by Louis Malmacher, DDS, MAGD
I recently lectured to a group of more than 300 dentists and we got into the topic of selling dentistry. Now you and I both know that when you ask a large group of dentists their thoughts on any topic in dentistry, you are going to get twice the number of opinions than the actual number of dentists. This was certainly true of this group. It also seems there are still plenty of dentists who are vocal about how the word “sell” is a four-letter word — and that really diminishes the respectability of being a professional health-care provider.
I see this all the time. I recently started coaching some dentists on the West Coast who felt they had to spend most of their day selling dentistry and were just sick and tired of it. They had taken lots of CE courses about treatment presentation, long initial comprehensive examinations, and how to sell dentistry and did not feel they were making any headway with their patients. This is what prompted this colunn.
This is an area that I have studied for many years outside of dentistry. I have taken sales courses in other industries and sales courses from nationally renowned salespeople. I have found that dentistry’s perception of what it means to sell is based on outdated concepts from the 1990s. I would like to help bring dentistry into the present.
Let me first give you the broad view of what I’m talking about and how this has evolved in other industries. The “hard sell” has been a concept that has been around for many years and is mostly associated with salespeople in the used car, insurance, and home repair industries. These kinds of salespeople are relentless, pushy, and obnoxious, and force people into a corner so that they finally just have to buy. You and I, as consumers, generally don’t like to be pushed into a sale. To a certain extent, this way of pushing sales does work, but we as buyers may not generally be satisfied with the approach or with the final sale. No one likes to be intimidated into buying something they are not sure they want — and in this kind of situation if something does go wrong, then everyone has a real mess on their hands.
The “soft sell” approach is closer to the most current thinking on sales. Originally, this approach was almost entirely based on educating the consumer — in our case, the patient. We have certainly seen a proliferation of this in dentistry, with low-tech and high-tech patient education materials that will teach a patient — in sometimes excruciating details — what a crown is, how to do an implant, or how to place veneers. The thought here is that educated patients will make the obvious wise choice in selecting their dental treatment. I have seen dentists invest thousands of dollars into patient treatment presentation modules that patients have to sit through with the thought that the more the patients understand about the proposed treatment, the more they will accept the treatment.
Education certainly helps patients understand their treatment, but not necessarily the key to patients actually proceeding with treatment. You should know this from your daily practice of dentistry. You educate patients all the time and they still do not proceed with treatment. In response, we give them more education, then they leave our practices because we do not really understand what they want.
You and I are also consumers and most of the purchases we make are not based on education, but rather on emotion. Let me give you this example — my beloved Cleveland Cavaliers made it into the NBA playoffs. I have a good friend and patient who, because of this, finally made the decision to buy a big screen TV. He made the decision to buy and there was no question that he was going to get a big screen TV. He researched what he was going to buy through the Internet and found the best big screen TV he could afford. The educational process entered after he made the emotional decision to get a big screen TV. Education clearly is not the reason for his decision — it was based purely on emotional factors. You and I are very much the same in how we approach buying decisions. Education is not the key to making the buying decision, but is helpful in defining what we are going to purchase once that decision has been made.
Now let’s turn to the concept of “closing a sale.” Closing a sale is an outdated concept in sales training. I know there are some consultants in dentistry who teach all kinds of closing techniques and questions that will force patients into making a buying decision that they really may not want to make. Overcoming objections with quick answers is often viewed by consumers as argumentative and disrespectful of their feelings. I am amazed and somewhat embarrassed that there are still many dental consultants out there who still teach these silly concepts. Dentists tell me about the scripts in their office for any objection the patient may have. When I ask these dentists if the scripts work, they usually say no, but they don’t know what else to do.
One of the best concepts that I’ve heard recently that describes where sales should be is, “People hate to be sold, buy they love to buy.” To have a successful dental practice in this day and age, you want to have patients “buying” dentistry as opposed to you and your staff “selling” dentistry. No one likes to be sold anything. You did not walk out of your house the other day and tell your spouse, “Honey, I’m going to the appliance store to be sold a refrigerator.” You want to go buy that refrigerator and you want it to be your decision, not someone else’s.
Patients love to buy things and they certainly love to buy themselves a new smile or freedom from pain and freedom to function and eat better than ever before. You want to create situations in your office where people will want to buy from you. You want to create situations in your office where it is easy for people to buy from you with financing plans like CareCredit. Big posters of before-and-after cases, beautiful white teeth, and beautiful veneer cases ... these kinds of things should be on the walls all over your office. What I want to happen in my office is for a patient to walk in, sit down, and point to a picture and say, “Can you do that for me?” I don’t try to sell anything to anybody in my office. What I do is create situations where patients know what we do in the office, and they come in because they want to buy. We then become their trusted advisor, consultant, and friend and help them get what they want.
This is where “selling” is in the year 2007. It is about building an emotional relationship with your patients, and giving them opportunities to buy health, happiness, a great smile, and more self-esteem. Most dentists shy away from this because they think that establishing relationships with patients takes a long time or they don’t think they can do it. Creating a bond with a patient takes only minutes, can be done quickly and efficiently, and can be done no matter what personality type you are. I teach my dental consulting and coaching clients to throw away those scripts and start talking from the heart to patients. You then won’t have to sell anything, but they will certainly want to buy from you. Oh, and those dentists I have been coaching that I mentioned earlier in this article? They have really improved their practices with the above approach. They are much happier spending their time doing dentistry on people who are asking for treatment and want to buy from them instead of trying to “sell” and pressure people into accepting treatment.
It’s been estimated that approximately 60 percent of American dollars spent in dentistry today are for elective esthetic procedures. In truth, a lot more dentistry than that is really elective. Someone who breaks off a tooth can certainly elect to have it extracted, but if they instead elect to have an endo, post, core and crown, that is “elective dentistry.” It is time to get rid of these outdated concepts on selling and become an advocate and friend in your office so that people will want to buy healthy and esthetic dentistry from you. Let’s not have patients look down on our profession and start equating us with used car salespeople because we are trying to force huge aggressive esthetic treatment plans on them. Let’s bring trust and professionalism back into dentistry, both from the clinical and practice management perspectives. Dentistry is a noble profession and it is high time we start raising the bar.
Dr. Louis Malcmacher is a practicing general dentist in Bay Village, Ohio, and an internationally known lecturer, author, and dental consultant. He works closely with dental manufacturers as a clinical researcher in developing new products and techniques. His group dental practice has maintained a 45 percent overhead since 1988. Contact him at (440) 892-1810 or via e-mail at email@example.com. You can see Dr. Malcmacher’s lecture schedule at www.commonsensedentistry.com where you can also sign up for his monthly practice-management teleconferences and free monthly e-newsletter.