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Reclaim Your Practice

April 1, 2003
Dentists must run their practices like a business. In the first of this three-part series, the author discusses how developing a brand identity and treating patients like guests will decrease your insurance dependence and significantly boost your profits. m

by Robert Maccario, MBA

Click here to enlarge image

The last time you checked into a hotel, what was the routine as you walked up to the registration desk? Most likely, you reached for your wallet, and, at the clerk's request, gave her a credit card as security. This is standard practice for virtually every reputable hotel in the world. Every consumer understands and accepts that it is necessary to establish credit before receiving a room key.

In the business world, customers routinely pay, or at least provide a credit-card guarantee, before receiving goods and services. However, these same people can act indignant if asked to pay in advance at the dentist's office. What's the difference between "real" businesses and dental practices, or between patients and hotel guests? We know your patients have been to hotels; probably many of them are hotel regulars. Then why the righteous anger in the dental office?

There are two reasons, and both concern your relationship with these patients. In the hotel environment, patrons are guests and know it. They are willing to trade their advance payment for the anticipated value of the guest experience. In a dental practice, patrons don't consider themselves guests — mainly because you don't provide them with a guest experience.

The other reason also involves expectations: The way patients arrive at your door. In many cases, an insurance company has sent the patient to your practice. (Not much positive anticipation there!) In the hotel business, guests choose where to stay. Hotels invest significant marketing dollars to develop a brand identity that directly influences their guests' expectations. On the other hand, the dental practice that allows insurance companies to set customer expectations becomes a mere commodity.

Insurance companies spend millions of marketing dollars to attract customers to their insurance programs, developing their brand identity in the process. They promote the value of their services, placing their emphasis on what they sell: security and convenience at a perceived cost-effective rate. Patient care is buried somewhere in the mix, since the focus is on the value of their network, not the advantages of each dentist. As a result, they are able to place a higher dollar value on their insurance premiums, leaving dentists in the role of mere provider.

Time to reclaim your future

As a business owner, you should always watch for change and new opportunities, and there has never been a better time to take a proactive approach to your future.

One of the fundamentals of success in business is to look for what are referred to as "discontinuities." Discontinuities occur when rapid change or sudden demands appear in the business environment — often from technological advances — and current providers cannot keep pace. As a result, new demands in the marketplace are unmet, creating an opportunity for forward-thinking organizations willing to play by the new rules. In his book, Leading the Revolution, Gary Hamel asks:

• Where and in what ways is change creating the potential for new rules and new space?

• What discontinuities can you exploit?

Hamel also notes, "Baby boomers are the first generation in history that refuses to get old," an important comment with significant implications for dentistry. If we connect the dots — baby boomers are refusing to get old, and dental insurance is designed only for maintenance-type care — a discontinuity appears: The consumer is willing to spend discretionary dollars on remaining youthful and, based on what employers are willing to spend, insurance companies cannot provide the level of care the consumer desires. A major discontinuity now exists between the dental profession and dental insurance — a new opportunity for new rules and a new competitive position. Who is better suited to meet this demand than quality-centered dental practices?

Beyond "Insurance-free"

Don't be shortsighted and infer that your practice should simply become "insurance-free." Now is the perfect time to directly influence your customer's expectations beyond the insurance company's mandates for what patients are supposed to think is important. Go further: Think and act like an independent business. Develop the skills and knowledge to run your practice as a stand-alone business, one that is not dependent on any single referral source (i.e. insurance). It is time to develop your brand.

Scott Bedbury, in his book, A New Brand World, states, "Start with a great product or service that people desire and that you can sell profitably . . . Focus on building a great and profitable product or service and an organization that can sustain it."

The move to develop your brand and adopt this model starts on the inside. To achieve your goal of becoming an independent business, you must make sure the thoughts and actions of your dental team highlight the value of your care; make sure your concept of care goes far beyond just clinical excellence.

A simple example would be to stop using insurance jargon in your practice. Don't refer to yourself as "nonparticipating;" instead, think of your practice as an independent business. When you discuss fees, remember to refer to standard professional fees, not the insurance term "UCR." When discussing fees as they relate to insurance companies, call them contracted fees. The insurance company's marketing department may imply that your standard professional fees are over and above what your care and service are really worth: Don't let them succeed! Think and act like an independent business, with your own brand identity.

Developing your brand

A brand is your identity, distinguishing you from all the other options available to consumers. More than just a logo, which is the graphic representation of your business, a brand communicates everything about you. If your practice were a person, the logo would be its style of dress, and the brand would be its personality and reputation. A brand characterizes your business, encompassing what you do and how you do it.

