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Dental woes in an economic downturn

June 1, 2008
The practice had been humming along at a decent pace for two solid years.
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For more on this topic, go to www.dentaleconomics.com and search using the following key words: Economy, marketing, advertising, patient communication, Sandy Roth.

The practice had been humming along at a decent pace for two solid years. Dr. Yaeger's schedule was always booked well in advance and the occasional cancellation was a welcome opportunity for him to catch his breath. The staff had become comfortable with the pace and, frankly, they didn't have to work that hard to keep patients on the books.

Then came the changes — subtle at first, but more apparent recently. Real estate prices fell. There were rumors about more jobs going overseas. A few more stores closed and a couple of smaller businesses failed. November was a disaster — the depth of the drop was something new. They started to see holes in the schedule in December — almost unheard of. The end of the year had always been busy with kids home from college and people using up the remainder of their dental coverage. Not this year. January wasn't looking much better either.

Dr. Yaeger gathered everyone together to discuss the slowdown and what they could do to keep production up. His meeting focus was on getting patients to “value” dentistry more so they would follow through with recommended treatment. The staff was less than enthusiastic. Cheryl, his hygienist, said she was already doing everything she could to educate patients on why their dental health was so important. Pam, his financial coordinator, didn't have any ideas. They already offered a number of payment options.

He pointed out that there were a great number of patients who had not made appointments to start treatment. Maybe Danielle, their treatment coordinator, could start there. She was a bit resistant. After all, she knew people would be paying for holiday items they charged in December.

Then Holly, the new assistant, bravely spoke up. She had only been with the practice for two months, but wondered if others had noticed what she had observed. The moldy sign out front could use a good cleaning. The reception area was dated and the upholstery on one of the chairs was ripped. Every day around noon, the smell of warmed-up lunch wafted through the practice. And the way in which the phone was answered was so flat it did not represent the quality of dentistry she knew Dr. Yaeger performed. Holly mentioned a number of other things she had noticed and the group began to get her point.

Holly's words, though tough to hear, struck home. Over those two years that the practice was on autopilot, they all had gotten sloppy. The physical plant was rundown but the way they worked with their patients was equally bland. It took an outsider to tell them what they had become too complacent to notice themselves. The staff agreed there were probably a number of areas that could use improvement. It was time to “reinvent” the way they represented the practice and how they worked with patients. Dr. Yaeger and his staff eagerly got down to work and laid out a plan.

If economic changes are beginning to have an impact on your practice — however slight — if you are seeing a downturn in business or you are a bit anxious about the state of the economy and where it might be heading, now is the time to develop your strategy to head it off at the pass.

Let's be very clear. When the economy suffers, consumers (your patients) rethink how they spend their money. When things get tight, transportation, groceries, mortgage payments, and medical expenses take priority. Vacations, entertainment, and other discretionary expenses get cut first.

For many people, dentistry falls under “discretionary expenses” in their budget, and no amount of education or arguments for them to “value dentistry more” is going to make a difference. Patients see dental care as either “priority” or “discretionary” based solely on their value system — not yours.

That being said, you can have facilitating influence on many patients, even in the face of a sagging economy.

Imagine for a moment that you are just opening a new practice next door to a fairly successful existing one. You are starting from the ground up and have no patients. What would you do to put your practice on the top by creating a differential advantage? Now put the shoe on the other foot. If a bright, eager, charged-up dentist and team were to move in next to you, what could they do to take advantage of your weaknesses and get the upper hand?

What does it take now to make your practice extraordinary in the face of economic challenges? What will continue to set you apart from the rest? What would attract new patients and make them rave to others about you?

Look at your practice with new eyes

You must learn to look at your practice as a new or potential patient might see it. Better yet, solicit the help of some objective eyes to help you evaluate where you are and how you can improve. Start with your physical plant. Look at curb appeal, signage, your reception area, and décor, including plants, furnishings, and wall color. Are they dated? Does the appearance truly reflect the quality and level of dentistry you provide? What and how can you make changes?

Review your image and “brand”

Now is the time to reevaluate your positioning statement or tag line. Is it current and does it reflect you and the type of dentistry you perform? How is the phone answered? Is the person lively, engaging, and really glad to speak with the caller? How about the on-hold and voice mail messages? Is it the same old thing or are the messages relevant, innovative, and in keeping with your dentistry? What about your staff's attire and appearance? Is it time to raise the level of professionalism with a new look? And yes, how about your staff's smiles?

Evaluate your marketing and advertising messages

Is it time to review all of your marketing and advertising ideas? You definitely want your Web site, brochures, and business cards to accurately reflect your image. Rethink advertising and consider new ways to attract new patients. Collaborate with a marketing professional if necessary. Consider joining a local speakers bureau and get your name and thoughts out there. The local news media will often call on experts in different fields for news stories and you want them to think first of you. Renew your membership with the Chamber of Commerce, pass out those business cards at the grocery store, restaurants, and other places you meet people. Find ways to create buzz about your practice with special events and charity involvement that is relevant.

Rethink how you work with patients

This is where your influence may make the most difference. During the initial and every subsequent phone call, thank every patient and make sure each has your undivided attention. Fine tune your new-patient process and create connections that will withstand the test of time and circumstances. If your schedule is more open, spend more time with your patients. Learn what is important to them. How can you focus on what the patient wants? How can you make them feel special in your practice? Involve your staff in coming up with new ways to work with patients.

The ultimate goal is for the patient to leave thinking: “I made the right choice by coming here.” I encourage you to gather your group together and take on this project. It will help you keep your practice busy while focusing on what matters most — serving your patients.

For more than 20 years, Sandy Roth has been helping dentists and team members learn effective communication skills and develop healthy, functional relationships in their practices. In addition to her company, ProSynergy Dental Communications, she serves on the faculty of The Dawson Center in St. Petersburg, Fla., and is an editor for numerous professional journals. To learn more, call MaryBeth Head at (800) 848-8326 or Roth at (206) 953-7717. You may also e-mail [email protected] or visit www.prosynergy.com.

To read more articles by Sandy Roth, or to read Steven Anderson's exclusive online article, “How to thrive in a down economy,” go to www.dentaleconomics.com and search for “Sandy Roth” or “Steven Anderson”

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