Kick Start the Cycle of Success
Offering enhanced customer experience boosts dentists’ bottom line—and yours
By Daniel Alter, MSc, MDT, CDT
The dental laboratory industry is experiencing a paradigm shift that goes beyond the technologically advanced equipment and workflow we now use to deliver our products. Rather, we are experiencing an appreciable move away from the traditional vendor-customer support business model and mode of execution to one that necessitates partnering with clients to create a customer-experience, business-building relationship that is mutually beneficial. Driving this shift are the heightened expectations and changing attitudes of the consumer, who is challenging the dental practice to deliver value along with the services it provides.
We live in an era when the technology we utilize is transforming every facet of our lives, even the way we interact with one another on a business level. Consumers have grown to expect a level of service that is immediate, informative, professional, and productive. They are not afraid to shop around and base their buying decisions on where they perceive their needs and experiences will be best met. As loyalty takes a back seat to perceived value, the fickle nature of patient buying patterns is even impacting healthcare decisions. This presents dentists with a unique set of challenges in their day-to-day practices and ultimately impacts their businesses’ bottom lines. Inside Dental Technology recently conducted a survey of dentists across diverse geographic areas of the US to identify what business challenges weigh most heavily on general dentists’ practices. Among the list of challenges receiving the highest response rates were: filling chair time, patient treatment acceptance, and new patient acquisition.
By understanding not only the shifts in consumer expectations and attitudes but also the challenges facing dentists today, dental laboratory owners have an opportunity to align and reshape their business models to offer dentist-clients a heightened level of education and a customer service experience geared to help relieve some of the stress clients bear in dealing with these business challenges. Becoming a business partner to your clients elevates the value you bring to your dentist customers as well as the value your clients bring to their patients. “Laboratories today need to concentrate less on just making a pretty crown, and more on the value they add to their clients; it should be 50% technical and 50% business,” says John Chatham, founder of Chatham Dental Consulting, a firm that helps dentists run their businesses more efficiently. “Stop selling your appliances and start selling the value in partnering with your laboratory, which for the dentist facilitates efficiency, productivity, and reduction of stress; that is so much more critical in today’s competitive environment.”
The new paradigm for laboratories that seek to partner with their clients in a business-building relationship is to transcend from the traditional vendor product quality/clinical technique-type education business model to a stronger customer experience approach, which the Harvard Business Review defines as “an end-to-end journey with your company.”1 It is a customer service philosophy that begins prior to service and continues well after the services are rendered. From early face-to-face interactions to those that continue throughout the relationship—training sessions for practice staff, holding seminars for dentists on time management and marketing, or being chairside to help guide a big implant case—laboratories can build a customer experience strategy that positively impacts the success of their clients and the profitability of their businesses. “The laboratory is in a unique position to make a dentist more efficient and productive, and satisfy their patients with much less stress,” says Edward Schlissel, DDS, MS, who is in private practice with Waldron Dentistry in Marietta, Georgia, and understands the benefits gained from a close working business partnership with a laboratory.
Building the Customer Experience Model
Providing the ultimate level of customer experience begins with identifying and understanding the challenges a particular client may have and providing some executable remedies that can further the sense of partnership.
“Be visible, physical, and emit the sense of, ‘I’m here to help you,’ and then be that person who can help,” says Tom Limoli, President of Limoli and Associates, a dental consulting firm.
Travis Gasser, the Laboratory Director for PDA Dental Laboratory, agrees. He and his staff at PDA, a fixed restoration laboratory located in Lafayette, Colorado, have found that adopting this highly personalized service philosophy not only builds a higher level of confidence among their clients in the products and services they offer, but also leads to that confidence translating into a stress reliever for the dentist when tackling complex cases.
“If our clients have a case they are concerned with, then our goal is to be their partner and remove any of the stress associated with that case,” Gasser says.
PDA is a family-owned and -operated dental laboratory with more than 40 years of active experience in the field. Gasser and his staff of 15 present themselves to clients in a highly professional manner and invite their clients to visit their facility to build confidence and trust in their partnership.
“We like them to come to the laboratory and see the technology we are using and meet the technicians who will be working on their cases,” he explains.
