Th 88564

Technology: The Bleeding Edge

March 1, 2002

How to avoid losing your technological shirt.

by Tom Orent, DMD

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Be first on your block to buy the latest and greatest, and they will come. But who are they? The repair technicians — if you're lucky! Sure, it's human nature to want to go to "the" best guy in town: "Patients will think that our office is the place to be — if only we had that new 'technowidgetezapper.' "

Maybe. Maybe not. But it's a moot point if you have a warranty for 10 years or 10,000 restorations if there's nobody left on the planet who can back it up! Support? One of my clients uses one of the leading American dental software manufacturers for his practice-management system. He recently told me that he does not even bother calling customer support anymore. It's that bad.

Here's a funny spin on that company. Just a few weeks before my client's sad tale, I was given a tour of that company's multimillion-dollar headquarters. The director of operations proudly showed me their support response-time statistics. Daily, they post the stats up on an enormous white board: "All calls addressed within one minute and 10 seconds." It sure impressed me — until, based upon my client's comments, I realized that their ability to answer calls quickly may be directly related to attrition and general apathy! The users have ceased beating their collective heads against the support phone! So what does "customer service" (and support) have to do with leading-edge technology? Everything.

Living on the edge — the bleeding edge
Every profession has a bell curve that describes the point along the curve at which its members adopt new technologies. There is a tiny blip at the very beginning that I'd classify as the "bleeding edge." A few of us used to be out there all alone. Unfortunately, the "edge" has broadened — dramatically — from occasional inflated claims by manufacturers' representatives, to companies simply dropping off the face of the earth! Many of the "second wave" early adopters have been left to drown, with rescuers (support people) nowhere in sight.

I've been there and done that — over and over again. The point of this article is not to point fingers at any particular manufacturer or at just one technology. The problem runs the gamut of gadgets and touches small and large companies alike. No names will be mentioned. Take a few moments now to save yourself days and perhaps weeks of aggravation ... and possibly enormous expense.

Consider this article as a "consumer report," covering a wide range of technologies on a long trail of unhappy (often angry) dentists writhing in the aftermath of "ground-zero" customer service. Although company names will not be mentioned, each account is from my personal experience. All of the following tales have happened to me. Buyer beware ...

Air abrasion and high-speed curing lights
When I first saw these technologies, I walked swiftly past the booths and avoided all eye contact. I honestly thought that we'd never have a use for such misguided inventions. I was wrong. Having performed over 5,000 air-abrasion restorations, I'm a firm believer and would recommend it for just about any practice. What about high-speed curing lights? Got to have them; can't do without. They save a ton of time.

But how should you choose which machine to buy? Don't choose the machine; instead, consider that your new technology is only as valuable as the service and support behind it. Also, realize that the best service is only available as long as the company is in business. The sky isn't falling, and I'm not crying wolf. I am hoping, however, to save you from paying top dollar and ending up losing your shirt.

I am the proud owner of seven pieces of recent technology, not one of which is currently supported by anyone! Sure, we received notices from various companies who were supposed to have taken over mainland servicing of each of the units ... but when it comes right down to it, they're constantly short on parts, knowledge, or both.

Take-home lesson
Buy the company, not the technology. If you invested $5,000 in the stock market, wouldn't you want to know the fiscal health of the company in which you were investing? A little research doesn't necessarily assure you of much, but it might just help you avoid some of the obvious pits into which others have already fallen.

Beware when you are the first on your block to buy any new technology. I've seen many a new curing light that couldn't be demonstrated at the major conventions ... and not because of a shortage of electrical outlets! Often, you're looking at a nonworking dummy prototype. I've seen two lights that were sold long before their R&D teams figured out the technology that would make them work.

Hardware/software: Whose problem is it, anyway?
This is a classic arena for "Finger Pointing 101." Many years ago, I spent more than $40,000 on a wide array of computer hardware and software systems. We installed computers in all of our treatment rooms and networked the whole building. We had workstations in the business and reception areas — the whole nine yards.

We bought both the hardware and software from the dental practice-management software company, assuming that they would make sure we had exactly what we needed. It was the beginning of a very long nightmare. We were on the bleeding edge.

The majority of our workstations would "glitch out" many times every day. Although this particular company did make tremendous efforts to solve our problems, we still suffered greatly in lost time and aggravation. Eventually, the company paid for a high-level troubleshooter (a hired gun from an independent firm) to fly from California to Boston. He spent a solid week on-site with our system!

