Choose consultants carefully

March 1, 2003
Your practice is running along as it always has. You are running between rooms, doing minimal treatment on managed-care patients; seeing a couple of patients each day for long restorative appointments, or doing some combination of both.

Benjamin M. Schultz, DDS

Your practice is running along as it always has. You are running between rooms, doing minimal treatment on managed-care patients; seeing a couple of patients each day for long restorative appointments, or doing some combination of both. But no matter what you're doing, your income is flat or going down ... and you are unhappy! You see an ad, get a fax, or hear from a friend that help is possible. You are excited that there may be something out there who could help you that you have not considered.

You call the company and talk with one of the principals. The program sounds great! So many dentists just like you have had great success with this program, you are told. Should you sign up?

I have used two consultants in the past 10 years. For purposes of this article, they will remain nameless. I contacted the first consultant after receiving a direct-mail brochure. The name of one of my classmates was on it. I called him to find out more, decided that if this person had helped him (at least in the short term), I should give the program a try.

You need everything!

A salesman came to my office and said I needed the entire $15,000 program. In retrospect, what a surprise! Fortunately — or unfortunately — I didn't have the cash or the credit available. The salesman assured me that it would be no problem. He then called my credit card company and tried to get my credit line increased. Fortunately for me, the credit card issuer wouldn't do it!

Since I couldn't afford the full program, the salesman sold me a "mini" program for $5,000. I then spent four days learning more than I wanted to know about the philosophical underpinnings of the group. I was "trained" how to do what they wanted me to do by people who didn't know anything about my business or dentistry in general. The instructors only knew how to "train" me!

Back in my practice, I actually "sold" some dentistry using their techniques. Then, one day, in the middle of my telling one of my patients what she needed, the patient said, "You're selling me!" I smiled weakly and told her that I was just trying to get her to see why she needed the treatment.

I spoke on the phone weekly with one of the company's consultants to tell him my numbers for the week. After several months, I realized that if I was CEO of a large company, I could manage my business like this. But I wasn't the CEO of a large company, and the technology the consultants used wasn't working in my small, patient-centered dental practice.

Several years ago, I decided to give another company a try and I bought another program. This consulting group was very well run and organized. But once again, the consultants couldn't understand why I couldn't put the fee on my credit card (the fee was considerably more than that of the previous consulting company). However, I could do a bank transfer of funds from the card to the bank, and then transfer the money from my bank to the company.

The technology and techniques this company used were very well organized. The course included a tremendous amount of reading (nonHMO, nonmanaged care, non-PPO) and it opened my eyes to the possibility of really doing all of the dentistry my patients needed. But by the third year — after talking to one of their consultants almost every working day, and then some, and after changing my schedule almost completely — I took a serious look at my numbers. I was feeling bad about myself and I heard, more than once, "You should just sell the practice and stop hurting people."

My new-patient visits, which had never been really high, had slowed to a trickle. Many, if not most, of them refused to come back after the second appointment when I told them the minimum I was willing to do for them. My gross had dropped nearly 25 percent each of the previous two years. At that point, the consulting company officially asked me to stop the program for at least six months. Even though I was sorely in hock to the credit card company — and had only been able to make bare-minimum payments for the past two years — I felt like a huge weight had been lifted from me..I felt relieved even though I knew the original cost of the program was something that I would still have to deal with!

What did I learn from my experiences? Basically, I learned that what works in your hands won't necessarily work in my hands (hydrocolloid for some, VPS for others, PE for others). Both of these programs were complete programs — that is, they were fully set up for the clients! They were one-size-fits-all programs, and if they were going to work, the clients had to follow them explicitly. I know several people who participated in the second program who claim to have had great success with it. I know one dentist who still uses the technology involved in this program, even though he refuses to have anything more to do with the principals of the program! He believes in the program itself and is using it with great success in his large practice.

Others have not had success, and have asked for their money back (a money-back guarantee was part of the contract). These people have been rebuffed, refused, and ignored, even by the legal system. A LexisNexis search would have shown them and me that others had run into problems with this company. In fact, had I not been so hot to trot, I would have done a Web search on the program and principals involved.

