The Little Things, Creme Brulee and the Big Difference

She is the reason why I won’t eat crème brûlée today. I affectionately refer to her as “the witch,” and it’s a story that even my children know (though they still don’t know her name). I’m referring to a past significant other who treated me so poorly, it is remarkable I put up with it. Ah, youth. What we will do to avoid being alone. But I did learn something from this person that has changed so much in my life and has made it immeasurably better.

We were at the Robarts Library cafeteria at the University of Toronto eating lunch. I had a sandwich, a couple of cookies, and an orange. I finished my lunch only to be berated by her for hours afterward because I did not offer any part of my lunch. Did she overreact? Well, that is what she did with everything. However, during our relationship, I learned to be less conscious of myself and less self-absorbed and to pay attention to those whom I am with. It was the little things that made a big difference.

Last night, I took my wife out on a date, something we do with regularity, more than 22 years later. At the counter, I ordered her popcorn and a drink (medium popcorn, no topping, and a small Coke with no ice), just the way she likes it, and the young lady behind the counter thought it was so adorable that she had to comment. Later, after the movie, we went out for appetizers and drinks, and I took her to a little French bistro for small plates of food and wine pairings — just what she wanted.

Knowing her favorite flower, her favorite color, her favorite brand of perfume and what makes it her favorite, how she likes her coffee or tea prepared, what music she likes to listen to — these are the little things that have made my marriage and my life filled with moments of wonder, of affection, of love. The “witch” taught me to pay attention to the little things, and that lesson gets comments of how charming I am and notes of admiration from my wife on a regular basis. It costs nothing to just pay attention, to be “in the moment” and present.

And so it is in dental practice. In challenging times, the little things allow us to thrive and grow. In my practice, we once had coordinated uniforms. The clinical team was given a uniform allowance, and the team members went together to decide on color schemes and styles, and I just got uniforms to match what they were wearing. The administrative team members also were given an allowance, and they bought smart-looking outfits that were coordinated and changed every day as well. It was a relatively inexpensive perk I gave to my team that resulted in positive comments from our patients every single day. We looked like a professional, cohesive team, and our patients noticed.
And so we carried it on through. We purchased good coffee for the practice, high-end tea, quality hot chocolate — and the additional cost was only pennies per patient, but they noticed.We have a family practice and a small waiting room, so we bought wooden boxes from IKEA and filled them with quality toys, games, coloring books, building blocks, and more for the kids. When they arrived, they dove under the chairs, grabbed a box, pulled it out, and played. Compact, clean, fun, and innovative, and the parents of these kids noticed that neat little detail.

We surveyed our patients about what magazines they prefer to read. We took those results and subscribed to a selection of these magazines that cover a cross-section of interests for all ages and both genders. And we kept them current, the most recent issue up front in the reception area and the next issues in the clinical area for patients waiting in the clinical chairs. Some patients would come a little early so they could have a good cup of coffee and read our magazines before their appointment started. Our patients felt like our office was their dental home.

Giving handwritten thank-you notes to patients who referred someone to us, telling a patient “thank you for allowing us to take care of you today” at the end of the appointment, thanking my team members for their work at the end of the day before they went home, holding team-based motivational trainings at least twice per year, ensuring the whole team (clinical and administrative) was committed to great continuing education (CE) by paying for it — all of these little things added up. The cost was relatively small, and the payoffs in goodwill, reputation, and patients being happy were huge.

Then, two years ago, I sold my practice and stayed on as a full-time associate, and the fellow who bought my practice eliminated all of these things, viewing them as unnecessary expenses. Now, three patients leave the practice for every new one who enters — and the patients have noticed. One woman, who has been part of the practice for more than 40 years (and we see her children and grandchildren), left the practice, saying the atmosphere is not the same and she no longer feels good about driving 45 minutes each way to see us for her dental care.

These are challenging times in Calgary, Alberta. The little things once set us apart from our colleagues and from other sources of competition for our patients’ hard-earned dollars. Pay attention to the little things, and you will be rewarded in unexpected and wonderful ways.

And now you will never look at crème brûlée quite the same way ever again. I promise.

Larry Stanleigh, BSc, MSc, DDS, FADI, FICD, FACD, FPFA

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