Reaping the rewards

With so many demands made on a practice budget, it is important that any expenditure you make will benefit your business, pay for itself and boost profits too.

Many dentists that we speak to are surprised that their investments often seem to have no impact on their patients, and consequently are not a huge financial success. But when we ask if they have told the patients about the new or improved feature of the practice, the answer is inevitably no.

As with so many issues that affect today’s modern dental practice, the key to success and getting the kind of response you want from patients is to communicate with them effectively.

As a practice owner, you will be all too aware of the many choices you face when deciding how best to re-invest your hard-earned money. These include updating surgeries, purchasing new equipment, meeting staff requests for items to make their working lives easier or more productive, up keep and regular refurbishment of the practice and so on. And that’s without taking into account all the extra gadgets and technology that you would love to have in your own treatment room, and the additional qualifications you would like to pursue.

The key, of course, is to take the time to prioritise all these projects, based on how urgently they are needed and what benefits they will bring to the practice. Doing this in a structured manner – and making sure you stick to your decision – avoids those situations where an enthusiastic salesperson talks you into buying something that you don’t really need, just because the price seemed good and you got carried away by their sales pitch.

Here are some of the key aspects of each potential investment to consider:

• Keep up with the competition. As dentistry becomes increasingly competitive, there is an understandable desire to keep one step ahead, or at least in line with, other local practices. This is great – it shows that you have your eye on the ball, and are aware of the need to constantly re-assess your practice against other similar ones. However, you need to ensure you do not follow them blindly, spending money on a project just because they have. You need to be sure it carries real benefits for your practice.

• Is this item on your expenditure list, and why? Is it something you need – or just something you want?

• How much will the expenditure add to your bottom-line profit? This is perhaps easier to judge if you’re considering a major piece of equipment, such as a Cerec machine or a new in-practice whitening system. You can work out quite easily how many treatments you need to carry out before it becomes profitable, and how long that is likely to take. It is not so easy when considering refurbishments and purchases of the more standard equipment, such as a dentist’s chair or a drill, and other items that may seem to have little financial benefit. In these cases, you also need to place a value on the hidden benefits.

• Research. As well as looking into the product features, research the benefits with other like-minded dentists and also with your patients.

At Blue Horizons, we regularly put clients in touch with each other so they can chat about their practice experiences and share their knowledge. A chat with one or two dentists who have already made the investment you are considering can make your decision much easier. The opinions of patients are also well worth surveying too – they will appreciate you bearing them in mind.

However, you need to be careful when you interpret their responses. When Virgin Airlines surveyed their customers, asking if they would like perks in the first-class lounge such as a hairdresser and ski machine, the answer was a resounding no. Despite this, Virgin went ahead anyway and the new features were an instant success!

Once you have made the decision to go ahead with your investment, you need to keep track of its success. This helps ensure you are meeting the goals you set during the decision-making process, and will also help with future investment decisions.

The key question is simple – what effect has it had on the bottom line? A successful investment will have boosted income. If your income shows little or no difference, you need to take positive action to get more from your investment. A refurbishment is likely to have little impact on your standard of dentistry, but it will enhance your practice image, which may make it easier for you to attract desirable new patients, promote a wider treatment range or make it easier to justify a re-alignment of your fees.

A prime example of this is Langley Dental Clinic and Implant Centre, run by Gordon Pate. He undertook a major refurbishment of his practice last year, partly because it had been 10 years since the previous one, but largely to prepare the practice for leaving the NHS and going fully private.

‘Our old image was a bit dated and we needed a cleaner, clearer-cut image,’ he said. ‘We were moving into different fields – the private sector and implants – and needed a different image, one that was totally up to date.’ Candidly, he admits that the refurbishments have yet to impact his income so far – but they have had the result he wanted and expected.

‘We were pulling out of the NHS and needed to have the image that went with being a private practice,’ he added. ‘We wanted to be able to choose who came in through the door, and we have achieved that.’

Dr Pate also appreciated that in order to make the most of his refurbishment, and to promote his new image, he needed to make a further investment in marketing and patient communication. He has introduced a regular patient newsletter, a welcome pack and a referral pack to help stimulate his implant business. The newsletter has been particularly useful in helping him keep his patients informed about the changes, and preventing his existing patients from going elsewhere.

When telling your patients about your investment, you need to focus on the benefits it has for them. They don’t want to know about the features of your terrific new piece of equipment, or how it makes life easier for you. They want to know how it will affect them. So, for example, a refurbishment makes the practice environment more pleasant and relaxing for patients. Digital X-rays are safer for patients. CEREC makes treatment more convenient for patients.

The ideal way of letting patients know all your news is via a regular newsletter. This enables you to make sure that all your patients know what is happening and they can take in the information at a time and place that suits them. It also enables you to give them regular updates. This is particularly useful for long-lasting projects, or to help promote new treatments.

There is an old business presentation adage that goes along the lines of ‘tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them’. This applies equally well to practice news. Tell your patients what changes are in the pipeline. While those changes are happening, keep them informed. And once they are complete, tell them what has happened. At each point remember to emphasise the benefits to the patients.

An additional way of reminding patients that everything you do is for their benefit is to give them a short questionnaire, reiterating the investments you have made and asking them for their opinions. Suggest that, if they like what you have done, their family and friends might too – and remind them that you are always happy to take on new patients.

Finally, it is also a good idea to let your staff know the benefits that such investments will have for them. Remember that changes will often involve more work or upheaval for them, especially those such as refurbishments or new computer systems. Make sure your team can be genuinely positive about such changes from the start. Enthusiasm is contagious and with a passionate team on board your patients will soon be captivated too.

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