HOW TO PROFIT FROM...cosmetic dentistryConnecting with women

Jan. 1, 2003
Dentists who want to perform more cosmetic dentistry must connect with women in the right way. This is hardly news. But like nervous boys at a junior high school dance, most dentists haven't figured out how to talk to women.

By Debra Gray King, DDS, FAACD & Daniel R. King, JD, CPA

Dentists who want to perform more cosmetic dentistry must connect with women in the right way. This is hardly news. But like nervous boys at a junior high school dance, most dentists haven't figured out how to talk to women. Even those few who have enjoyed some success connecting with women don't fully understand how they can make or break their business.

Fish where the fish are

Those who want to succeed in a service industry must focus their marketing efforts on the portion of the population that is likely to purchase the goods or services the business offers. A business geared to hunting and fishing, for example, would fail if its marketing efforts focused exclusively on women.

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, women are responsible for 85 percent of the $7 trillion in personal consumption expenditures in this country. And dentistry, as a whole, serves a predominantly female population, in that decision-makers on dental purchases usually are female. Although women make up only 51 percent of the U.S. population, their "power of the purse" extends to a reported 85 percent control over family choices about dental care and services. This means that women not only control the process of choosing a family dentist, but also — in our experience — an aesthetic dentist for themselves and their loved ones.

Women also exert great influence over the males in their lives in making these decisions. Dentists who do not appreciate these facts and do not understand how to connect with women are doomed to pick up the scraps left from those who do.

Here is a question for those still unconvinced: If men make only 15 percent of all dental decisions, does it make economic sense to focus on them (e.g., have dental offices that look like a men's club or hunting lodge)? That would be as miscalculated as having a hunting and fishing store that catered to women.

Follow the money

Most dentists fail to realize that changing their practices to appeal to women could earn them an exponential boost in production and income. They err in the belief that such changes are difficult to accomplish. "Companies that decide to wait [to connect with women] will be goners," says Marti Barletta, a former marketing executive for Clorox and author of Marketing to Women: How to Understand, Reach, and Increase Your Share of the Largest Market. Female marketing guru Faith Popcorn, author of the best selling book, EVEolution: Eight Truths of Marketing to Women, agrees: "The companies — from Fortune 500s to mom-and-pops to start-up entrepreneurs — that do the best job of marketing to women will dominate every significant product and service category for years to come."

Corporate America certainly seems to have taken notice of the importance of reinventing their business lines and focusing on women. As examples, in addition to twists on everything such as razors, cereals, and water to make them more desirable to women, Proctor and Gamble has launched Crest Rejuvenating Effects, a toothpaste line featuring flavoring and packaging that appeals to the softer sex. And earlier this summer, General Motors sent an offer to a million women offering them $100 spa certificates for test-driving a GMC sport utility vehicle.

Women have peripheral vision

Women use their brains differently than men. Men and women simply are wired differently in the way they receive and process information. Women see not only the forest, but also the trees, the leaves, the different colors and veins in the leaves, the underbrush, and the bugs underfoot — the many nuances and details that make up the whole.

This peripheral vision is illustrated when Matt Lauer appears on the Today show in a new cardigan. Do men rush out the next day to pick up a similar one? No, and, in fact, 24 hours later, most men couldn't even tell you what Lauer was wearing. Men mostly just zero in on the news content.

Women are different. When Diane Sawyer delivers the latest headlines, women not only are intently listening to the news, but are noticing her hair ("Would that cut look good on me?"), the color and the cut of her jacket ("Does that color go with her eyes?"), the details of the news set ("Is that walnut desk new?") and whether Sawyer looks tired — all while absorbing the crux of the story.

Women have a roving antenna. They notice everything. And to succeed in aesthetic dentistry, dentists must understand this. Everything matters and you must take a whole practice approach. Consistency is key. Your image and your skills; your teeth and what you wear; how long you take to answer the phone; your artwork; the cleanliness and texture of your surfaces, decoration, music choices, and aromas, all communicate more fully who you are and what you have to offer than anything you may say. In short, everything a woman sees, hears, touches, tastes, or smells in your office must communicate the same message: excellence and quality.

Good news: You don't have to paint your office pink

It's sometimes hard for anyone, male or female, to jump right in with all the right insights about connecting with women. But here are some basics. Blatant pandering for your female patients' attention will fail — badly. The fact is, women don't bond with companies that market to them in an overly aggressive way — and that includes dental offices. A full-frontal attack just isn't the way to turn a woman on. That means don't run out and paint your office pink, put out lacey napkins, and reupholster your sofa with a flower pattern. To woo women and their families (which women control), dentists need to employ a sophisticated approach. They must connect with women by giving them a total experience instead of just a dental visit. This is what some call "experiential marketing."

Think about the whole experience of a patient's visit. What are the sights, the look, the feel, the smells, the colors and textures, sounds, and tastes of your practice? Starbucks took all the senses into account when reinventing what 20 years ago seemed to be a boring, low-profit enterprise — a coffee shop. The warm woods, cozy couches, hissing steam from the espresso machine, and soft jazz in the background are no accident.

