Dental office managers play extremely important roles in the success of the practice. But if your relationship feels like a bad marriage, it's time to arrange a meeting with the dentist to get both of you on the same page.

Being a dental office manager can be extremely rewarding. If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t see so many people in the position for so long. Not only do office managers get to help dental practice owners grow their businesses, they also get to mentor other dental professionals and future office managers. Most importantly, they help patients with their dental health.

You have the opportunity to gather more in-depth information about dental team building in our course "Dental office or clinic management. Unleashing business potential" by Laura Nelson.

The role of office manager can be difficult. Office managers are the people who receive all patient issue escalations, and manage daily staff issues and drama. These are only two examples of the challenges that come along with the role dental office manager.

In addition to patient issues and office drama is the working relationship the OM has with the doctor, who can be the position’s biggest advocate or biggest detriment. Although the title includes “management,” the office manager’s name is not on the wall and the person does not have final decision-making power on major issues. Add the fact that many dentists are not trained in business and would prefer to work solely on teeth and not deal with the administrative details, and it becomes a delicate relationship that requires communication and finesse.

Running a dental office for a dentist is like a marriage. The partnership can be amazing if you’re both on the same page and share the same viewpoint. However, when the partnership has opposite personalities who don’t share a vision, things can quickly become rocky. Why else would over 50% of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce?

I want to help office managers who are in weak working relationship with their dentists improve those relationships. I want them to learn to discuss problems with the dentist and come to an agreement about how the partnership cannot just survive, but thrive. Even if you shy away from conflict, if you want to see improvement in the relationship you must bring it up with the doctor and guide the person to a positive solution.

Develop a game plan

Find a good time to talk. Don’t try to squeeze this conversation in between patients. Suggest having a meeting over breakfast or at the end of the day. Then think strategically about what you want to discuss. Avoid making a laundry list of the things the dentist does wrong or doesn’t support you about. Instead, list the most important things you would like to see change, along with examples of how that can happen and ways to solve the issue. This conversation should be two-way. Let the doctor have a chance to speak and share his or her thoughts and ideas. If you come to the table with a long or negative list, the meeting will not likely end well.

See the doctor’s perspective

Most doctors are not trained in business management or how to run a small business. In fact, that’s likely why they hired you! I guarantee the doctor would rather do complicated dentistry all day than a single hour of what you deal with each day. However, it’s in the dentist’s best interest to recognize that certain things might be hindering your ability to grow the business, or are in direct opposition to what the dentist hopes to achieve.

Be prepared

Start by asking what the dentist hopes to achieve and about his or her goals for the business. Discuss how you are a component in accomplishing these goals. Make sure your vision aligns with the dentist’s. Now is a good time to ensure the doctor doesn’t have any lingering issues with you that you may not know about.

Sample conversation starters

  • “What is your goal for the practice this year, and how do you feel we are doing thus far?”

  • “What goals do you feel we need to pay more attention to?”

  • “Where do you want to focus our energy to reach one or more of these goals?”

  • “How do you feel about my performance as office manager?”

  • “As the office manager, how can I help the office head in that direction?”

  • “Do you have feedback for me about ways I can improve?”

If this first part of the meeting goes well, next ask the dentist more about him or herself and how he or she plans to achieve these goals:

  • “What are some ways that you’ve been working to help us reach these goals?”

  • “What changes would you like the office to make to move toward these goals?”

  • “How can I help you make these changes?”

  • “Do you feel in any way that I might be some of the reason we have not yet made the goal? If so, what am I doing that is holding us back?

  • “Are you aware of anything that you are personally doing or not doing that might be keeping us from making the goal? Is it something I can help with?”

If the meeting is still going in the right direction, here are some additional questions aimed at helping the doctor recognize that you need more support for him or her to achieve change.

  • “I have been thinking about some areas that really need improvement to achieve our goals. Is it okay if I share those with you?”

  • “As an office manager, I often feel I can’t get the office to reach some of the changes or goals we want, and here is why.”

  • “Ideally, I need you as the owner to support me in certain areas. Here are some examples of times that your support is vitally important for reaching our goals.”

  • “May I share with you some past situations where it made my job more difficult or undercut my authority not to have your explicit support?”

The intention is to get the doctor to recognize that he or she plays a significant role in helping achieve office goals (or not). When the person sees that you’re genuine and making an honest effort, the opportunity to recognize that he or she may be part of the problem arises and an openness to develop a plan evolves.

Specific outcomes you can expect from this meeting:

  1. Identify one or two things you’re going to do when you walk out of this meeting as a unified team.

  2. Set a game plan for when and how you’re going to make progress on one of the goals you discussed.

  3. Set up an ongoing check-in time for future meetings to check in with each other and your progress toward goals.

  4. Don’t forget to thank the doctor for taking the time to meet with you to help reinforce how important this is to you and the office.

Remember, you are the office manager for a reason. Even if the owner hasn’t been as supportive as you would like, or worse, if the person seems to be working against you, it is still possible to salvage the relationship. Make it clear you care about meeting office goals and listen to the doctor’s perspective and you will find that the two of you can develop a strong and productive partnership.

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