The staff — to tell them or not?

March 1, 2002

by Alan Clemens

When it comes to selling a practice, the staff plays a critical role not only in the transfer, but also in maximizing the value of the practice and its ultimate selling price. The staff — especially the key employees — often can be more important than the seller from a knowledgeable purchaser's perspective.

Sellers frequently are reluctant to mention the possibility of a practice sale for fear of "spooking" staff members, even though they may sense it beforehand without being told. The issue becomes one of "When do I tell them — at the beginning, once I have a firm contract, or after the closing?"

The selling doctor may want to keep the initiation of the sales process in confidence for a while, but it's often impossible to prevent speculation if you frequently receive anonymous calls or behave secretively. It may be better to head off the speculation and distrust it can generate by notifying the staff as early as possible and presenting it in a positive manner. When the seller addresses it this way, most staff members will likely respond in a positive manner and will appreciate their employer's forthrightness. The fact is they often want and need to keep their jobs, so they may be more receptive than you might expect. Their favorable attitude will give the buyer a sense of continuity and help reduce the loss of valuable employees.

Once you are sure of your buyer, you then can bring your staff in contact with the qualified prospect under your supervision. However, staff members should never meet apart from the seller until after a purchase and sale agreement is signed; the buyer's deposit has been made and is nonrefundable; and financing is approved and in place.

When appropriate, the seller can introduce the buyer to staff members. To prevent gossip and rumors, a staff meeting may be the most appropriate venue, so that everyone gets the same information.

The selling doctor should start by giving the new doctor an enthusiastic welcome and a brief introduction. The seller should tell the staff why he thinks this particular doctor will work well with them and patients. Then, the new doctor should take over the meeting.

The new owner might start off by handing out a CV, showing family photos, and mentioning how he or she likes the area. In short, the buyer should create a friendly atmosphere and make the staff feel comfortable. The new owner should express a few of the reasons why the decision was made to buy this practice and make sure staff members know their value to the practice was one of those. The dialog could go something like this:

"I am very impressed with this practice. I look forward to working with all of you. I'll be spending the next few months getting to know the patients and working with you. I can't possibly manage this office without your help and experience. We will have many opportunities to get to know each other and learn to work together. During this time, we'll be evaluating each other's performance and having a joint learning experience. This can be a trying, so we'll have to be patient with each other. I'm not a dictator, but from time to time I'll be recommending office changes, which we'll discuss at our staff meetings. I need your input, and I promise I won't make any major changes without discussing them with you first. I look forward to working with you. I'm sure we'll develop a positive relationship and the practice will continue to be successful and to grow."

The selling doctor should make it one of his or her highest priorities to see that the new doctor and the staff quickly form a close bond. Doing so will assure the continuity of the seller's hard-built practice and help ensure that both patients and staff are comfortable with the new doctor who will take the practice into the future.

Alan Clemens is president of The Clemens Group, a firm with 32 years of experience specializing in dental practice transitions. Services include appraisals, partnership buy-outs and buy/sell agreements, and practice sales in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. He is a member of American Dental Sales and can be reached by phone at (212) 270-1169 or by email at [email protected]. See the classified ads for names and addresses of ADS members in your area.

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