Editor’s Note: I recently had the chance to travel to South Portland, Maine, and sit down with Steve Carlin, the branch manager for Patterson Dental. Maine currently has the highest dentist-to-population ratio, as there is one dentist for every 2,300 people in the land of lobsters and lighthouses. Patterson is one of just two dealers with an office in Maine, with the other being DenPro Inc. (an independent dental supply company).
Kevin Henry: I would think it would be challenging to be the branch manager of a state that has such a wide diversity in terms of dentist locations.Steve Carlin: We cover a lot of geography from this branch, serving the entire state of Maine and a large part of New Hampshire as well. We have to make sure that we have service technicians in every part of our region to provide responsive support. Some service technicians reside in very rural areas, which is very helpful if dentists practicing outside of urban areas experience an equipment breakdown. Our goal is to visit every dentist in our region at least once in a two-week span. Certainly that’s a challenge, but dentists in this state recognize and appreciate this commitment because Patterson is the only full-service dealer with an office in Maine. All others are serviced out of Boston or its suburbs.Henry: With a group of established dentists and a widespread customer base, how does this affect your philosophy of customer service?Carlin: Our approach to customer service does not change with our location or service area. As sales representatives, we strive to know how we can help our customer build his or her business. When a representative begins focusing more on becoming a valued partner than selling, he or she will be a successful representative. I think our representatives have tremendous opportunity to build successful relationships here because many work in rural areas where relationships are very important. When we work closely with our customers to understand their immediate and long-term needs and truly care about their personal and professional success, the relationship takes on a life of its own. Driving the extra miles to make sure customers are successful, means a lot to them. In Maine – and anywhere else – if you come in and do what you say you’re going to do, that goes a long way in the customer’s mind.Henry: With Maine being a very rural state outside of I-95, does that affect equipment sales?Carlin: It makes dentists more aware of who has the support structure in place to service their equipment. A piece of equipment may look great on the surface, but the dentist has to consider the months and years ahead. If he or she cannot get service, the equipment may not be as good an investment as it could be. With Patterson, dentists know we will be there to provide high-quality service for the life of their practice. Henry: What affect has the economy had on dentists and on your business in Maine?Carlin: I think it’s forced each of us in this branch to understand who we are as a sales representative. Dentists look at the bottom line, and it’s not always about the price of supplies. If a dentist changes the way he or she does business, we have to change the way we’re doing business. We need to ask the right questions and know how our services, supplies, equipment and technology best fit with our customer’s needs. For example, many technology products today provide an immediate return on investment, which is attractive in the current economy. Sometimes we tend to assume that we know what our customers want, just like dentists can assume they know what patients want and can afford. We always try to remind ourselves to listen and present solutions that help the dentist achieve his or her vision for the practice.Henry: What are some of the things you share with your team when it comes to helping customers with practice transitions?Carlin: Whether dentists are just starting out, seeking an associate or preparing for retirement, I think one of the important things we can share with our customers is what other dentists in the state are seeing in terms of their practice transitions. For example, many area dentists are nearing retirement. We’re working to provide them with vision and insight into the successes of the dentist down the street and also the outlook for selling their practice. We guide the dentist in steps he or she can take now to maximize the value of the practice when it’s time to sell. Especially in rural areas, preparing for a practice transition several years in advance can prove very beneficial. Henry: There is a lot of talk about a shortage of dentists in Maine. What are you seeing from your perspective?Carlin: I’ve worked in other locations around the country, branches such as San Diego and Phoenix that are saturated with dentists. I do not consider Portland or Bangor to be saturated with dentists, nor would I suggest that you would not notice a shortage. In northern or western Maine, away from the I-95 corridor, you start seeing where there are shortages. These areas have well-structured public health programs, which are helpful, and we are starting to see mid-level providers emerge to fill the gaps. But there are certainly areas in which dentists are scarce. North of Bangor is a perfect example. As the population of certain areas declines, so do the number of dentists.Henry: So what do you see happening in the future when it comes to the number of dentists in Maine?Carlin: If I had a magic wand, I would love to see a new generation of dentists coming into the state. There is talk of a dental school possibly starting up at the University of New England (located in Biddeford, Maine) in 2012. If that can get off the ground, I think it will positively impact areas with less than ideal dental care coverage. Right now, there are just nine dental students originally from Maine in the combined classes of every dental school in the United States. That has to change.Henry: What are the things that would lure dentists to Maine?Carlin: Honestly, the same things that drew me here. Quality of life is a big thing. This is a great place to raise a family. Once you get into the nuts and bolts of dentistry, you’ll find that Maine has a very active patient base. Patients are looking for dentists, so new patient possibilities are much more encouraging than in many locations. Whether just starting out or relocating, dentists can depend on us to help them set up their practice and establish an efficient, productive and profitable business.