The sale of the dental practice: an office manager's perspective

Dec. 14, 2010
Let's face it — dental practices get sold sometimes. Melissa Erickson reminds the dental team that how they handle change is entirely in their control.

By Melissa Erickson

Perspective, viewpoint, and attitude

Let’s talk about an uncomfortable subject for dental office managers. Dental practices sometimes get sold. There, I said it. Now that we have that out in the open, I’d like to discuss the office manager’s role in these transitions. But first I’d like to digress a bit and talk about our perspectives and viewpoints as dental office managers and how they affect our behavior during a practice transition.

I recently attended AADOM’s conference in Las Vegas and observed what I believe to be a phenomenon. In the general public there is a near-constant drumbeat: the economy, the economy, the economy. However, during my three days at the conference, I floated along on a blissful cloud of ambient energy, infectious confidence, and sheer genius of dental professionals. The attitude and energy of these strong leaders was delightful. It was as though “the economy” was not a factor for this crowd. This unique experience made me reflect a great deal on how our perceptions shape our future, our opportunities, and ourselves. It is with this recent AADOM experience that I make the following statement: I believe we, as dental office managers, do not need to be victims in life, in the economy, or in practice transition.

Now, before you run for your torches and pitchforks, I don’t disagree with economists and experts across the nation about the changes in the world today. I do not propose to counter any data indicating the effect that “the economy” has had on the dental industry. Nor am I audacious enough to say that the sale of the practice you manage is not a stressful or downright terrifying prospect. I simply maintain that we should not agree to be victims in the face of possible opportunity. I am suggesting that, like nearly all of life’s situations, we have the ability to shape our future with our own attitudes and perspectives. Here is my favorite example of perspective and viewpoint: We have a national unemployment rate somewhere in the range of 9% to 10%. So the good news here is that 90% of our patients are employed. See? Perspective.

Let’s take that mindset forward. As dental practices are faced with this new economic future, we can choose to be victims of things that happen to us, or we can choose to be a part of the changes that will be necessary in order to succeed. The doctor’s decision to sell a practice can be a positive move toward retirement, the achievement of a goal, or some other exciting milestone. On the flip side, the sale can be the consequence of faltering or negative growth, an overextension of debt, or a difficult family situation. The selling doctor will view the transition as either a celebration or a loss, depending on circumstances. The purchase of the practice can be an exciting opportunity for another doctor or group. Again, it depends on perspective and viewpoint, but a sale is a sale. It is not good or evil. It is likely that you, as office manager, had about as much input in the decision to buy or sell the practice as the rest of the staff — little to none. You do, however, have the ability to set your own viewpoint and change your attitude. You do have choices to make during the process.

What choices do you have during the sale of the practice?

If you work for a practice that is being sold, you may ask, “What choice do I have in all of this?” First and foremost, you may choose to assist and enable a smooth transition or not. You have the opportunity to lead by example and model a positive attitude for your staff. When the pot-stirrer on the staff begins the inevitable fear mongering, you can participate or not. You may elect to present your legacy in a favorable light to the purchaser(s), or you may adopt an attitude of “What do I care? I might not be here next month.”

If there was a decline in the performance of the practice, you have the choice to accept or deny whatever responsibility you might bear. You can ask yourself what training, education, or attitude adjustment you might need in order to learn from any mistakes. If the practice is in good shape and the sale is simply the result of the doctor’s circumstances, you may have the choice to present your accomplishments and leadership abilities to the purchaser. If you’re at the helm of a successful practice at the time of sale, there’s no better person to lead the practice forward than you. You can choose to present that perspective to the buyer.

There may be things over which you won’t have control. One is if the purchaser intends to bring in his/her own management and staff. However, if they are not (or are undecided about) importing management and staff, then you have the unique opportunity to “interview” for your job, to present your qualifications and understanding of the current business, staff, and patient base. Approach the new owners with the same attitude you would have if you were on a job interview, and you’ll be viewed in a more positive light.

Risk and reward

There is risk and reward in being an owner; an owner is rewarded financially when the practice is thriving. Likewise, owners run the risk of living without income for extended periods when the practice is faltering. I find that many employees do not think about, or adequately appreciate, the enormous weight of the risk that dental practice owners bear on a daily basis. As employees, there is also risk and reward. We are rewarded with the security of a regular paycheck, even when the practice is struggling. The risk we take is that we serve in our positions at the pleasure of the owner until the owner no longer wishes for us to be there, or the practice is sold.

In the event of a sale, an entitlement mentality should be avoided. If the previous owner employed you for a long time and he or she provided you with a very high salary and oodles of paid time off, but the new owner can’t afford to provide those terms, it is your choice whether to stay on under new terms with a good attitude, or look for a new position. Be aware how offensive it is to the new owners to hear statements like, “I expect a minimum of 40 hours per week, whether we have patients or not,” or “I’m entitled to five weeks of vacation and full medical benefits.” From their perspective you are a brand new employee, in essence, an unproven entity. It’s especially difficult for a new owner to stomach those kinds of statements if the practice they’ve purchased is financially weak or unprofitable at the time of purchase. Ultimately, you should use this general guideline: If you wouldn’t say it in a job interview, don’t say it to a new owner.

Change and growth

Understand that change is necessary in a practice transition. Even if the sale took place under happy circumstances, such as retirement or the achievement of goals, the new owner will most likely want to implement his or her philosophies or try systems that are new to you. If the sale happened as the result of backsliding performance, then the practice is a fairly new start-up that the selling doctor couldn’t afford to nurse along, and change is definitely in order. Fighting change following the sale of the practice, whether openly or in a passive-aggressive manner, is a reflection on your attitude and character. If you find yourself engaging in these behaviors, be open to the idea of personal growth. There are many books and courses on becoming a better manager, embracing change, dealing with fear, and improving your effectiveness, image, and sales skills. Make no mistake, effective treatment planning and scheduling are sales skills and reflect your professionalism. All will be worth your time and will serve you now and into the future.

Finally, if your worst fear is that the purchasing doctor will choose to make you available to another practice, try to face that fear with a healthy dose of ownership. Do not engage in destructive mentalities such as victimhood or entitlement. You are still in control of your attitude, viewpoint, and perspective. Allowing anxiety over the coming changes to affect your speech, mannerisms, or behavior will negatively impact how the selling and purchasing doctors perceive you, which will affect the security of your position as well as your reputation with the staff and in the dental community. Change is inevitable — how you handle it is entirely in your control.

Author bio
Melissa Erickson is passionate about all things dental. She manages a successful practice, consults for only a select few doctors, and is an aspiring writer. With more than 15 years in dentistry, plus a few years in corporate sales, she still geeks out over anything dental-related, and is OK with that. E-mail her at [email protected].