What Message Does Your Physical Environment Send? Teri Yanovitch





Everything in your office says something about your practice. Every detail communicates a note about how you do business. Everything your patients see, hear, smell and touch sends them a message. Is it the message you want to send?

Patients will not analyze every little detail, but they will (consciously or not) form an impression of you and your business from the moment they pull into your parking lot. Everything speaks! Imagine driving up to your practice and getting out of the car only to see litter and cigarette butts leading to the entrance. Then you notice an overflowing trash can and fingerprints all over the glass door. The peeling paint creates a negative impression before you even enter your foyer. These things all speak to the quality of the overall business.

It’s a sign of respect to your patients to make sure that your environment is prepared and ready for them. Think of it as when you are expecting guests for dinner in your home, what do you do? You clean the house from top to bottom, set out the finest dinnerware, light some candles, select the right music and get yourself ready to entertain. There are many similarities with your office environment in considering these same elements. It’s important to your patients that you have a clean waiting room. It also has a subtler meaning. If a business can not handle these small details, then why should they expect you are capable of handing the bigger, more important details? I will never forget going into an obstetrician’s office and noting the stains in the ceiling tiles, the wilted plants, the outdated magazines and deciding this was not the person I wanted to have delivering my babies. I walked out of the office before even meeting the obstetrician and his staff.
It is important to have everyone on your staff involved in the upkeep of the physical setting. Getting employees to have an "everything speaks" mindset is critical to ensuring any negative messages the environment might be communicating are eliminated. Employees must take a personal ownership. One of the ways to do this is to take a walk through of your practice with each employee and ask each of them to look through the eyes of a patient. Start in the parking lot, even if it doesn’t belong to your business alone – recognize it is still a reflection of your practice. Ask the employee what factors enhance the business and what factors detract from the business. After you have conducted this "service walk" with each of your employees, bring everyone together as a group and complete an Everything Speaks Checklist (see template on p. 84). This is a tool that transforms the concept of everything speaks from being a philosophy to being an organization-wide practice.

This template can be easily adapted to your practice. The idea is to identify the different areas within the business: front desk reception, restrooms, patient offices, hallways, billing area, etc. Have employees get involved in defining what makes the items in that area satisfactory, what makes them unsatisfactory, and if they are deemed unsatisfactory, what is the action that needs to be taken.

This checklist should be completed every day because it brings a heightened awareness to all staff the importance of what the area looks like to patients. It also brings a level of accountability to the process that wouldn’t be possible if it was done only every once in a while. To ensure everyone understands that each member of the staff including management is responsible for the environment, rotate the duty of conducting the checklist. This can be a very powerful tool in not only stimulating alertness for negative impressions, but for also conveying the message that keeping up the physical setting is part of everyone’s job.

It’s the little things that people remember. Study your patients and learn as much about their demographics that you can. What will make them comfortable when they enter your office? This should impact the colors of your walls, décor and background music. I know of one dental practice that caters mostly to young children. The owner has decorated each of the patient rooms with a different theme: the beach, a tree house, and Noah’s arc. There are so many visuals for the young patient to look at while they are being treated, they relax and get more comfortable. My dentist has set up his dental chairs to all face the windows. Each pane has its own bird feeder directly in front of the window and he keeps the feeders full. Inevitably, there is always a bird show to watch and enjoy while getting one’s teeth worked on.

Another aspect of your physical environment that can make a big impact is your Web site. What does it speak? Your Web site could be the first place potential patients visit before making their choice of whether to do business with you or not. How easy is it to navigate? Are there misspelled words or misinformation? Does it look professional or as if it was slapped together by a teenager just learning how to do Web sites? Many new patients will use the Web site to check you out. Keep it simple, but use it to convey the message you want your business to send. If you are a modern, high technology practice, your site should show it; if you are into pain management, your site should convey this message. If you are a family oriented practice, make sure your site sends this note. Communication is key to your branding. What reinforces your credibility is when your communication matches your physical environment. It immediately says, "You can trust me to be who I say I am."

Take a critical look at yourself and your staff. What impression is formed when a patient sees one of you? Is there a dress code and if so, does everyone adhere to the code? Every day when you open the doors to your practice, pretend you are putting on a show. The curtains rise, the setting appears and actors come on stage. Your employees are like the actors in a play and they have a certain role to fulfill. The credibility of your business lies partly in their hands. Remember, everything your patients see, hear, smell and touch will make an impression and will either build up your name, image and reputation or slowly start to whittle it away. Do your patients see crisp, clean uniforms on a well-scrubbed hygienist? Make-up, earrings, fingernail polish, rings, tattoos, beards, and mustaches – all of these elements send a message. When I worked at Walt Disney World, it was important to present a friendly, fresh, non-intimidating image; therefore, minimal make-up, no more than one earring per ear, light fingernail polish and one ring per hand. No visible tattoos, beards or mustaches were allowed.

What do your patients hear? Do staff know not to speak poorly of other patients, to not complain about management or other office staff, to not discuss personal activities when they are in the presence of other patients?

Smell is another element in your physical environment that will impact the patient experience. Have you ever walked into a restaurant and smelled something unpleasant, turned and walked out the door without ever sitting down? The same thing can happen because of the smells in your practice. Toothpaste comes in many different flavors these days, but what about your office? Is it a clinical sterile scent you want or more of a chocolate chip cookie scent? Today there are smellitzers that can help create the smell you want and studies to show what scents are most comfortable and non-obtrusive to people.

And finally, don’t forget touch. As a patient, I don’t want to sit in sticky plastic chairs and I certainly don’t want to sit in any chair that is wet! I want the armrests to feel clean and I want to see utensils that all are obviously being sterilized before touching my mouth. I expect the doctor’s hands and the hygienist’s hands to appear washed and clean. It makes an impression as to how I am touched. Is it rough and quick with a "let’s-get-this-over-with" attitude or is it gentle, careful and "I’ll try not to make this so unpleasant for you" attitude?

Your physical environment is extremely critical to the success of your business. It is often the differentiator in how a patient chooses where they will take their business. Everyone has their own factors that make them feel most comfortable with their choice of environment. The key is to identify the message you want your practice to send and then make certain your setting reinforces it through sight, sound, smell and touch because everything speaks.

Author’s Bio
Teri Yanovitch is a speaker, trainer and consultant, and is the coauthor of the book, Unleashing Excellence – The Complete Guide to Ultimate Customer Service. Yanovitch can be reached at ty@retainloyalcustomers.com or 407-788-7765.

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