A view from the sales perspective

May 1, 2001
The following is a question-and-answer interview with Wilbur Sutton of Patterson Dental Supply, Inc., a company he has been involved with for 37 years.

The following is a question-and-answer interview with Wilbur Sutton of Patterson Dental Supply, Inc., a company he has been involved with for 37 years. He has specialized as an equipment sales manager for nine years and has been an active office designer for more than 35 years. That wealth of experience has been recognized in Patterson Today magazine and earned him three distinctions as one of Patterson's "Top 5." His presentations on new office expansion and office efficiency have been featured at Patterson's Dentalfest. Based in Indianapolis, Sutton can be reached at (317) 388-8950.

DE&M: What is the biggest mistake dentists commonly make when they are planning new offices?
Sutton: Often dentists will start the planning process without deciding what they want to place where. Dentists will start building and still have not decided what pieces of equipment they want to take with them, and which ones they want to replace.

Unless you're working with a firm like T.H.E. Design or Unthank Design, most architects don't understand about building a dental office. They may hand a dentist a finished estimate, but miss things like the primary dental plumbing or electric. That can be another $30,000 to $50,000.

DE&M: When does Patterson Dental try to become involved with the dentist during the building process?
Sutton: We try to become involved even before a dentist starts thinking about a new office. We have something called Concept Planning Programs which help the dentist review his or her office.

DE&M: What are some of the things you have seen in today's dental offices that trouble you?
Sutton: Often, we see that a dentist has placed a piece of equipment in the operatory not in the space where it can help the most, but where it fits. When you look at a dentist's performance, you can see that placement of equipment within the facility can hold the dentist back. Curing lights are used as much as handpieces today, but they are often placed where they can fit in the operatory, and that's not often in an ideal spot. I have seen tons of technology that has basically been patched into a practice.

Monitors are also items that are in the wrong place in an operatory. Do you want the patient to see the monitor? If not, it better be behind him or her. Do you want the patient to be educated or entertained? If so, the monitor should be in front of the patient.

Another thing is the amount of cords stretched across the floor in some offices. The cleaner the office looks, the more comfortable the patient will be. When a patient walks in and cords are everywhere, his or her apprehension will be raised. We try to help the dentist ensure that the patient is comfortable from the time he or she enters the front door until it is time to leave.

DE&M: When you discuss technology with dentists, have you found the majority of dentists are still slow to embrace the technology?
Sutton: As a rule, yes. But, there are some who are very forward-thinking. You have to be forward-thinking when you are planning what pieces of technology to have in your office. I heard recently that just over 60 percent of all dental offices have computers at the front desk. That's still low, but it's growing.

DE&M: As a supplier of equipment, what do you do to try to protect the dentist from a bad investment?
Sutton: Ultimately, we know that we are responsible for the end product. We only recommend equipment that is reliable. We rely heavily on our service department for recommendations on which products they have liked and which ones they have had problems with. They let us know if a company has a history of problems with their products, and we steer the dentist away from using that company.

Our main goal is to listen to what the dentist really wants. I don't believe there is such a thing as a cookie-cutter dental office. There's no one way to do the best thing for all dentists. We have to listen, and the dentist has to be pleased.

DE&M: How important is it for Patterson to get products and equipment into dental schools for dentists to use?
Sutton: It's amazing to see the effect of a dental school on a product. If your product is seen as reliable by the dental school, it will be seen as reliable for a long time. If it's seen as unreliable, it's almost banned from the market.

Many dental schools have A-dec equipment. We feel a dental school is a fantastic test of reliability. We look at it like a rental car — there's going to be a new user every day, and it probably won't be kept up as much as it would in a dental office. Dental students walk out of their schools knowing A-dec is reliable.

DE&M: There used to be a perception that a patient had to go to places like New York and Chicago for the best dentistry. Is that perception still out there?
Sutton: No. Dentistry is becoming so widely understood that people no longer think they have to go to the big city for the best cosmetic work.

I think the rural practices are becoming more aggressive with their acquisition of technology and new products. One of the reasons is because they don't have the close-knit peer groups you will find in the big cities that help those dentists to procrastinate. Dentists "in the country" seem more forward-thinking and more willing to try things such as the CEREC or a new impression material.

DE&M: What is a "hot" piece of equipment right now?
Sutton: The digital X-ray. We often see that dentists are not buying the equipment as much as they are buying the final result. I heard one dentist say that he bought the digital X-ray and hadn't found a lesion in a year. I hear that and I think that he didn't receive the correct training. Even if a dentist is buying a traditional digital X-ray, there are huge variances from one to another. Those variances have to be discussed with the supplier, who should work with the dentist to find out exactly what he or she needs.

I also think the importance of nitrous oxide sedation is underplayed right now.

DE&M: What do you personally look for in a product?
Sutton: As new companies bring out products, I try to look at them from the inside out. That's where you will find shortcuts, if there are any. Instead of brass, a company might use aluminum or plastic.

The Gendex 765DC courtesy of Dentsply Gendex
Click here to enlarge image

If a manufacturer is building a product, I know that that company's money is tied up in that product. If something goes wrong, that company will move heaven and earth to correct the problem. If the company only assembles the product, they can go off of the market if there are problems, and come back in later with a new model. That leaves the consumer holding the bag.

When we look at which companies to work with, we also look at that company's financial stability. There are a lot of software companies and digital X-ray companies which have stock worth 20 cents on the dollar compared to a year ago. That sends a signal to me. I try to avoid those companies, because we really don't know if they will be around a year from now.

DE&M: What is your advice to any dentist who is looking to expand his or her practice?
Sutton: Doctors can glean a lot of information from their dealers. Don't underplan for preparation. Think ahead and think outside of the box.