Thoughtful ... thoughtless marketing

Sept. 3, 2009
You can be a superb technician and a wonderful healer, but if you don't know how to communicate with your patients in a way that motivates them to want your treatment, you're doomed, says Dr. Joseph J. Portale.

By Joseph J. Portale, DMD, MAGD

In today's dental world, the pen — or the word processor — is mightier than the drill, the X-ray, or any other instrument. You can be a superb technician and a wonderful healer, but if you don't know how to communicate with your patients in a way that motivates them to want your treatment, you're doomed.

More than ever before, the willingness to educate and motivate patients is an essential component of any quality dental practice. Indeed, it may be the essential element for more and more practices.

Here are two examples that illustrate this:

Case one is a general dentist whose practice dwindled to $200,000 a year. He was an excellent technician. His work was superior, and his patients liked him. But they never understood his values, and slowly they left his practice. He retired into teaching nearly broke. He knew nothing about relationship building, self-promotion, or values-centered dentistry.

Case two is a dentist whose current gross is $64 million. He has 22 locations and a marvelous work ethic. He had reached a plateau of $800,000 in a solo practice just six years ago, and took the challenge to become a corporate dentist developing a significant retail dental business. He has not touched a handpiece in two years. He is a master of promotion and marketing. He has taught himself and his team the value of relationship building. He is a voracious reader of business books, and he teaches all day long. His current goal is to become his own dental school!

Somewhere between these two extremes are about 100,000 private dental practices, with the vast majority in the under $2 million range. These practices usually have one associate, one or two hygienists, and several staff members. Anybody reading this knows where their practice is and has a vague idea of where they’d like to go.

Those who plan to get there by increasing the number of new patients each month are doomed! Here’s a dirty little secret — there simply aren’t enough new people in America each year to satisfy this addiction.

So how do dentists attain their goals? The answer is retention. The secret to retention is relationship development.

The good news is that relationship development leads to value expression, and values expressed lead to whole mouth restoration, and whole mouth restoration is health attained. The difference between a tooth carpenter/gum gardener and a “good” dentist is in the number of his or her patients who attain maximum health each year. The higher the number, the better the dentist. Pretty simple, wouldn’t you say?

Yet the crucial component in terms of bringing better dental health to people in today’s environment is not dental skill. It is the willingness to establish and maintain strong relationships with patients.

Besides being a practicing dentist since 1973, my experience also includes founding and operating two companies dedicated to bringing the benefits of the digital revolution to the world of dentistry. Fine Dent Data Systems, focused on basic office automation, was in operation from the early ‘80s through the late ‘90s. The second, LetterMatics, combines the power of the Internet with the affordability of the U.S. Postal Service and flexibility of on-demand printing to transform the way dentists relate to patients.

One of the crucial issues in digitizing dental practices is that automation is incomplete if it does not focus on promotion and operation. This is one reason why psychographic marketing is an important part of the mix in any good automation product development. Another important part is using real life practices as test beds. By conducting rigorous test programs, a number of crucial findings were made.

Perhaps most important, there is a fundamental disconnect between how dentists view the world and how the world really operates. Even today dentists are narrowly focused on finding that fountain of new patients, and people are always looking for a “good” dentist. Something is clearly wrong here.

Let’s start over. Patients must want our services, and they must want us to perform them. Notice the word want and not need. In fact, most people don’t need teeth at all. There’s a degree to which teeth can actually be considered a luxury, since people can live to extended ages without them. Any realistic understanding of the dental world must include the fact that healthy teeth and gums are a luxury obtained by those who want them. When people want something, they usually find a way to pay for it.

If they don’t want something, however, they’ll find a way to avoid it. Want more proof? Here’s a startling fact. In 1970, prior to the advent of dental plans, nearly 50% of Americans rarely sought non-emergency dental care. Today and 40 years of dental insurance plans later, nearly 50% of Americans still do not seek care, even with the 50% to 100% discount their dental plans provide. When asked, these people say dental care is too expensive!

Today the need for dentists to teach — and listen — is greater than ever before. People want a relationship they can believe in with their dentist. This is a core part of their definition of a “good” dentist. Quality, in this environment, is about their relationship, trust, and fears, and never about their crown’s marginal integrity.

Yet over the years dentists have become ever more distant from their patients. As an industry, dentistry suffers from digital attention deficient disorder. Practices are relying on technology to discover disease in patients, complete with e-mails, color digital radiology, laser caries detection, cone beam scans, and even voice recognition periodontal probe scores. All this is very good technology, yet it misses the key mark more often than not.
Which brings us to our second revolution — marketing. From Facebook to e-mail blasts many dentists use every cyber tool in the book. Yet an increasing number are finding that none of these high-tech approaches actually brings patients in the door.

That was the motivation behind a new company, one dedicated to bringing together all the threads of technology and communications into a single package. That company is LetterMatics. LetterMatics’ design, structure, and capabilities grew directly out of my experience in the dental world.

In today’s environment it is essential to do whatever it takes to make someone feel understood, heard, and cared for. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. When people feel heard, understood, and cared for, they begin to want what we have to offer. This may sound simple, and many offices feel they are special in their patients’ lives already. But the sad truth is, if you have a dwindling patient treatment plan acceptance rate and believe it’s because of insurance plans, you should do yourself a big favor and start looking at the relationship building side of your business.

So today our job is on a higher level. We need to learn how to create a desire (want) to achieve healthy teeth and gums. Fear of pain doesn’t work anymore. There are too many good drugs out there. The motivation cannot be based on avoiding terrible consequences. It works best when it’s based on heartfelt caring.

The key in my practice to communicate caring has been the letter. My experience has demonstrated that the most powerful internal marketing medium today is the letter. A meaningful message encased in a professional, sincere letter delivered by the mailperson has an impact in today’s impersonal world that can actually be felt in the practice. Patients react to the thoughtful messages and gentle call to action.

There is a phrase for this — the “Theater of the Mail.” It describes the moment the message is delivered. Think back to the last meaningful letter you received in the mail. It had impact, obviously, because you still remember it!
Yet who has time to write letters? Or who has a staff that knows how to knock out a great marketing missive? Or who wants to deal with printing, folding, putting on stamps, and going to the post office?

That’s why LetterMatics was designed with the economics of the average dental office directly in mind. LetterMatics takes care of all the printing, folding, stamping, and visits to the post office. It includes 150 professionally-written templates that handle virtually every issue a dental office might face. It features a sophisticated interface that enables anyone with a PC to send real mail directly from their computer straight to a patient’s mailbox. With on-demand printing technology, LetterMatics virtually allows you to create a personal message that’s targeted at a single customer.

Old technologies don’t go away. They mix with new ones to create powerful and innovative solutions that change people’s lives. No one would think of operating a state-of-the-art dental practice today without using some kind of office automation software. In the future, marketing automation software is going to be just as important — and the practices that understand this are going to have a huge edge over those that don’t.

Dr. Joseph Portale, DMD, MAGD, has been a dentist for more than 30 years, and involved with computers and information systems for almost as long. Recently he developed the LetterMatics system to automate the process of personalized mailing by combining the power of the Internet with the affordability of the U.S. Postal Service and the flexibility of on-demand printing. He can be contacted at [email protected].