Avoiding today's biggest practice mistakes

Feb. 26, 2015
"Learn from the mistakes of others. You can't live long enough to make them all yourself. "- Eleanor Roosevelt

Roger P. Levin, DDS

"Learn from the mistakes of others. You can't live long enough to make them all yourself. "- Eleanor Roosevelt

Dentistry after the Recession

Mistakes are an essential part of learning, but they don't have to be your mistakes, as the quote from the former First Lady makes clear. In fact, avoiding costly practice management mistakes can save dentists hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue over the course of their careers.

Since the Great Recession, dentistry has become more competitive. In the recent past, dentists could operate a relatively successful practice with little business training. That scenario, unfortunately, is increasingly rare.

Success in today's dental economy requires a higher degree of management and marketing skills than ever before. Inadequate business acumen can prove extremely costly, especially if left uncorrected for many years.

1. Not Setting Goals

Goal setting is probably the most powerful tool for dentists who want to make positive changes in their practices and their lives. Today, practices are businesses that need to constantly move forward. In an era when the majority of practices are no longer growing, goal setting can be the difference between success and decline.

Most dentists do not have specific goals. They go to work hoping for a great day with few problems. If that happens, they expect the practice to automatically grow a certain amount each year. But growth won't happen by itself.

Every dentist should set at least 10 written, deadline-driven, measurable goals each year. These create accountability and motivate the doctor as well as the team to achieve the targets by a certain date. Real-world businesses regularly review their goals and adjust accordingly. Goals should be set annually and be based on the practice vision, which answers the question, "Where do you want the practice to be in three years?" A powerful vision, supported by appropriate and challenging goals, inspires the team to improve performance.

2. Not Marketing at All Times

Why do the most successful companies in the world increase their marketing budgets every year? They know that if they don't continue to invest more, competition will erode their sales.

For many years, dentists believed marketing wasn't necessary. High patient demand and a limited supply of dentists made it much easier to create a successful practice. Today, the situation has reversed, with a larger number of dentists competing for a smaller pool of active patients. The addition of 12 dental schools since 1997, the delayed retirements of older dentists, and belt-tightening by consumers have all contributed to the shift toward greater competition.

Many dentists decide to start marketing only when they notice that their practices are showing signs of decline. They hastily throw together some strategies and are disappointed when these last-minute measures fail to produce instant results.

To avoid such frustrations, dentists should consistently market their practices to new and current patients throughout the year. This is how the best companies operate. They market year-round to ensure superior results. Dental practices need to have this same mentality - they should be using a minimum of 15 strategies throughout the year. Levin Group has found that this number generates a sufficient number of new patients to sustain growth.

As the supply of dentists has increased and the demand for services has flattened, marketing has become mandatory. Dentists who heed this message put their practices in the best position to increase referrals, new patients, and production.

3. Ignoring Staff Conflict

Like most people, dentists prefer to avoid confrontation. They hope problems between team members will somehow magically go away. Unfortunately, that rarely happens. As the practice leader, the dentist must immediately address staff conflict.

Dentists also ignore conflict because they're uncertain about the best way to deal with it. If left to fester, it can tear apart a strong team, spread throughout the office, and trigger turnover.

To deal with conflict, dentists should follow these steps:

1. Once a conflict is identified, hold individual meetings with team members to discuss the situation and propose solutions. The dentist should communicate to the employees involved that staff conflict will not be tolerated.

2. During the initial meeting, explain exactly why it is taking place, clearly lay out what is and what is not acceptable behavior, and set a follow-up meeting.

3. During the follow-up meeting, determine whether the problem has been resolved. If it has, thank the team members.

4. If the situation hasn't been resolved, give a general warning that this behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Set up a third meeting. (Legally, it is important to document these conversations, including what employees have been told and what corrective actions have been taken.)

5. If the conflict is still ongoing by the third meeting, team members should be informed that continuation of the conflict will result in dismissal.

Some dentists will try to avoid these steps due to their unpleasantness. However, if the doctor allows conflict to continue, the practice can become an even more unpleasant place to work. A dentist or office manager who becomes aware of any type of conflict should address it immediately.

4. Becoming a Complacent Practice Leader

I've seen it happen to many successful dentists - they work hard through dental school, endure some struggles opening a practice, and after a few tough years, start experiencing success. As the practice grows, these doctors think they can put the practice on cruise control, and production will automatically increase every year.

Unless diligently maintained and cultivated, practice growth will come to a standstill, especially in the new dental economy. If practices fail to provide a superior experience, patients will become dissatisfied with lackluster customer service. They will stop referring friends and family, and then these once-loyal patients will stop keeping their appointments.

Success cannot be taken for granted. The years of hard work and commitment to creating a successful practice can evaporate in just a few months, especially in the age of social media.

Think about successful professional athletes ... do they stop practicing once they reach the upper echelons of their sport? No, of course not. Aaron Rodgers still takes snaps and throws to his receivers during the week leading up to Sunday's game. LeBron James still works on his foul shots, three-pointers, and defense before tip-off. Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams still hit their serves, volleys, and returns prior to major tournaments.

The business of dentistry continues to evolve, and dentists must continually evaluate and improve their business expertise if they want their practices to become successful and stay successful.

To help dentists realize the potential within their practices, Levin Group uses the Practice Performance Matrix. Nothing is more inspiring for dentists than seeing the growth opportunities within their practices. When they are aware of the possibilities for success, complacency quickly dissipates.


We all make mistakes. It's what we do afterward that often matters more. If you are making any of the four mistakes discussed here, it's time to take corrective action. Goal setting will transform both your professional and personal life. Effective marketing will bring in new patients and help keep your schedule full. Addressing conflict immediately will reduce stress and create a more enjoyable environment for everyone. Becoming an active leader - rather than a complacent one -will enable you to manage more effectively and, ultimately, create a more successful practice.

To learn how to run a more profitable, efficient, and satisfying practice, come to Dr. Levin's upcoming seminar, "Building the Superior Practice." Pick a seminar date and location that fits your schedule at www.levingroup.com/gpseminars.

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