Opportunities to effectively market the dental practice are as numerous as the number of practitioners
Keith D. Allred, MBA, JD
Key elements to staying in business are not secrets to most dental practitioners: do quality work that you can get paid for and find customers that need the work!
Doing quality work requires the technical skills that all dentists learn in school and continuously work to improve after that.
At the same time, dentists find that they must develop behaviorial skills. People skills are basic to achieving patient trust, obtaining patient treatment-planning acceptance and keeping customers. People skills are a substantive part of a successful dental-health practice.
To most dentists, marketing - or practice development - probably is the most mysterious of the factors determining practice success. It is a critical element to staying in business in the `90s and cannot be avoided in today`s fast-paced, market-based economy.
A successful marketing strategy in the `90s and on into the 21st century should allow for evolving marketplaces that are more competitive, mature customers that are more educated and in the workforce longer than their parents, a huge youth market and consumers, particularly the baby boomers, who are more knowledgeable of dental services.
The more potent competition for dental dollars may come from sellers of automobiles, purveyors of leisure-time equipment and activities or providers of other - and alternative - medical services.
In dental school, the time required to learn necessary technical skills does not leave much left over in the curriculum for taking marketing courses.
Compounding the deficiency is the view of some that marketing lacks professionalism - especially among older practitioners who can remember when advertising was either illegal or unethical. There also may be some negative attitudes about salespersons, which is unfortunate because we all are such gifted salespersons for what we enthusiastically believe.
Dentists I talk with love their work with a passion, and that should make practice development - the art of finding and developing business - both fun and exciting.
Growth Areas in Dentistry
Opportunities to effectively market the dental practice are as numerous as the number of dental practitioners. Look at what others are doing to get new patients and educate patients about treatment recommendations and new dental services.
Tooth whitening has helped many dentists acquire new patients and enabled them to market a new service to their patient base. There is a market-driven desire for this service: "when the [information] racks are filled, whitening brochures are always in patients` hands," notes a Massachusetts dentist.
Some dentists advertise whitening in "value-pack" stuffers to perk up cosmetic interest. Meaningful patient education informs interested patients about the need for whitening before veneers are done, so everything matches.
An exciting growth area is dentist-prescribed, snore-prevention devices. "Today, dentists can help you get a good night`s sleep." That`s the cartoon caption in a recent news release on snore-prevention devices. Dentists have prescribed more than 2,000 - about one-half of which were for the dentist - just to see how well these devices work and so they can pass along meaningful information to their patients. Products that solve big problems in a big market have great potential to bring new clients to dental practices.
Another developing area is dentist-prescribed sports mouthguards. Custom-fabricated mouthguard products have great referral potential. Active adults will find them superior to preformed or boil-and-bite devices and will expect to pay more for the better fit, protection and quality.
Remember, parents usually are very willing to spend money for their children`s benefit. Most of you already prescribe sealants, fluoride treatments and other preventive measures.
Why not add protective custom mouthguards to the overall treatment plans of your younger patients to decrease the potential of concussive and traumatic injury?
Investment in advanced technology also can have marketing potential.
An Idaho dentist I know advertises "drilless dentistry" with a three-column Yellow Pages ad. He reports that the ad is a good source for new customers. The ad is drawing patients who are concerned about pain, who do not want a shot and who hate the sound of drills.
Introducing abrasion technology into the practice takes time. The units themselves are expensive and they do have limitations (e.g., they do not work on amalgam-filling material).
However, adding new technology can help expand the business.
Another technological innovation that many dentists report is invaluable is the intraoral camera. The big image the camera produces is better than using a large, parabolic mirror and has proven to be an aid to improve the treatment-acceptance rate, as well as a good, overall marketing tool.
Seeing is believing. A Texas dentist, who recently began sharing his practice with his son, uses a portable unit. In a Massachusetts dentist`s practice, the assistant already has a picture of the patient`s tooth up when the dentist enters the operatory.
Joining a nationwide referral service has worked well as a marketing tool for a Missouri dentist. He says the 800 number gets the avoiders; otherwise, he feels he only is getting customers concerned with preventive care.
Another dentist told me Blue Shield was a good customer source. A New Jersey dentist tells me he does not mind delivering first-class services to his managed-care patients who get discounts because they frequently refer their brothers and sisters who do pay regular, fee-for- service prices.
The `Broken Tooth` Patient
As patients consider a minor repair or a more expensive crown, the intraoral camera quickly turns the dynamics from "a broken tooth" to "that`s my tooth?"
