Competition: Are You Ready?

Roger P. Levin, DDS


Competition! It is here, and it’s not going anywhere. In fact, it is only going to intensify in the coming years.

The Great Recession, along with other game changers, has altered the business of dentistry permanently. Prior to the economic downturn, dentistry had a long run with low levels of competition. The economic law of supply and demand worked in the profession’s favor, with a small supply of dentists and a growing demand for dental care. Since 2008, that situation has reversed itself. There are more dentists treating a smaller pool of adult patients. The influx of dentists is the result of 2 major factors: 12 new dental schools having opened since 2002 and more dentists deciding to postpone retirement due to income and investment losses.

The decrease in the number of adult patients stems from several factors, including fewer adults with dental insurance, higher out-of-pocket costs for those with dental insurance, and more people struggling economically and choosing not to seek dental care unless it’s an emergency.

In addition, corporate dental practices are growing steadily. For many recent dental graduates and younger dentists, dental service organizations offer steady employment as a place to apply their newly learned clinical skills without having to worry about the business side of dental practices. They offer a one-stop shopping model, which many consumers like.

So, is it all doom and gloom for solo practitioners? Of course not. Dentists are incredibly resilient professionals. Historically, we have always had a willingness to innovate, whether by learning the latest clinical techniques, adding new services, incorporating advanced technologies, or making adjustments in response to a changing business environment. Dentists can be successful in today’s more competitive marketplace, but they have to operate their practices differently than they did prior to the recession.

In the past, dentists didn’t have to worry as much about running the practice as an excellent business. A growing number of new patients compensated for a multitude of business shortcomings, including patient attrition, system inefficiencies, and low case acceptance. Today, there are fewer new patients, which makes it critical for practices to do more with the patients they already have.

The following are 4 ways to build on your relationship with current patients.

1. Raise Your Level of Enthusiasm
You are the leader of the practice, and the team takes its emotional cues from you. If you’re feeling down about the state of your practice or going through the motions, your team will emulate your behavior, consciously or unconsciously. I recommend upping your enthusiasm by 20% to 25%. Patients prefer visiting a happy, positive dental practice. Remember, your patients would rather be doing almost anything else than going to the dentist. If you and your team aren’t happy to see patients, why should they continue coming to your practice?

No matter what’s going on outside the practice, you’ve got to put on your game face when you walk into the office. No team wants to work for a distracted or negative dentist. I know some of you may be thinking, “This is silly. Over-the-top positivism doesn’t make me a better dentist.”

Actually, it does. You may be the greatest clinician in the world, but if you lack good interpersonal skills, patients will be less likely to accept treatment and show up for appointments, which ultimately affects your ability to retain your patients. Of course, you don’t want to appear insincere or phony, but you do want to show patients your genuine passion and concern for their oral health. One of the reasons you became a dentist was to help people, so your patients and your team need to see that side of you.

2. Upgrade Your Customer Service
It starts with you, but it doesn’t end with you. Every staff member must rise to the challenge of treating all patients and potential patients as VIPs. Remember, dentistry is about relationships. The stronger the practice-patient bond, the more likely patients will follow your recommendations regarding hygiene frequency, home-care instructions, and treatment acceptance.

The goal for you and your team is to make patients feel good when they visit your practice. A warm welcome by the front desk coordinator, a smile from the assistant, or a pleasant greeting from the doctor are all seemingly little things, but cumulatively they add up to something bigger. Your positive words and actions should convey to patients that you value them as part of your practice family and that you will do everything possible to make their visit as pleasant as possible. Wow-level customer service not only helps you retain your current patients, but it also serves as the engine that drives patient referrals. If your practice has mediocre customer service, it’s doubtful that many patients will be raving about their experience at your practice to friends and family.

3. Replace Your Schedule
The schedule affects all the other practice systems profoundly. If it’s not working well, all the other customer service improvements you and your team made won’t matter because people want to be seen on time. If your practice is consistently running more than 10 minutes behind, you have both a scheduling and a customer service problem. When patients feel you aren’t respecting their time, they will give up on your practice.

