ENTERING THE WORLD OF E-COMMERCE

E-commerce will change the business of dentistry. At least, that`s what many of us who are running e-commerce companies in the dental industry are hoping. As the co-founder of Oralis.com, an e-commerce company for oral health-care professionals, I have spent the last two years studying technology and learning about the trends in dentistry. I have tried to understand how e-commerce can be a revolutionary force that helps to fulfill the growing demand for dental services with the demographic

Nate Short

E-commerce will change the business of dentistry. At least, that`s what many of us who are running e-commerce companies in the dental industry are hoping. As the co-founder of Oralis.com, an e-commerce company for oral health-care professionals, I have spent the last two years studying technology and learning about the trends in dentistry. I have tried to understand how e-commerce can be a revolutionary force that helps to fulfill the growing demand for dental services with the demographic realities that exist. Did you realize that, if we look into the year 2020, there are projected to be 52.7 dentists per 100,000 people, versus 59.5 today? Ultimately, dentists must become more efficient in the future or significantly more dental students must graduate in the coming years. The latter does not seem likely considering the number of schools and the inability to attract and retain top educators.

Any discussion about e-commerce certainly should involve topics such as supply-chain management, one-to-one marketing, information flow, and education. These are all primary topics when discussing the opportunity for e-commerce in our lives. However, for the average dentist, the question that is repeatedly asked is, "How can e-commerce benefit me?" At first glance, the most typical response is, "Because it will save you money." In and of itself, that is no doubt a great reason. However, most of us need something more than price to change our behavior. We need a compelling reason that falls in line with a fundamental economic concept called value.

Value typically refers to the total satisfaction that a customer receives from a product or service. Value can be determined and interpreted in many ways, depending on the individual. Some define value in terms of price, some think of it in terms of quality, and still others look at it in terms of service. Obviously, all components are important, which is what leads us back to these questions: Why incorporate e-commerce into my practice? How do I determine which sites to do business with once I do?

Background

In the past several months, we have seen the emergence of dozens of new Web sites aimed at providing dentists with some sort of value. Typically, these sites can be categorized into content sites or commerce sites. While some overlap occurs, it is generally accepted that the best commerce sites focus on commerce (Amazon) and the best content sites focus on content (AOL). Why? Resources, even on the Internet, are limited. You can imagine that if AOL had spent its early days developing massive, state-of-the-art distribution facilities, it most likely would not have been able to build the incredible online community it has today.

In determining why you should bring the Internet into your office, you should consider the following four areas:

(1) In what ways will using the Internet increase my profitability?

(2) Will using the Internet make my life, or my staff`s life, easier?

(3) Will the Internet improve my ability to access pertinent information?

(4) Will I see a level of improved service from my vendors?

In dentistry, content sites such as rdental.com have done an excellent job of aggregating membership by offering practice-management tools, e-mail, news, clinical expertise, continuing education, and general product information. E-commerce sites, such as Oralis.com, are focused strictly on selling products and services to end-users. By working with manufacturers, distributors, associations, and other groups, e-commerce sites can offer a superior method for transaction-processing. Today, both types of sites have the ability to offer increased profitability, convenience, information, and service.

Profits

Today, e-commerce sites are offering dental products at considerable savings to doctors. The theory is that e-commerce sites can streamline the supply chain through better systems, less operational infrastructure, and less sales and marketing expenditures. By being the lowest cost provider, e-commerce companies can gain a potential competitive advantage over traditional distributors, offering competitive prices that positively affect the customer`s bottom line.

Another area of cost savings that is not often discussed, but is equally as important, is that of saving your staff time in ordering. If ordering online isn`t easier than picking up a phone, it won`t be used. Successful e-commerce companies do extensive user-testing to ensure that their audiences can quickly and easily use their sites. Most offices spend hours every week ordering, following up on orders, and writing checks to vendors. Have you ever calculated how much this is costing you? What if you could reduce that time by 50 percent or even 80 percent? What would that mean to your bottom line?

Convenience

If you`ve ever shopped on Amazon.com, you understand the potential benefits of ordering online. Features such as ease of use, around-the-clock access, advanced search capabilities, product reviews, personalization, order history, and real-time order tracking offer incredible convenience. In the near future, educational video presentations for products and clinical procedures will be commonplace. At Oralis.com, we already are building technology to offer video presentations that will help train you and your staff on products and in-office procedures. It is estimated that broadband connections such as cable modems and xDSL technologies are expected to reach 16 million U.S. households by 2002. Imagine logging on to a Web site that has been designed especially for your office, instantly locating the products you need, learning how to use them (on your time schedule), and then tracking them through the entire order process until they arrive at your doorstep.

Information

"Information and the mechanisms for delivering it are the glue that holds together the structure of businesses," says Philip Evans in his latest book "Blown to Bits." Access to information is another key reason why using the Internet is so compelling. Today, we have more information at our fingertips than ever before, but having a tool to filter that information is the key to being able to use it. Good e-commerce sites help filter information so that you quickly find what you want. Envision a situation where you want to learn how to use a new product. On your own time, you can watch a video, reference clinical data, learn how and why it was developed, get testimonials from other doctors you can call, and download any consumer information that helps you sell it to the patient. There is no end to the types of information that you will be able to get.

Customer service

Customer service is the cornerstone of value and, while most Internet companies are not known for their service, it is increasingly the difference between those Internet companies that excel and those that fail. Homegrocer.com, a Seattle-based company, has grown at a monthly average of 40 percent, not by providing a less-expensive place to buy groceries, but by establishing itself as a service-focused company that responds to the needs of its customers. Dentistry is no different. The Internet can offer up-to-the-minute account information, order information, and product information. It can provide an easy mechanism by which to return products and, lastly, it can add a friendly, personal, human interface, if needed.

Choosing an e-commerce partner

In this crazy Internet world, it is good to know that fundamentals still exist. The ideals of saving money, adding convenience, giving personalized information, and offering incredible customer service are still at the heart of how people make purchasing decisions. But there are certain criteria that you as a practitioner must have in order to realize the benefits of using the Internet and e-commerce technology. As you move forward into this new year, the questions to ask are:

> Does this site have every product that I use in my office?

> Is there the ability to order quickly from my own personalized inventory?

> Is the site easy enough for my staff and I to use?

> Can I use the site as a tool to manage my business better?

> Can I get a history of my purchases so that I can make better purchasing decisions?

> Are there budget-control mechanisms in place?

> Is it personalized?

> Is it easy for me to return products if needed?

> Is the site secure for entering credit-card information?

People must be educated continuously on the benefits of the Web for the Internet and e-commerce to be used on a broad level in dentistry. In the short term, the compelling reasons why doctors should incorporate this technology into their offices are profits, convenience, information, and customer service. While many people feel that they already are receiving these benefits, look at how our lives have changed in 10 years. Most would say, "We didn`t miss what we didn`t have until we had it." Imagine life without mobile phones, pagers, palm pilots, and even the Internet. In a few months, we`ll be asking, "Remember when we relied on sales representatives to place orders, or tracked inventory using index cards, or attended CE courses by actually having to physically attend a seminar?"

Longer term, e-commerce and the Internet will be more about helping dentists meet the growing demand for dental services. Imagine having real-time tools that help you maximize time and profitability by allowing you to treat more patients in less time with more drop-through dollars to the bottom line. Fortunately, both short-term and long-term benefits are interrelated and will be developed simultaneously. These benefits will change dentistry and hopefully help dentistry meet the inevitable demands of the future.

For more information about this article, contact the author at (206) 282-6700 or by e-mail at nshort@oralis.com.

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