Choose Your Focus

Sept. 1, 2000
Wink Martindale, Bob Barker, Monte Hall, and Regis Philbin make their contestants choose one correct answer and stick with it to win big prizes. The same should be true in dentistry - pick your patient value group, stick with it, and watch the practice of your dreams evolve.

Wink Martindale, Bob Barker, Monte Hall, and Regis Philbin make their contestants choose one correct answer and stick with it to win big prizes. The same should be true in dentistry - pick your patient value group, stick with it, and watch the practice of your dreams evolve.

Nate Booth, DDS

People are different. They like different kinds of motor vehicles, different kinds of soda, different kinds of restaurants, and different kinds of dentists. Smart dentists realize this. They don`t try to be all things to all people. They excel at delivering one type of value to their communities by choosing a single value group from the three described below, then have the discipline to build their practices around that group.

"If we don`t discipline ourselves, the world will do it for us." - William Feather

Note: Many of the concepts in this article are adapted from the best-selling business book, "The Discipline of Market Leaders: Choose Your Customers, Narrow Your Focus, Dominate Your Market" by Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema. I strongly recommend you read it.

Three patient value groups

(1) "Cost and convenience" patients are attracted to dental practices that are low-cost providers and focus on operational excellence. These offices have the lowest fees in the area and may have 12 operatories, a high percentage of managed-care patients, and be open during evenings and weekends. Cost and convenience patients tend to shop at Wal-Mart, eat at McDonald`s, and fly on Southwest Airlines - three companies that are the epitome of operational excellence.

(2) "Relationship" patients are attracted to practices that are service-oriented and focus on patient intimacy. These offices tend to have moderate-to-high fees and provide excellent service in a warm and caring atmosphere. Relationship patients tend to shop at Nordstrom, get their insurance from State Farm ("Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.") and eat at a small, family-owned restaurant, so they can experience personalized ("They always know my name.") service.

(3) "Product excellence" patients are attracted to practices that provide the "latest and best" care and focus on "superior" treatment (often cosmetic dentistry). These offices have the highest fees in the area and attend numerous continuing-education courses, where they will learn the latest and most technologically advanced procedures. Product excellence patients buy Sony electronics, Starbucks coffee, Mercedes automobiles, the latest and most expensive Nike shoes, and love to shop at The Sharper Image.

Which of the three groups is the closest to describing your patients and practice? There is no right or wrong answer. There is a need for all three, since there are three groups of patients who have unique desires. The danger lies in your practice trying to be all things to all people. If you do, you could end up like Sears, J.C. Penney, and Montgomery Ward. There was a time when these three retailers dominated their industry, but the marketplace changed and they did not. Their customers moved into one of the three values groups while they kept trying to appeal to everyone. Wal-Mart and Target took the cost and convenience customers. Nordstrom and Bloomingdale`s gathered the relationship customers. The Sharper Image and Neiman Marcus reaped the product excellence customers. Sears, J.C. Penney, and Montgomery Ward were left behind.

Relationship

It`s been my experience that most dental offices fall into the relationship-value group. If your office is in this category, you need to build your practice around relationships and patient intimacy. If you choose to focus your practice around relationships, however, that doesn`t mean that you must abandon the other two value groups. You must stake your reputation - and concentrate your energy and assets - on creating outstanding patient relationships. Your staff meetings should focus primarily on patient service. You should devote your reading and continuing education to relationship-building. Your consultants should have a strong relationship component to their program. Your practice`s marketing and advertising should focus on relationships, such as:

* "We cater to cowards."

* "Quality dentistry in a warm and caring atmosphere."

* "Our team of caring professionals will treat you like family." (This sentence should be written next to a picture of the entire team).

If you want to create a practice that has outstanding relationships, you must plant the seeds that will reap that harvest. You must understand your patients` needs by continually asking for their feedback. Then, let them see that you value their input by implementing their suggestions. Conduct patient-satisfaction surveys. Cultivate a culture of relationship excellence by recognizing and rewarding team members who provide exceptional patient service. Provide bonuses for the entire staff for meeting certain service/profit levels.

"The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear." - Socrates

Cost and convenience

If your practice falls into the cost and convenience value group, focus your attention on operational excellence. Don`t completely ignore relationships and product excellence. Just keep your eye on providing low cost and convenient dental services. Your staff meetings should focus on operational improvement. Your reading, training, and consultants should be geared toward efficiency. Your marketing and advertising should have a cost and convenience focus, such as:

* "Affordable dental care"

* "Open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Saturday from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m."

* "Initial exam and X-rays - $29"

Because cost and convenience practices tend to have the highest overhead percentages, you must frequently and accurately measure income and expenses. Recognize and reward the staff based on monthly profit figures. Give bonuses to staff members who have ideas on improving efficiency and lowering expenses.

Product excellence

If your practice falls into the product excellence value group, focus your attention on becoming a master of the latest and most advanced treatments. Again, this doesn`t mean that you completely forget about patient relationships or controlling your costs. Your staff meetings should focus on treatment quality. Your reading, training programs, and consultants should be geared toward learning the newest and most advanced treatments. Your marketing and advertising should have a treatment-excellence focus, such as:

* "We offer the latest advances in esthetic dentistry."

* "Our doctor attended 125 hours of continuing education last year."

* "The only dental office in town offering the latest laser technology to whiten your teeth."

To create a treatment-excellence practice, you may want to earn fellowships in the Academy of General Dentistry, the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, or other advanced degrees. Recognize and reward your staff for production based on providing a few patients with a tremendous amount of high-quality dental care.

Discipline is the key

As you can see, it`s all a matter of having the discipline to have a specific practice focus and then positioning it in the mind of the public. Can you reposition your practice from one values group to another? Yes. How? Very carefully. I`ve seen practices attempt to move into the product excellence group too quickly, ignore the values of their current patient population, and be worse off than before. Their patients think, "This isn`t the same old place. All they want to do is sell me a lot of expensive cosmetic dentistry!" It`s best to make the transition gradually. Create a "practice within a practice" for a period of time. Take great care of your current patients as you offer them the most advanced treatment.

Each of the three value areas demands a distinct practice model with its own processes, management system, positioning, and culture. As the leader of your dental team, it`s important to influence your staff members to look at their work in a new way - through the eyes of your patients. You will want to continually ask them and yourself two key questions:

(1) "What unique value do we provide our patients?"

(2) "How can we increase that value this year?"

When you do this, you will move from trying to be all things to all people to being the right things to a select group of people. You will distinguish yourself from the other dentists in your area and create a reputation that will carry you to the practice of your dreams!

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