The middle of the road is actually the most dangerous spot

July 1, 1997
I think we can all feel the undercurrent of change - the low rumble that stirs fear in many, excitement in others. Our own attitudes seem to be the only aspect we can control, as the dental marketplace really begins to diversify.

Susan Smallegan Holtrop, DDS, MSBA

I think we can all feel the undercurrent of change - the low rumble that stirs fear in many, excitement in others. Our own attitudes seem to be the only aspect we can control, as the dental marketplace really begins to diversify.

By now, most other service-oriented industries offer a vast assortment of choices for the consumer. We`d like to think that because we belong to a "profession," not an "industry," we should not be subjected to the competitive forces that develop whenever the consumer perceives a choice. It`s time to rethink this notion. The fact that we operate small businesses demands that we study the market diversification of other industries and accept some hard truths.

Lean times in the middle

One of those truths involves the marketing term "stuck in the middle." This term describes what`s left when an industry diversifies enough to offer a high-end (premium) and low-end (discount) product or service. As consumers purchase from both ends of the spectrum, the "middle" market loses share.

What happens when large, dominant "middle market" competitors fail to differentiate themselves?

Skinny times.

Take, as an example, a major player in the department-store industry. Sears, Roebuck and Co. was a middle market, be-all-to-everyone department store that clung to its image, while high-end and low-end department stores sprang up in droves. Sears lost market share. It became "stuck in the middle." Left with only a few choices, Sears had to either significantly downsize or develop "niche" markets, such as tools and appliances.

What does the "stuck-in-the-middle" concept suggest for the business of dentistry? As the dental market becomes increasingly segmented - in terms of size, location, treatment offerings, benefit links and more - many dentists will hunker down and just try to preserve their middle-market, be-all-to-everyone practice. As consumers make choices all along the spectrum and the middle market shrinks, many dentists will feel "stuck-in-the-middle."

What about you?

Where do you want your practice to be?

`Perception is everything`

Now is the best time to answer that question. Choosing a target market is more important than ever, whether it`s high-end, low-end or smack dab in the middle. Whatever the target market for your practice, aim your practice for total satisfaction of that group of customers (or patients).

If you want to continue to serve the middle market, you might focus on developing a totally unique image, in an attempt to maintain your market share. As Tom Peters says about marketing, "Perception is everything!"

Am I suggesting that your competition will be the dentist next door? Not at all!

As the market divides itself into segments and as dental benefits decline, we will compete with everyone for the discretionary dollar. We will be asking our patients to invest their back-pocket dollars, just the same as will their travel agent, appliance showroom and automobile dealer.

The late Adlai Stevenson once said, "Man is a strange animal - he can only read the handwriting on the wall when his back is up against it!"

Interesting times lie ahead.

The author, Dr. Susan Smallegan Holtrop, practices in Holt, MI, and is past president of the Central District Dental Society. She is founder and president of Contemporary Concepts in Dentistry, a teaching and consulting firm, focusing on dental-practice leadership and management.

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