Frequently-used word pictures include the following: "a repair is a waste of time and money;" "a repair won`t last long - it may last only a couple of years, maybe three, and then we may be looking at a root canal down the road;" "a repair is temporary - assume it may last two years or next week - and, if the other cusps go . . . ;" "crowns can last five to 15 years or even longer and a crown will restore the broken-down tooth to its original strength."
For most of the population, the dentist is an invisible professional - like the criminal lawyers you visit only when you have a problem - and then, you don`t really want to be there! In redefining the mission of the dental practice, the dentist`s goal should be preventing problems and delivering peace of mind, rather than merely taking care of problems.
However, the message of prevention applies even when problems develop. Besides fixing problems, helping to eliminate future anxiety is an important service. In the fractured-tooth example above, a dentist might say, "I do not want you to have to worry about this over the years.
A build-up and a patch is a temporary fix at best; it is a repair. I would like to restore this tooth with a crown. A crown is a 20- to 40-year restoration; you will not have to worry about it because it will be long-lasting. A crown will make the tooth even stronger than it was before the fracture."
Your approach to the above situation may be different. Compare your own experience with treatment acceptance to that of dentists who report from 70- to 90-percent patient acceptance of crown recommendations.
Almost 60 percent of workers, in a recent Gallop poll, were not satisfied with their current job`s interest level. Most of the dentists I know love their work. They feel the only factor limiting the future growth of their practice is themselves - their lack of time and emotional energy.
Dentists who don`t put limits on themselves and strive constantly to grow their practices are seeing as many patients as they care to see. As a Massachusetts dentist points out, "The work is out there if you want it!"
Finding Your Niche
Many practitioners use their own preferences for dental care as a way to differentiate their services from the competition. This approach can attract patients who have similar values and preferences and identify with the dentist`s philosophy. For example, some practitioners want no amalgam in their own mouths, and the way they practice reflects that philosophy. A Massachusetts dentist predicts his practice "will be amalgam-free in, maybe, a few years."
A California dentist prefers to treat with gold because he feels it is a better restorative than other options. He stays busy taking care of referrals from about 500 like-minded patients. He told me about one of his patients who was having 12 gold-foil and lab-fabricated inlays and onlays done. This dentist`s patients are motivated by the perception of higher quality. Understanding what is important to your patients requires that you either think like they do or educate them to think like you do. You can command a premium price for your services if patients perceive that you deliver a unique service with superior benefits.
Another great marketing tool is a well-designed practice brochure. Such a brochure can be used to highlight information that differentiates the practice. I find that most dentists feel they should have a practice brochure, but don`t get around to having one done. Still other dentists feel this is a must. Will expensive, full-color practice brochures get new patients all by themselves or must dentists combine them with other marketing activities to be effective?
"Just to stack brochures in the waiting room doesn`t help because the patient already is there," points out a Massachusetts dentist. He includes a practice brochure with gift packs, mailed to local businesses. Themes, such as "cheaper" or "faster," may lend themselves to the "value-coupon" approach. A Colorado dentist offers free whitening with an exam and prophylaxis and a 20 percent discount to returning inactive patients.
Some old formulas still work. A dentist in a small tourist area with 40 competitors has relied for 20 years on a good location and a big, beautiful "general dentist" sign. Of course, everyone relies on word-of-mouth: the omnipresent "hunt and peck" referral system, the source of every professional`s penultimate "new" customer.
I recently asked practitioners across the country how they would approach the following situation: the patient breaks tooth cusps and is scheduled for a quick appointment. The doctor is busy and anxious to get back to another operatory. After examining the emergency patient, the doctor recommends a crown. The patient requests the tooth just be repaired. How much patient education is required? What approach will increase the likelihood of the patient`s acceptance of the dentist`s preferred treatment plan? Is a quick repair a desirable course of action?
Spend a few minutes and think about how you would handle the preceding situation. Then, compare your approach with a composite of other dentists in the same situation and how they might handle this situation in their practices.
Many approaches lie between the two extremes of simply smoothing the corners for $16 or placing a $800 crown. No one will argue about doing what the patient asks. However, dentists must remember to use our knowledge and skill to advise and try to help patients appreciate and accept what they really need. Whether a patient accepts a repair when he/she needs a crown or accepts a crown he/she feels is unneeded, both instances are examples of marketing failures.
The author is Director of Professional Services for Glidewell Laboratories in Newport Beach, CA. His dental-industry experience began in 1985 as controller and then president of Coltene, Inc. As an attorney, he has assisted in the formation and development of several businesses.