The three critical components of a brand are vision, culture, and image. In their article, "Are The Strategic Stars Aligned For Your Corporate Brand?" (Harvard Business Review, February, 2001), authors Mary Jo Hatch and Mjaken Schultz tell us to account for:

• Top management aspirations for the company (vision).

• The organization's values, behaviors and attitudes; that is, the way employees all through the ranks feel about the company (culture).

• The outside world's overall impression of the company (image). This includes all stakeholders: Customers, shareholders, the media, the general public and so on.

The more aligned these three components are, the stronger the brand identification (cohesive messaging about the character of your practice). The more positive brand identification you have, the more success you garner in the marketplace. What comes to mind when you read the names Sony, Coca Cola, or Disney? These companies all have strong positive brand identification, which contributes significantly to their profits while creating momentum in the marketplace for their endeavors.

What comes to mind when you read the names Enron or WorldCom? Their current brand identification also has an impact — one none of us covets right now. Developing your brand will help your practice evolve into an independent business, replacing the insurance companies as a referral source as well as maintaining your position in the marketplace.

It is a given that external marketing is critical to your brand recognition. But external marketing on its own — no matter how professionally executed — is only one piece of the branding equation. Alone, it is insufficient to compete in the new marketplace. Xana Winans, president of Golden Proportions Marketing, explains: "External marketing 'speaks' for your brand, communicating who you are and what you stand for. By carefully tailoring your message, you reinforce the idea that you and your practice represent what is important to the patient — be it exceptional service, a gentle touch, or incredibly natural aesthetics. With care and consistency, your brand will become synonymous with those values in the mind of the patient. Of course, if you don't continue to reflect that position in every personal contact with the patient, the brand becomes muddied and loses its intended message."

Turning your patients into guests

What do you associate with the word patient? Probably words like "ill," "dependent," and "in need of assistance." Most people's emotional reaction to the word ranges from sadness and concern to uncertainty. But when you hear the word guest, what is your reaction? Do you think of more positive things, such as invitation, valued friends, excitement, anticipation, someone to be enjoyed, and someone to look forward to meeting?

Most of us would rather be a guest than a patient. If you want to compete in the new business environment, the entire dental team must shift from taking care of patients to welcoming guests. Of course, dentists are in the healthcare profession and will always be dealing with patients, but their identity doesn't have to stop there: Consider your patients as guests too.

Converting your patients into guests goes far beyond a simple customer-service orientation. It requires a commitment to create a complete guest experience for them. Sir Colin Marshall of British Airways says that when designing travel experiences for ticket-buyers, his company orchestrated all the elements of the airline's service to generate an experience of "lavish comfort."

Orchestrating events to generate a particular experience is not limited to luxury industries or to dental practices in the wealthiest communities. Progressive dental practices should not limit themselves by thinking only of high-cost experiences. Creating sound customer service and designing the guest experience can go far beyond fantasizing about how you might want to be treated at a luxury hotel, world-class spa, or fine restaurant. Although these establishments can provide you with excellent examples, think about some of the everyday experiences that have been made special by the people who provide the services. A simple task made less painful in the day-to-day rush can be a great source of increased value to your patient and enhance your brand identity.

One such service is the VIP-express checkout, which is rapidly becoming a standard in forward-thinking practices. You have probably noticed that in most well-run hotels, and almost every car-rental agency, a special class of guests are not kept waiting at the counter to check out. We have taken that idea and incorporated it into our Dental Concierge( concepts, taught at the Las Vegas Institute for Advanced Dental Studies. The Dental Concierge CA$H Practice System is a customer-service training program directed at eliminating statements and accounts receivable, and minimizing insurance dependency.

Many dental practices have adopted this VIP-express checkout to increase the patients' perception of special treatment. Many patients consider keeping a credit card number and signed preauthorization on file to be a great convenience — and, as guests, they have come to expect it.

Success is what you make it

When you are no longer constrained by historical models, your individual mixture of care and services, orchestrated to contribute to the unique guest experience in your practice will determine your success. Your practice will move away from serving insurance subscribers and evolve into a business independent of insurance companies' referrals. You can increase the financial return on your efforts and maximize the value of your services simply by making patients feel like guests.

The Dental Concierge CA$H Practice System is a two-day course taught at the Las Vegas Institute or by appointment in office by Bob Maccario, MBA and faculty. For more information, contact the Institute at (800) 332-0363.

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