If a segment of your client base is not local, you can offer them a virtual tour of the facility or, as Limoli suggests, install a live webcam so dentists can show their patients where their restorative cases are being worked on and who is handling them.
“More face-to-face interaction conveys that the laboratory is a business partner here to help, which becomes the cost of goods sold and is therefore more valuable than just the end product,” Limoli says.
An interactive dentist portal that allows clients to pay their bills, store their records and be notified when their cases are coming in provides a sense of control and confidence in the customer experience, says Paolo Kalaw, CEO of Evident Healthcare Software and nimbyx. “It’s a tremendous benefit to clients if they can access their case history and receive an automatic email generated every day confirming what cases are arriving,” he says.
This level of customer service is a competitive differentiator, Chatham says.
“A laboratory that focuses on helping clients be more productive and efficient will not only remove stress from the dentists’ lives but also boost their profitability and differentiate your laboratory from the competition,” he says.
A business partnership built on engaging clients with the highest level of customer experience also elevates the laboratory as a solution provider that can aid in solving its clients’ most worrisome day-to-day challenges.
Filling Chair Time
Filling chair time is the critical lifeline of any dental practice, and strategies to achieve a smooth, productive daily schedule must be continuously refreshed and reassessed. A laboratory can engage clients and staff in several ways to assist in meeting this challenge. One is to hold internal marketing seminars for the practice staff. Staff members are the first point of contact for patients and can introduce patients to new products and treatment options. An educated staff creates a positive dynamic for patient engagement.
“Hold an internal marketing seminar for front desk staff, assistants, and hygienists,” Chatham says. “Energizing them with three or four new ideas they can implement easily will translate into an increase in filled chair time.”
Jeff Paulen, President/CEO of New Image Dental Laboratory in Georgia, uses lunch-and-learn sessions for his clients to keep them abreast of new procedures and products.
“Keeping our clients and their staff educated on the latest treatment procedures and products helps them sell those treatments to patients and fill chair time,” Paulen says.
Team-building exercises also help create an engaged staff with mutual motivation in selling and filling chair time, whether through knowledge of new products and procedures or educating patients with the aid of new technologies.
“For example, a hygienist using an intraoral scanner in the hygiene room for each patient can visually show patients what their mouths look like and can discuss restorative options immediately,” Chatham says. “Once put into practice, this technique can translate into approximately two additional crowns per week, a direct increase to filling chair time and the overall financial health of the practice.”
Increasing Treatment Acceptance
Successful patient treatment acceptance is one challenge that can be dramatically countered with proper laboratory engagement and support. A well-organized treatment plan with a laboratory-generated diagnostic mockup, treatment process, and restorative options will lead to an increase in patient acceptance of the treatment plan, especially for more complex and expensive cases.
“Empower dentists and assistants by providing them with predictable treatment plans before starting the case or presenting that case to the patient,” Schlissel says.
Schlissel works with Paulen and his laboratory to map out the exact course and cost of treatment for the patient prior to beginning the case. Schlissel tells his patients: “On the first appointment, we will collect the information we need and then consult with the laboratory and the surgeon we partner with to develop a treatment plan. When you come back, we can discuss the options. We’ll be able to phase the treatment and tell you what happens on the first, second, and third appointments and predict your exact costs.”
Paulen and his team map out exactly how many appointments are necessary and provide Schlissel with a cost estimate. In addition to providing his clients with a comprehensive treatment plan, Paulen also includes a mockup of the case, and oftentimes a digitally designed and milled PMMA version.
“The dentist is armed with all that is needed to successfully complete the case, educate the patient, and propose multiple restorative options,” Paulen says.
For patients, a visual representation of the planned case outcome can be critical to treatment acceptance. Ashkan Afghan, RDA, BSBM, founder of Creative Image Dental Lab LLC, a full-service laboratory located in California, uses digital technologies to help convince his clients’ patients.
“We have the patient, with the dentist’s approval, come into the laboratory, where we do a digital mockup of the final case outcome,” Afghan says. “Taking a digital picture of the patient, we use smile design software to show them the outcome possibilities, and in this way everyone’s expectations are captured and communicated.”
