Transitions Roundtable

Here are two expert’s perspectives on whether or not a dentist can evaluate the staff of a practice before buying it. It’s a tricky situation with several considerations, including legal and emotional.

We ask two experts the same question on a complex issue.

Question:

Can I evaluate staff performance prior to buying a practice? I want to be able to retain the right employees and terminate the wrong ones quickly.

Edward C. Challberg, MBA, MST, CPA

Every buying situation is different, but it is possible to analyze staff performance prior to signing the purchase agreement if the selling doctor is agreeable. First, when you are in the preliminary stages of evaluating a practice, you will have employee data from the broker to review about positions, pay, benefits, years in the practice, years in dentistry, whether team members will be leaving, and whether there are family relationships. You should be given hygiene production and hours worked per producer. Accounts receivable information and statistics about missed and broken appointments will reflect on the abilities of the front desk personnel.

Try to obtain this information over a 2–3 year period. Compare pay, benefits, hygiene productivity, accounts receivable data, and scheduling efficiency against industry norms. This will lay the groundwork for your analysis.

Second, inform the seller that a great team is very important to you. Ask the seller about each employee’s background, performance, and value to the practice. This will give you the doctor’s perspective.

Third, once you decide to buy the practice and sign preliminary documents, ask the seller to arrange a group meeting with the employees. Although this meeting will seem to be all about you, you have the opportunity to size up the employees. Smile. Be open and approachable. Compliment the doctor and practice. Briefly introduce yourself in a way that makes the staff feel comfortable. Then ask nonthreatening, open-ended questions such as, “What do you think is going well in the practice?” “What do you like about working here?” “What could be improved?” Listen carefully. Watch the body language. Listen to what they say, their tone, and how they express themselves. Who is confident and assertive? Who is not? Ask follow-up questions as appropriate.

Fourth, ask the selling doctor if you can have 20- to 30-minute one-on-one meetings with each employee. In these meetings, ask specific questions about their particular positions but in a respectful way. Again, listen carefully to their responses. Compare what they say against the practice data.

This approach can yield a wealth of information about employee performance before you sign the final agreements.

Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, MBA, RDH

It has been said many times that your most valuable asset as a practice owner is your staff group, and I understand why you want to be proactive. However, I would caution you about terminating any staff member’s employment until you get settled. The reason is that patients feel a sense of comfort seeing the familiar faces of staff members while adjusting to the discomfort of seeing a new dentist. Keeping patient attrition as low as possible should be your top concern.

It is likely that you will have discussions with the seller about the existing staff group, so the seller should be able to give you his or her perspective on each of the staff members. However, the seller’s perspective may not be the same as yours once you’ve had the chance to work with someone. Whereas the seller might say that assistant A is a keeper, you might find the person difficult to work with on a daily basis.

Further, I’m not sure of the legality of evaluating staff performance before you become the owner. By what standard would you evaluate them? Do you have an evaluation tool that is focused on job performance? Would you fire an existing staff member on the basis of his or her particular score before you ever work with that person?

As the new owner, what you need most from the staff is their loyalty and trust, and you have to earn that. It doesn’t come automatically. If you go in with guns blazing and firing at will, what perception will the staff members develop? Keep in mind that transitions are sometimes very difficult for existing staff, especially if they felt close to the seller.

Based on working with many practices going through transitions, my advice is to avoid any sweeping changes in the beginning, and this includes with the staff. Give yourself some time to adjust, and if someone is not performing to your expectations after a few months, you can take the necessary action. Focus on getting to know your patients and staff members and becoming the best dentist and employer that you can be.

Edward C. Challberg, MBA, MST, CPA, has been working primarily with dentists for 32 years, helping them acquire and build their practices, manage their taxes, and plan for financial independence. He is a long-time member of the American Institute of CPAs, California Society of CPAs, and Academy of Dental CPAs. Contact him at (415) 491-1322 or echallberg@challberg.com.

Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, MBA, RDH, is a consultant, speaker, and author. She helps good practices become better through practical on-site consulting. Visit her website at wattersonspeaks.com. For consulting or speaking inquiries, contact her at diannemba@gmail.com or call (336) 472-3515.

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