A broken schedule for a dental practice is like an athlete having a torn anterior cruciate ligament. No matter how hard you try, you will never be able to operate at the speed you should, because this damaged system will always be holding you back. If a sprinter tries to run full-speed on an injured knee, greater harm to the knee will occur. The same principle applies to your practice; the longer you try to get by with an outdated scheduling system, the more damage you will be inflicting to your reputation and bottom line.

4. Make Comprehensive Care Your Mission
Single-tooth treatment is the mainstay of most general practices, yet many patients are candidates for other types of need-based and elective treatment. But you and your team have to be willing to start the conversation about what other services are available and how these treatments can benefit patients’ oral health and quality of life. Many dentists have trouble talking about anything other than immediate needs (caries, restorations, etc) with patients. If you are one of those dentists, you need to work on improving your verbal skills through scripting and role-playing. Patients are looking to you as their oral health expert, and that requires you being able to educate and motivate them to make the best choices.

These 4 steps will help you retain more patients and provide more treatment to them, but they will also enable you to attract and retain new patients, especially if you are providing top-notch customer service.

Decades ago, marketing was a dirty word in dentistry, but now it’s a necessity for operating a successful dental business. While you should treat your current patients like VIPs, each year you will still lose a percentage of them to life factors, such as moving out of the area, changes in dental insurance, infirmity, or death. To replace these patients but also grow your production, you need to market your office.

The following 3 marketing approaches will drive more patients to your practice.

1. Turn Your Patients Into Your Marketing Team
If your patients love your practice (and they should because you’re providing wow customer service), they will tell their friends and family…if you ask them to. There is no more powerful form of advertising than endorsements from current patients. They know your office and they have the power to persuade others to join your practice. I tell dentists in my seminars that they should be receiving at least one referral annually from 40% to 60% of their patients. Imagine if half of your patients sent someone to your office in the next 12 months. Your practice would likely be on a double-digit growth trajectory. Any patient who makes a successful referral should receive a call or handwritten thank-you note from you. Showing this type of appreciation encourages patients to keep recommending your practice.

2. Make Your Presence Felt in the Community
Most dental practices engage in some form of community marketing, whether it’s sponsoring a local sports team, buying an ad in a school program, or supporting a food drive or other charitable cause. Yet I encourage dentists to take another look at their community marketing because most doctors continue to do the same 2 or 3 things year after year. When was the last time you gave a presentation on oral health at an elementary school or a PTA meeting? Have you ever written a column on oral health for the local paper? Many small publications need content to fill their pages. Are your community marketing efforts running on autopilot, or are you taking advantage of new opportunities to get your practice’s name out there?

3. Get Your Digital House in Order
Nearly every dental practice has a website, but what if prospects can’t find it? Does your practice pop up on the first page on Google and local directories? If not, you’re losing new patient leads.

In today’s digital world, the first thing potential patients will do is check out your practice website. If they can’t find it, they will move on to the next local practice. Or if they go to your Facebook page and find that it hasn’t been active in months, they will decide to search for another office. 

First impressions matter, both in person and online. If your website and social media sites aren’t performing like they should, you will need to fix them. That will probably require the use of outside experts, but you want to make it as easy as possible for prospects to find your office.

Competition is increasing, but you can still have a great practice that grows every year. To be successful today, you have to operate your office more like a real-world business. If that means developing new skills, then do it. There are plenty of opportunities (such as articles, courses, books, seminars, and more) to learn more about the business of dentistry. Start by following the 7 strategies presented in this article, and you will put your practice in an excellent position to compete in today’s tougher economy.

Dr. Levin is CEO of Levin Group. He has served on the board of advisors of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine, served as adjunct faculty at various dental schools, and is a former chairman of the National Museum of Dentistry. He lectures and writes extensively and has been listed in Dentistry Today’s Leaders in Dental Consulting since 2004. He is a recipient of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award, and he can be reached via the website

Disclosure: Dr. Levin is the chief executive officer of Levin Group, which offers marketing seminars and consulting services.