a feature. They are buying the

benefit of the feature.

If you’ve done a commendable job on the need analysis and need awareness stages, your recommendation will be the no-brainer solution the consumer is searching for. You won’t need to argue with or convince the consumer of anything because your solution is the obvious answer to the consumer’s agreed upon needs. Be prepared for a dramatic jump in your case acceptance!

Need Satisfaction

Here is where the “proper selling is serving” rubber meets the road. If you truly believe what you are selling will meet the needs of the patient and that agreeing to your recommended treatment plan is in their best interest, then ask for the sale! Satisfy your buyer (patient) by connecting them with your service via purchase.

Relationship vs Transactional Selling

The proper sales process is consultative by nature. Its emphasis is on properly identifying needs and delivering solutions. Dentists skilled in this approach are concerned with the long-term relationship between themselves and their patients — hence why it is called “relationship selling.” A smart dentist knows to invest time and attention into each and every patient. This process fosters trust and makes it significantly easier to serve their patients, when needed, through proper selling. Relationship selling is critical when selling high-value treatments like dental implants, sleep apnea solutions, or cosmetic dentistry.

The Yin to relationship selling’s Yang is called “transactional selling.” Transactional selling is focused on making the sale as fast as possible with little-to-no concern for long-term relationships. Transactional selling includes the manipulative, aggressive, and domineering tactics that so many despise. Transactional selling works well when selling low cost, one-time purchases.

Principles of Relationship Selling
  1. Give more than you get. Instead of trying to figure out how to get the most money possible for the least amount of value, do the opposite.
  2. Attentiveness. When you or your team interacts with someone, treat that someone like they are the most important person in the world.
  3. Integrity. Patients are more likely to buy from a dentist they trust. Shocker, right?
  4. Reachability. Just knowing they can get in touch with you when needed is enough for some people to pick you over your competition.

Using Psychology to Influence Your Market


If you want patients to become engaged, you need to give them something engaging. Be authentic and relatable (a little vulnerability wouldn’t hurt, either). Yes… it might be a little uncomfortable and unfamiliar, but just do it! Connecting to people through your genuine story will evoke powerful brain and chemical responses in favor of you and your practice. Remember, a sincere story IS NOT manipulating or tricking people to come to you — it’s giving real people a chance to voluntarily attach to you because they like you and believe you.

Of course, the hard part is figuring out exactly what your story is. Think about what makes your practice stand out. What makes you exceptional? Think beyond cliché answers like “good customer service.” (If your customer service is truly spectacular, you should absolutely include it — but try to be creative.) Be honest with yourself. Don’t focus on what you wish your practice was; patients will see right through that. Your story must be an authentic portrayal of what your practice actually has to offer.

Social Proof

“Social Proof” is a concept coined by Robert Cialdini in his bestselling book, Influence. He explained it this way: “… one means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct. The principle applies especially to the way we decide what constitutes correct behavior. Think of it like this… your practice’s social proof is the bona fides you present to your market. And of course, you want all the evidence to point to your practice as the correct choice when a patient is deciding which dental practice to visit.

Below are several of the more common Social Proof techniques. An enterprising dentist will incorporate as many as possible into their dental marketing strategy.

  • Patient Testimonials
  • Reviews / Ratings
  • Practice Credentials
  • Celebrity Endorsements
  • Expert Recommendations
  • Earned Media
  • Friend Referrals

Emotional Intelligence

In his work The Secret Life of the Brain, Neurologist, Dr. Richard Restak shares some remarkable insights on human behavior. A particularly relevant one to understanding patient purchasing behavior is this- “Your brain is not a logic machine. Emotions and feelings about something occur before you’ve made any attempt at conscious evaluation.”

Understanding the relationship between the emotions people feel and the thoughts they think when making purchase decisions requires only a bit of knowledge of two important brain components: the limbic system and the neocortex.


The limbic system (AKA paleomammalian cortex) consists of the portions of the brain supporting motivation, behavior, memory, and emotion.


The prefrontal cortex is tasked with executive functions.


Steven Covey’s fifth habit of highly successful people is to “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” When you truly listen, you are opening your limbic system to the speaker and can dial into their real thoughts and emotions. You are now on the same channel and can communicate on their frequency. Listening is a truly powerful trust-building tool and will lead patients to take your recommendation and feel good about doing it.


If you are pumped about your new CAD-CAM capability, capture that excitement in a video and email it to your patient base. Your patients will feel your excitement and may ask about same-day crowns on their next visit. You don’t have to be outrageously excited, but a sterile, academic-lecture tone won’t do the trick either. Share your excitement and witness how infectious it is.

All is Vanity

Here’s a tip: post a picture on your social media showing off the new smile you created for a patient. The patient you are showing off will feel flattered and get little dopamine hits for every like and comment your post gets. This creates loyalty from your patient. And others who see the post may wish to experience the same thing!

Become Even More Likable

Attempting to influence someone who doesn’t like you is an uphill endeavor. But, if you set your course to become more likable, each step you take will carry you closer to the fulcrum on the “teeter-totter of influence.” Once past this tipping point, momentum will shift its allegiance in your favor and throw its weight behind you in your quest to influence your market.


Did you know you can make yourself more attractive? It’s true. Here are six things you can do to reliably increase your attractiveness:

  • Be fit.
  • Dress well.
  • Smell good.
  • Be nice.
  • Stay clean and well groomed.
  • Maintain posture.

Broaden your horizons. Seek to build a depth and breadth of experience and knowledge. The point in your pursuit of experiences will not be to parade them about and inflate your ego, but to connect with the people you interact with. Ask your patients about their interests. Find out in advance what your next patient is into, and learn about it if necessary. As Austin Kleon stated in Steal Like an Artist, “If You Want to Be Interesting, You Have to Be Interested.”


You are smart. You are capable. You are an authority. So act like it! Speak with surety. Get rid of nervous ticks. Instill confidence in your patients that you are the best choice for their oral health and can be a trusted partner in their treatment planning. Patients are not stepping through your door to prove you’re not as good as your marketing suggests. They want to believe you are as good as you say. Give them the proof.


Laughing makes people feel better. Robin Dunbar, of the University of Oxford, performed several experiments in which he found that laughter can increase pain tolerance by up to 15%. Humor is also wonderful for breaking the ice with new patients, making a tense situation more comfortable and building lasting bonds. In other words, the only “side effect” of using humor is that you will be more likable.

Don’t think you’re funny? No problem. You can learn to be funny. Take a look at Drew Tarvin’s book, Humor that Works. He lays out a system that helps anyone kick up their humor game


In a Harvard Magazine article, social psychologist Amy Cuddy reveals that a genuine smile is one of the strongest signals of warmth to other people. This is critical because warmth is a key component of being liked by others. Not that you need the reminder, but if you’re selling the value of a great smile to patients, you should be willing to share yours with them, right?

Visual Design

How long does someone need to look at your face before deciding if they can trust you? 60 seconds? 30 seconds? 5 seconds? Princeton psychologists Alexander Todorov and Janine Willis performed a series of experiments to find the answer. As it turns out, people will judge your competence, trustworthiness, and likeability in 1/10th of a second — based solely on your appearance.

Consumers take even less time to judge your business based on the design aesthetic of your marketing materials. One study reveals that consumers determine how appealing they find your website based on aesthetic perception in as little as 17 milliseconds.



Understanding how consumers think and react is critical in building an effective dental marketing plan. The information provided above gives you a competitive advantage over your competition. Use it!

If you want to dive further into these topics and see several examples, check out The Book on Dental Marketing. The book is the most engaging, well-researched, and applicable book on dental marketing out there.