Similarly, Gasser provides his dentists with either a hand-waxed or polished 3D-printed diagnostic model, which has proven very successful for patient acceptance.
Patient education can also be an essential component to patient treatment acceptance. Gasser supplies his clients with literature for large cases such as zirconia implant bridges to help educate the patient.
“We are working on making a comprehensive case kit of every material and restorative option for our clients to help them with gaining greater treatment acceptance,” Gasser says. “The easier it is for the patient, the easier it is for them to accept the plan. We make it easier by trying to keep down the number of appointments and make the plan as simple as possible.”
Another creative approach Paulen uses to aid in patient treatment acceptance and promote the customer experience concept is to provide chairside assistance.
“We have a full-time chairside surgical dental assistant on staff whose job is to work with our dentists on bigger cases,” Paulen says.
This gives the dentist and patient added confidence that an outside expert is available to ensure the case goes well. In addition, Paulen employs geographically dispersed outside field representatives who are able to service clients on a moment’s notice to support them with anything they need.
“We are very hands-on, and we are there to help them with anything we can,” Paulen says.
His 75-person laboratory deploys a fully encompassing customer service/support protocol—whether on the phone with inside representatives, in the laboratory during a visit, at the dentist’s office with field representatives, or with a chairside dental assistant during case insertion—to provide clients with a true sense of partnership and forge the ultimate success for all involved.
Impacting New Patient Acquisition
From educational networking programs and community charity events to social media consultation and providing patient marketing materials, dental laboratories can play a role in creatively helping to expose and market their dentists to pools of new patients. Among the most important tools for attracting new patients are the practice’s website and social media outlets. Internet-savvy patients seek information on dental procedures and providers before they ever make first contact with the practice. Keeping the website content fresh and relevant is a daunting task for practice staff and can be eased by engaging the services of a proactive laboratory.
“We engage in consultative services to help dentists post up-to-date content on their websites that would help attract new patients, or we even help them build a practice website,” Gasser says. “Much of the information we provide to our clients comes from manufacturers, industry publications, or experts in the profession.”
For clients who wish to create a website, Gasser recommends and refers them to local firms that he and his team have vetted. Afghan helps his dentists keep their social media content and websites maintained and fresh by monitoring them and sending reminders if he finds stale information. Similarly, in print, a laboratory can help practice marketing initiatives by designing and printing marketing materials for its clients.
“We custom-print marketing materials for their waiting rooms as well as outside marketing campaigns,” Paulen says. “Anything they need from us graphically, we can do it because we have a full-time graphic designer on staff who can easily accomplish this.”
Referrals are the lifeblood of a dental practice’s new patient acquisition, and it’s especially effective if it is fed from within the profession. By teaming up with manufacturers and tapping into their network of dental surgeons, laboratories can hold co-sponsored educational programs for their dentists and staff to expose their clients to referring specialists. A laboratory can set up a surgeon’s referral pod, and do one program for those in the pod once per quarter or once a month.
“It makes for a nice family referral network between dentists and surgeons as well as between the laboratory, manufacturer, and surgeons,” says Scott Parsinen, CEO of Cadmus Dental. “Filling your client’s chair time with new patients leads to greater business success for both your clients and your laboratory.”
Facilitating a customer experience strategy that helps your dentists overcome these day-to-day business challenges will benefit your laboratory with a reputation as a forward-thinking business that is a solution provider beyond the end product. It also creates client loyalty in a highly competitive business environment.
“The more support I provide my clients, the more dependent they become on my laboratory,” Afghan says.
This paradigm shift in creating a customer experience model that reaches beyond the products produced and sold follows the same value chain today’s consumers have grown to expect from providers and partner companies. For laboratory owners, the business decision to provide a higher level of customer service and value to clients builds a partnership bond with mutual business benefit.
“I just wish we had established this customer service model years ago,” Gasser says. “Our laboratory would have had many more clients and reaped significantly more growth.” Elevate and inspire with knowledge.
1. Rawson A, Duncan E, and Jones C. The Truth About Customer Experience. Harvard Business Review. 2013;9.