Do your homework

So, how can any of us decide if we can be helped by a consulting company and how can we select the best one to fit our needs? I would tell people to do their homework based on my own two experiences.

First, find out who is successful and who isn't. Obtain telephone numbers or email addresses. If the company falls back on, "We can't allow you to invade our privacy," put your antennae up. Privacy issues count for nothing here! If, for example, the manufacturer of a product that I have used successfully had a prospective client who wanted to talk with someone who uses their products, I'd be more than happy to do so. I'd tell them everything that I liked and didn't like about the product.

A consultant should be willing to give you the names of people to speak with about their services and products. In fact, you should have access to all of the company's clients so you can make up your own mind about whom to call for information. If you can't speak privately with people who have used the program, realize you are buy- ing this program at great risk!

Second, do a Web search using any or all of the search engines available. There is an absolutely incredible amount of information on the Web that can be easily accessed. Had I done this on the companies and their principals that I signed up with, I never would have spent the money on either one of these programs. I would have learned about their affiliation with a third organization that I did not trust.

Third, have your attorney do a LexisNexis search on the company you are considering and its principals. This will tell you if there have been any legal actions filed against them. It will show if the principals have been sued or if they have sued anyone else.

The fact that the company or its principals have been sued is not a "poison pill" in and of itself. Rather, it is one aspect of the overall picture of this organization to help you decide if these are the type of people you want "helping" you. You also should expect timely answers from the principals to your questions about any legal actions. If they hang up on you, you have just saved yourself from throwing away a lot of money!

There also are a number of investigative services in cyberspace. These agencies usually have access to any public database and some proprietary ones. For a fee — usually about $39.95 (shades of Earl Scheib) — you will get by return email a listing of the principals involved, any aliases, and any brushes with the law they have had. Again, this doesn't mean you shouldn't use the services of someone who, for example, had a legal action filed against him, but when combined with other information you uncover, it might pose a real red flag on potential problems.

Lastly, how does the consultant expect to be paid? With the price of some consultants exceeding the price of an airline ticket on frequent-flyer miles, do you want to put this amount on a credit card ... even if it does not exceed your credit limit? There's a reason to think twice about this, and we dentists see it in our practices regularly.

If a patient pays for a crown with a credit card and never returns to have it placed, can he or she ask for the money back? Even if you try to get your money back from the consultants and are eventually successful, you still must keep paying on the account until the situation is resolved.

Some consultants might suggest, as mine did, that you transfer the money from a credit-card account to your bank, then do a wire transfer via your bank or Western Union to them. But if the program proves to be worthless, there is absolutely no recourse for you other than the consultants' willingness to repay you.

Instead of paying the entire amount in advance, ask the consultants if you can pay out the fee on a monthly basis, so you can actually try out the program with a minimal investment before paying the entire amount. Since some people may succeed quicker than others, why should those who require less training pay for more training than they need?

After all this, you might be surprised to hear me say that I truly believe there are some great consultants out there who will get you where you want to go. I also believe that there are some "so-called consultants" who are only interested in getting all of your money right away. Then, if that particular program doesn't work for you, you can be sure that they will have another program for you to buy. If you don't continue to pay out more money, they will drop you.

I'm sure that there are consultants available who would do a great job with me, because what they have to offer is a fit with my personality, motivations, and needs. And the same consultant that might be great for me might be terrible for you, because this program doesn't fit you and your practice.

Talk to any consultant you consider very carefully. Go through the steps that I have outlined. Think it through. Take your time! If you are offered an extra-special savings for signing up today only, maybe you'd be happier holding onto your wallet. Car buyers among us know that there is no such thing as today only. If it all smells and feels right, pay the money. Then, get to work and enjoy the results.

Benjamin M. Schultz, DDS. MAGD, practices functional aesthetic dentistry in Trumbull, CT. He is a cum laude graduate of the Georgetown University School of Dentistry. Since 1995, his office has been totally computerized for all clinical and front-office functions. He is happy to say that after stopping daily contact with his previous consultant, his practice grew by 15 percent last year. You may reach Dr. Schultz by email at [email protected].

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