Josie Hutchings shares the story of a squat practice’s difficult start to life during a recession

Opening up a squat practice is no easy task, and often the hardest part is attracting your first patients through the door. For Helen Robertson, the situation was made even trickier by opening the practice at the start of the 2008 recession and having other dentists based nearby. I spoke to Helen, practice manager of The Whitehouse Dental Practice in Sutton Coldfield, about how she overcame the challenges of opening and growing their practice…

Josie Hutchings (JH): Can you talk me through those first days of the practice?

Helen Robertson (HR): My husband Don is a dentist and we already had a practice in Castle Bromwich. We then decided to buy a second practice in the premises of a former shop that sold wine-making kits, so we had to strip it down to the bare walls and start from scratch. I had the lovely experience of choosing colours, carpets, creating logos…but then we had no patients, empty books, empty chairs and an empty car park. And you think, ‘What now? How am I going to attract new patients?’

JH: What then, where did you start?

HR: My husband and I sat down and began talking about how we could start generating income after all the expenditure of getting the place up and running. We already knew Michelle Hardy from Practice Plan, so we asked her to come in and help with the business side of things. She worked out a profitable fee structure and helped us understand how having our own membership plan could help us to attract and retain patients.

I particularly liked the idea of being able to offer patients on a plan 20% discount on treatments. We were at the start of a big recession and people were looking after their pennies, so it was great to be able to offer them an affordable option.

JH: Was there any further support?

HR: Yes, Michelle provided us with a lot of support, especially around the creation of our marketing literature – such as information leaflets, which gave us something tangible to hand to patients, and she also helped us with referral cards.

She would often give us the best advice ever. In the early days the appointment book wasn’t overly full so we could spend longer with patients, and Michelle advised us to try to stick to our normal appointment times as otherwise we would be setting our patients’ expectations at a level that we wouldn’t be able to maintain. That was really good advice.

Being with Practice Plan has also given us access to experts that I have listened to and taken their advice to improve our practice. For example, after spending time with Sheila Scott, before she retired, I really took on board what she said about looking after teeth and health and I changed the language we use from ‘check up’ to ‘dental health appointment’.

And, as you know Josie, you’ve set up a practice managers’ group in the area which has really helped to improve networking and given us access to great advice from our peers.

JH: What would be your advice for anyone starting a squat practice?

HR: It’s a huge investment of time and money, and you can’t expect to just open the doors and have people flood in. We wouldn’t be the thriving practice we are today without Practice Plan, their business support and the financial security of the income we receive every month from the plan.

JH: That’s wonderful to hear, thank you so much Helen.


Helen Robertson has been co-owner and practice manager at Whitehouse Dental practice in Sutton Coldfield for 25 years. She opened the practice as a squat and built it from scratch into a thriving three-surgery practice with her dentist husband. Originally a jeweller, she brought her ‘good retail is in the detail’ ideals into how she looks after her patients and has worked hard to ensure her practice is part of the local community.  Website: www.mywhitehousedental.co.uk

Practice Plan’s team of experienced professionals has supported over 1,500 dental practices to transform the profitability of their business through the combination of a well-populated plan and personalised support including marketing, business advice, events and training. If you’re looking for more from your provider, get in touch.

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