Scott McDonald is the President and Owner of Scott McDonald & Associates, Inc, the nation’s largest vendor of demographic and psychographic analysis for dental practices in the United States. The company can help evaluate locations, provide market research, and help identify target markets.

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The Biggest Lie in Dentistry (and a Smaller Lie)

I was only 26, and it was my duty to visit the California dental schools to evaluate what was being said about having practice success. I was the new marketing manager of the California Dental Association, and I wanted to learn what the Profession was all about. Then I heard it. It was the Biggest Lie in Dentistry. Over the next 30 years, I have heard it repeatedly in different versions. One of the dentist-professors said these fateful words:

“All you have to do is to be a great clinician, and people will beat a path to your door.”

When the lie is spoken, I often see dentists nodding sagely to what they assume is common wisdom. As a marketing professional, it seemed silly to me. The presumption is that patients have some way of understanding clinical quality, as though some objective standard exists. Both experience and research have proven beyond question that patients have no way of determining how good (or bad) their dentist is due to their clinical skills. On the other hand, they judge practices, doctors and staff upon whatever criteria they CAN use. Sorry, you deserve the truth: clinical expertise does not determine financial success. In fact, depending upon it may hurt everyone involved.

So, why should someone believe that your clinical expertise will mean more to patients and potential patients than your ability to communicate, lead staff, inspire compliance, manage dental care or any other human virtue? I think I know the answer. It’s vanity. But whose vanity? I am sorry to say, but clinical instructors are strongly tempted to assume that their work is what a dental student will need in order to gain success. And then there are dentists who assume a “me-Tarzan, you-Jane” attitude, where they’re always right. Patients may be ignorant, but they are rarely stupid. The entire focus of most dental meetings and continuing education seems to be upon this goal of clinical mastery. New materials, new techniques, new technologies and new tools all sing the siren-song of the clinician. But the sad truth is that these sirens can draw the ships of practice onto the rocks of practice failure. Clinical expertise may be important, even vital. But if that is the sole focus of a practice, that practice will fail. There is a well-funded industry devoted to selling tools and equipment to professionals with the bright hope that it will make you “perfect” with “perfect results.” I count dental vendors and suppliers as my friends. But they have little to lose when it comes to your investment in things (and processes) rather than people.

PLEASE don’t get the idea that I am espousing anything less than clinical excellence! High standards, including standards of cleanliness and outstanding treatment, are vital. But when the profession places the Golden Fleece of practice exclusively upon the shoulders of clinical skill, those of us who know and love dental professionals cannot help but cringe a little. That is because we know a truth or two that seems too often ignored. “Dentistry is a people business.

Your ability to communicate effectively with your patients and potential-patients is the thing that will help you to fulfill your professional responsibilities. That is why those of us involved intimately in dental marketing know that if your staff is not training in good communication skills and the doctor is not skilled in persuasively explaining his diagnosis, no amount of clinical skill can compensate. The bitter truth is that unless it hurts, squirts blood or falls out, patients have no way to determine the “quality” of your clinical skills. And even if it does hurt, squirt blood or fall out, you may have done exactly what the standard clinical procedure required! Stuff happens in a patient’s mouth when you aren’t there. And if you are not a good listener, a compassionate professional and a reasoned thinker, no amount of technique will help you.

And this leads to the second Biggest Lie in Dentistry:

“Effective advertising alone will save a practice.”

In fact, real marketers know that effective advertising can KILL a practice quickly if the internal marketing strategy is not in place and working. In other words, getting people to know about a practice that does not have its act together is like shouting, “We are terrible!” The word gets around pretty quickly. Therefore, dependence upon a magic formula of advertising is certainly not the only answer. We may draw patients into the office who will be convinced of your personal attractiveness and the desirability of the services you offer, but unless the doctors and staff have people skills AND a communications strategy to help these potential patients, it’s like pouring water into a colander. It’s a waste. Worse, it is a hand grenade waiting to explode in your pants pocket.

When we speak of a successful dental entrepreneur, the fallback position of lots of continuing education hours and expensive equipment for treatment and diagnosis will do little to settle the upset patient, calm frazzled nerves or extract payment from an unreasonable person. Your ability to manage the “people equation” is all-important. For all these reasons, we have to make sure that the communications policies patients will experience and will form the basis of their judgments of the practice are the first steps to successful growth. From our perspective as a company that does marketing plans for practices and has done so in every state in the U.S. and for every specialty and practice model, these lies must be put to rest if you and your practice are going to thrive in an age when communication technology allows for the message of your practice to get out nearly instantaneously. Blind dependence upon clinical skill and advertising will hurt the practice much more than it helps.