A week later, our system was back up and running, mostly glitch-free. But at what cost to us? Prior to the troubleshooter's arrival in Boston, we had already lost hours upon hours of chairtime and were embarrassed over and over in front of patients. The dental software company must have lost a fortune as well. Imagine the cost of flying a network specialist coast to coast, paying him to work on-site for an entire week! Eventually, the company dropped its entire hardware line. Now, their focus is strictly software sales and support.

On the surface, it may seem as if that type of change improves the situation. In fact, it makes it worse. Today, if you have a problem, it's not at all uncommon for one vendor to point fingers at the other vendor. Hardware support swears it's a software issue. Software support is certain it's either a hardware issue or they blame Microsoft — "OK," they admit, "maybe it is software ... but not our software!"

Multiple software integration
One of the biggest lies that I've been told by just about every software salesman is that their software can easily be integrated with my existing practice-management system.

"Sure! We can do that. Easily. What's that? You say you have XYZ practice-management software? Sure, we've done the integration with them many times. No problem!"

First, I'm no longer convinced that seamless integration needs to be our ultimate goal in life. In fact, maybe just the opposite. I've had it both ways. I've had my intraoral photos, X-rays, imaging — you name it — it's all been integrated into my practice-management systems.

The advantage of total seamless integration is that you only have to enter the patient's name once. After opening the patient's record, you can access any and all software related to the patient's treatment — ledger balances, insurance payments, treatment plans, intraoral photos, cosmetic imaging, radiographs, etc.

The main disadvantage is: "disintegration!" No, I don't mean that the systems will blow up. It's just that they don't all integrate the way the sales reps tell you they will. Furthermore, a CEO of a dental software company told me point-blank that the company fired some of its reps for blatantly exaggerating the abilities of its products. From my experience, the sales reps may be the least likely to know what can and cannot be accomplished with their systems.

Another hidden disadvantage is in the method of integration. Are they truly melding two or more software technologies together, or are they importing just the data? In one instance, I achieved the promised integration ... only to find out that only the data (photos, X-rays, etc.) were imported — not the whiz-bang technology for which I had purchased the secondary software!

Sure, I now could find Mrs. Smith's radiographs without retyping her name in a different program, but I had given up the ability to modify, adjust, highlight, enhance, or otherwise manipulate the digital radiograph in any way. In effect, the "integration" software had imported a static JPEG! Support and customer service were satisfied that they had achieved integration! I was so unhappy with the result that I decided not to use the integration. We chose to run the radiovisiography software as a stand-alone instead of losing 99 percent of its functionality.

Software conversions
Pardon me for being blunt, but "the check's in the mail!" I've already been through this more times than I want to admit. Some sales folks will say that the vast majority of your data from software "X" can and will be easily moved into your new software "Y." Again, the truth is that many of us have been misled.

When the rubber meets the road, a large amount of what was supposed to come in automatically cannot be converted. Furthermore, you'd think that since they are certain that they've already done tons of conversions from your program to theirs, that they'd know what they can and cannot do. Do you want to know what they really can bring through in the conversion? Ask the company for a reference to a dentist who's already been there — moved from your present software to the one you're moving into. Have a good chat with that doctor.

Backups that don't
Scary thought: Have you ever wondered if there was anything useful on your backup tapes? I asked an audience last week, "How many of you have ever tested the restore from your backups?" The answer was nothing short of shocking. Ask your network specialist how many backups (that users think they can depend on) would ever work!

I thought I had all the bases covered. In addition to backups, I had my network guy set up "mirrored hard drives." Sitting right there next to my server's hard drive was another hard drive — a drive that was receiving the same data as the main server's drive in real time ... so I assumed.

Upon the arrival of my latest network specialist, I was informed that it was a great idea to mirror the drives, but he wondered why the installer had never checked to see if the mirror drive was functioning. It was not!

What is "customer service" in High-Technology Land? It means that the company has caring, proficient, and honest individuals who know how to keep our stuff running properly. Most importantly, these individuals have to work for companies that have a good chance of being there for us in the future, when you most need it. "For Sale ..."

Although not all-encompassing, have the following checklist on hand when making tech-buying decisions. It could save you tens of thousands of dollars, as well as countless hours of headaches. Don't depend on the sales reps! When you have questions, ask existing users the following questions:

1. Are you satisfied with customer service and support? Is there an atmosphere of finger-pointing, or is the corporate culture service-oriented? That is, are they helping you solve problems, or telling you they're not responsible?

2. Is support able to integrate software so that each program's functionality is maintained?

3. What really happened when you had your practice-management software converted?

4. Who is this company anyway? (Don't buy technology, buy the company.)

5. Can I back it up, test the restore, remove and archive the media, take it off-site and tuck it in at night?

Next, ask the company:
How many of your company's gizmos are in service? May I have a reference list of 12 dentists in my area who use them?

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