Bad economy, good opportunity

Sept. 23, 2011

By Jan Keller

Times are tough. We all know someone who is struggling to make ends meet, and when consumers, including patients, feel this kind of economic pinch, they naturally start looking for places to cut costs.

So what should your practice be doing to make sure this cost-cutting does not include needed and recommended dental treatment? How do you and your practice continue to prosper, even turn a struggling economy into a good opportunity?

In the book, “Making Meetings Work” (available from my website,, authors and practice management consultants Debbie Castagna and Virginia Moore challenge all dentists to get great results by working ON their practices, not just IN them. Make no mistake, those practices that are not just maintaining their previous levels of production in the current economy but have also seen growth -- sometimes substantial growth -- are those that believe in and are following this philosophy.

While this might not be representative of your practice, you must nonetheless have meetings to work on your practice if you have unfilled hours. Start taking action now by having weekly, one-hour staff meetings. Do not worry about “lost” production during this time!

Consider this: What if your chairs are full, but not with productive procedures? By working on your practice, you will identify issues like this and learn to problem solve your way through them.

Getting Started

At one of your first meetings, start by asking your team to complete a SWOT analysis: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Be objective. Use this exercise as an opportunity to identify those things that you could be doing better.

Your list may look something like this:

Clinical excellence
Great relationship with patients
Good recare systems


Production down
Inconsistent payment system
Last minute cancellations

Willing team to work on things
Time to work on uncompleted office projects
Chance to evaluate the image of the practice (Something as small as a newly painted sign or a clean doormat may make a big difference.)

Fear of change
Patient fears about the economy
Doctor concerned that business development time could take away from patient hours.
Once you've completed your own SWOT analysis, make an action plan to address the issues that were identified as opportunities and strengths, and to strengthen those areas that were identified as weaknesses or threats.

What else can you do? Plenty!
• Maintain a strong positive attitude, always. Do not let adversity immobilize you. Ride it out wisely, and use the potential downtime to work on your business.
• Be more flexible with payment arrangements, if necessary, possibly by financing more internally and working with third-party financing companies.
• Make sure your patients know you’re their ally. Even if they’re hesitant to accept needed dental treatment, remind them . . . Dental disease does not go away! Do not buy into their objections too easily. Work out a plan to complete needed dentistry.
• Hone your verbal skills, e.g., “Mrs. Smith, I know you have some reservations about (fill in the blank), but the fact is you have dental disease in your mouth and it will not go away without treatment. We need to work together on options to solve this problem for you. Will you let us help you with that?”
In other words, listen to your patients’ fears and walk side-by-side with them to find a solution. They will remember and appreciate your willingness to work with them long after the economy recovers.

Don’t let patients fall through the recare cracks

Another possible revenue source is quite literally in front of your nose. The truth is that many practices leave thousands of dollars “on the shelf” when they don’t put a recare program in place that identifies patients who have delayed treatment, and then put a system in place to monitor them. If you have unfilled chair time, this could be an easy -- and rewarding -- exercise for your practice.

Special support for new dentists
For those doctors who are not far out of dental school, and may be panicking at the thought of servicing student loans, equipment loans, leases, etc., verbal skills and confidence are key, especially during the new patient exam. Having the “right stuff” here is crucial to leading patients to “yes.”

Tips for new dentists:
• Don’t focus on “gadgets” or expensive technology; focus on patients. Buy the Panorex machine when you can afford it.
• Work with your vendors -- banks, suppliers, etc. -- to negotiate new payment terms, if needed.
• Put a numbers plan in place. This is crucial in order for you to have a budget and a clear plan about how to spend the revenue you do have, and to identify areas of potential to help increase production.

And finally, new dentist or not, do NOT panic. Work hard, stay positive, focus on opportunities, not threats, and use your downtime to work ON your practice, not just in it.

Janice Keller has 25-plus years of experience in dentistry – clinically, and as an office manager and software trainer. Now, as a practice management consultant, she provides high-quality, customized practice development and education to clients and their teams. Jan’s clients praise her ability to recognize, understand, and adapt to their specific training requirements, and to provide the necessary tools and skills they need to meet their practice goals. Jan is certified by Bent Ericksen & Associates in employee law compliance, and is also certified by the Institute of Practice Management. She is a member of the prestigious Speaking/Consulting Network and the Academy of Dental Management Consultants. She is also an independent certified SoftDent trainer. Contact her at [email protected].