There are probably as many different ways to build your practice as there are number of practitioners in the field. New practices focus on drawing in patients, while established practices work on retaining current ones. Those two tasks alone can lead to several additional subsets within practice building and can be further broken down by factors like geography and budget.

But, as you start 2013, there is only one thing that every practice should focus on to ensure a profitable year. And it is not technology, marketing, education, social media, analytics or even innovation. In the end, none of these will matter if your practice doesn’t have an established culture.

The Office Culture
Practitioners often approach my consultants with the following scenario: My practice runs great and my staff gets it—until I leave the office for vacation. If I am not here to mind the store, things start to slowly unravel. Or, even worse, we hear practitioners say that when they are in the exam room, they can’t believe some of the things they overhear their staff say.

How does this happen in an office that has weekly staff meetings, a great website and state-of-the-art equipment? The answer is simple. The practitioner has not invested the proper energy to define and stress the importance of maintaining his or her vision of the office’s culture.

In every practice, the number of contact points between your staff and patients (whether it be in person, on the phone or online) keeps increasing. And each of these points of contact are connected and related. Therefore, each person involved in patient communication must also share the same predefined set of practice values; tersely written emails, curt front desk welcomes and brusque phone conversations are simply not acceptable.

Remember, you can’t script everything—and you shouldn’t have to. Instead, you should take the time to build and define your practice culture. We live in a world where any of the aforementioned interactions have the ability to go viral in seconds. Your patients are likely remotely connected to the Internet through their smartphone and have the ability to email, tweet or add a status on Facebook about their experience within minutes of leaving your practice. Websites like Yelp allow consumer-driven reviews to rank practices and build (or break) reputations. You, as the owner of the practice, have to be extra conscientious to ensure reviews are positive rather than negative.

As clinical technology evolves via new diagnostic equipment and treatment modalities, a patient base that is exposed to a constant and consistent culture will continue to seek you out as a source of knowledge. This is because they have already internalized your relationship and are comfortable “coming home” to a place that has never let them down. Patients are less likely to stray to competitors when they feel at home with your practice, and that includes your staff and the culture you have instilled in your office.

Getting Started
Start by clearly and concisely defining your practice culture to create a foundation of action for your staff.  For example, the Mayo Clinic mission statement clearly summarizes its primary value: “The needs of the patient come first.”

With that fundamental understanding, everyone involved in the Mayo Clinic’s staff—from neurosurgeons to valet parking attendants—knows how to treat patients. Just as every surgical contingency can’t be planned for, neither can every situation in the hospital gift shop or the accounting office. But as long as “the needs of the patient come first” is understood, and employees are empowered and unencumbered by excessive rules and policies, the organization will prosper.

I recommend that once you’ve succinctly stated your culture, write out a Zappos-esque list of core values in a way that is easily understood. Then, of course, lead by example and embody these guidelines in your own patient encounters.

Reiterate the importance of your culture by repeating the message, both in daily action and in preparation at regular office meetings. Positively reward success by sharing examples of how a staff member interacted with a patient in a way that reinforced the practice’s core beliefs. Conversely, be willing to let a staff member go if he or she fails to adhere to your practice culture and values. And remember, building a strong culture is the most effective practice-building technique you have in your pocket.