Starbucks built one of the strongest brands in the world in just a few years. And, for most of the formative years, their growth was without the aid of external marketing. Similarly, Home Depot took the dull concept of a hardware store and transformed it into an exciting and educational experience. Dentists must similarly transform their offices if they want to reach a higher level of economic success.

Appearances count

To truly connect with women, dentists must understand the benefits that generally appeal to them. If women are contemplating an investment in life-altering treatment, confidence in their clinician and their treatment results are key. Women will pay more, travel further, and be more loyal to a practice they believe is clinically excellent and will deliver superior results. Clinical excellence is the foundation of a successful aesthetic practice, and a doctor's experience, training, and other skills are obviously critical to ensure patient satisfaction. But your patients must perceive your clinical excellence. Don't fall into the trap of failing to distinguish these two concepts.

As an illustration, let's imagine that an incredibly able and gifted dental clinician practices in a facility with 10-year-old stained carpet, bulletproof glass windows between the reception area and the front desk, and the romantic aroma of eugenol wafting through the lobby. The unanimous perception will be that this dentist is second-rate. No level of expertise can erase the negative impression that a worn-out, utilitarian office makes on female patients. As Dr. David Hornbook so aptly put it, "You must create the atmosphere and environment in which people become comfortable paying for the best."

External marketing efforts, facility, staff members, verbal skills, and equipment prepare women for the care and results they will receive in your office. It also "pre-frames" them as to the cost of the treatment. If a woman walks into the Ritz-Carlton, she isn't surprised when her hotel room is more than $500 per night, nor would she complain that Motel 6 is only $50 per night. So, if your patients recoil in sticker shock when they receive a treatment plan and tell you that they can go to another dentist and get a veneer for $600 a unit, it means you haven't established a perception of excellence that matches your clinical excellence. Price is always the tiebreaker when consumers can't distinguish between the qualities of the available choices.

Thoughts on "spa" dentistry"

Making dentistry a pleasant, pampering experience is definitely in line with connecting with your biggest target. Women don't have to have cosmetic dentistry — it's elective. They also don't have to go to nice hotels or spas. They do it because they want to. But, according to the American Dental Hygienists' Association, half of Americans seldom go to a dental office regularly. And, in our experience, of the 50 percent who do, many view it as a necessary evil. Many would like to have their smile improved, but they just don't want to go through hell to get there.

Some dentists have tested the dental spa trend. But there are dangers in dentists presenting their practices as "dental spas." One risk is that you will "over-promise" and "under-deliver." Baking Otis Spunkmeyer cookies and lighting a couple of scented candles while running your practice as usual does not a dental spa make.

If you are going to hold yourself out as a "dental spa" or as the "Ritz-Carlton of dentistry" in your town, you had better be the real deal. Women don't like to be fooled. It is a certain way to lose credibility. Spa-like amenities will not cover up for other deficiencies. If the local Motel 6 starts marketing itself as the Ritz-Carlton, it may trick a few people into coming through the door, but it won't be long before people realize that they've been had.

On the other hand, it is possible to go overboard in the other direction. Dentists need to be mindful that adding spa-like amenities should not take them away from their core mission — dentistry. Be cautious about adding services like Botox, microdermabrasion, nutrition counseling, or permanent makeup. Too many services like these can give the perception that the dentist is a "lightweight" in crucial areas; e.g., cosmetic dentistry. The objective is to have your patients not only love the finished product, but also have an enjoyable experience. You can't be all things to all people. Pick your niche and focus — on what you want to do, and what the market will bear.

Become what you're trying to sell

One of the most important influences is the look of the dentist and the team. If you were interviewing a personal trainer, and a candidate appeared weighing 350 pounds, with a cigarette in one hand and a chili dog in the other, would you hire him? Of course not! An overweight trainer isn't exactly practicing what he preaches. Similarly, you and your team must be models of what you are selling.

Cosmetic dentistry is all about appearance. You are selling white, bright smiles. If you don't walk the talk, you have no more credibility than the exercise-challenged personal trainer. A dentist who wants to perform cosmetic procedures must have a flawless smile. As self-evident as this seems, it is one of the most widely disregarded rules by dentists who want to perform more cosmetic procedures. If you need to improve your smile, don't wait — just do it.

Practice tip

Is it a requirement for everyone in the practice to have a beautiful smile? The answer is yes! They must either have a beautiful smile to begin with or be willing to improve their smile, if needed. Here is a practice tip on this issue.

For many staff members, a new smile design can be an expensive proposition. Some doctors have been burned by staff members who had expensive procedures performed on the doctor's nickel, only to leave a short time later. In our practice, if a staff member needs a smile design, we will have the team member sign a promissory note for the full amount. The note documents that if the staff member is continuously employed for a period of three years, then we will forgive the debt and tear up the note. This is an incentive for long-term employment and allows the doctor and the team member to feel good about the investment.

Beautiful smiles, a designer look to uniforms (instead of scrubs), well-done hair and make-up (after lunch, we have a lipstick patrol) — these things preframe patients' expectations about the quality of care they will experience in your office. These things are especially important when connecting with women. Paying attention to the details that matter most to women will allow you to perform more cosmetic dentistry and greatly increase your production.

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