The Art of Selling Dentistry

Nate Williams General, Practice Management 1 Comment

Recently I met with a client who had an amazing experience. He lived close to a military base and years prior to our conversation he had landed a government contract to provide dental services to returned veterans. This was a lucrative contract as these vets needed a lot of dental work.

Then one day he got a call from the program director; they were cutting their budget and they would no longer be sending patients to my client. Overnight almost 50% of his practice literally disappeared.

Fortunately, he had been wise in his financial decisions and was able to absorb the shock without going bankrupt. But for the next several months his practice struggled. Business was slow and he was not producing. Finally, months later, his lead assistant asked to speak with him in private. She told him she knows why he is struggling and how to fix the problem.

“You just need to recommend treatment,” she said. That simple: recommend treatment.

Most doctors struggle with this concept. They don’t like to actually recommend treatment. So many doctors live under the fallacy that telling a patient “we’ll watch it” is a higher virtue than actually providing treatment. Sometimes it is, sure. But always?

Why? What is the problem?

The Doctor’s Pseudo-Reality

Many doctors live their lives under the assumption that the economy is bad and people can’t afford dental treatment. While this may be true for some, most people spend far more on TVs, restaurants, and cars than you would ever charge to keep their teeth healthy.

Other doctors are paralyzed by the fear of being pushy. They remember the last time they went to the county fair and think of the sleazy guy trying to get them to throw a baseball…No thanks! I agree, don’t be pushy.

Yet others live in a mythical world where everyone wants the cheapest option. Wrong! Who wants the cheapest option? If we did, we would all eat Ramen noodles for every meal and drive mopeds. I can remember as a kid looking at baseball equipment in the Eastbay magazine with my friend Wes. We would circle in pen the items we wanted. Gloves, bats, hats, cleats, etc. And every time, without fail, we would circle the most expensive item. Because we wanted the best.

Most of us do want high-quality things, including high-quality dental work, and we’re willing to pay for it.

Selling Dentistry

I’d like to write a little about sales. Yes, sales. I agree that you shouldn’t be a cheesy, pushy, greasy salesman. But you are absolutely selling dentistry to your patients. Doctors who understand that fact earn a lot more money than those who don’t. Selling is the art of using persuasive communication to help people make the right decisions to get what they want.

What does that mean for dentistry? We absolutely do not recommend you over-diagnose, overcharge, or over-anything. Your job is simple. Spend the time to understand what the patient wants with his/her mouth and what he/she is trying to accomplish (e.g. do they want whiter teeth, straight teeth, new teeth, etc.?). Then, after you have a solid understanding of what the patient wants, and you know what is currently going on in the patient’s mouth, recommend the necessary treatment. And yes, you may have to use persuasive communication to get him/her to act.

To summarize, here is what I recommend you do to “sell” dentistry:

  1. Seek to understand what your patient wants to accomplish, including asking uncomfortable questions, and keep record of their answers.
    1. How well do you want to take care of your teeth (i.e. what is your standard of care for your own mouth)?
    2. Is there anything in your mouth that is bothering you?
    3. Is there anything you don’t like about your smile?
    4. If you had a magic wand, is there anything you would like to change about your smile?
    5. What would keep you from making those changes?
  2. Seek to understand where your patient currently is clinically by performing a comprehensive exam.
  3. Give the patient the one recommendation you would give to yourself if you were in their shoes and assuming you want what they want.

Remember, this recommendation isn’t necessarily what you would do (you might not care about white, straight teeth for yourself), it is what you would do if you were your patient. Take Cesar Millan, the “Dog Whisperer.” Many of you would have never recommended that full-mouth makeover for yourself, but wouldn’t you have loved to be the dentist who recommended it to him?

The conversation might sound like this: “Mr. Smith, if I understand you correctly, you want to keep your teeth in good health so you can have them for a long time. If that’s the case, and if I were you, I would do X and Y and Z, which will help keep your teeth healthy and strong. And if you do those things, coupled with daily brushing and flossing, you should be able to keep your teeth forever.”

The Trusted Dental Advisor

In our industry, the highest level of client relationship we can obtain is to truly become our clients’ most trusted advisor. We act as a fiduciary to our clients; we tell them what to do and they do it. Our clients need this. They don’t have the time and ability to know what we know. They have to trust somebody and are looking for that trustworthy advisor.

This is also true with your patients. They are simply looking for a doctor who understands them and who they can trust. And this means a doctor who will recommend treatment to them when they need it. Be that doctor.

Be Clear in Your Professional Recommendation (Give Options Sparingly)

Part of being a trusted dental advisor is that you don’t give your patients a lot of treatment options. Many doctors do this: “Mrs. Jones, you can do treatment A, B, C or D. Which would you like to do?”

Then poor Mrs. Jones, having never gone to dental school, asks the only thing she understands: “How much do the different options cost?” (Then the doctor mistakenly thinks that the only thing people care about is cost).

You see, this is where Mrs. Jones needs a trusted dental advisor who will instead say something like this:

Doctor: “Mrs. Jones, there are a lot of different things we could do, but knowing you as well as I do, I am going to give you the same recommendation I would give to myself. If I were you, I would ______. This would be the best way to solve the problem and will be the longest lasting, best quality solution.”

Mrs. Jones: “Oh thank you, thank you, doctor, for not giving me so many confusing options. I’ll take your advice.”

This may sound counter-intuitive. Don’t most people want options? At Baskin Robbins, yes. But let me ask you this question in return: How many of your patients have the clinical knowledge sufficient to choose between the different options? Really, how many of them are knowledgeable enough to diagnose and create a treatment plan for themselves? With the exception of the work you do on other dentists, zero.

Yes, you can let them know there are other options available and if Mrs. Jones wants you can talk about price. But don’t lead with a bunch of options and pretend that Mrs. Jones knows what’s best for her, even if you “educate” her for 30 minutes (a DDS degree in 30 minutes, right).

The best doctors I know have a high level of integrity and they tell their patients in concise, direct terms what they would do for themselves if they were the patient. Don’t be afraid to sell your dentistry, but don’t be pushy and don’t think about your own production. Instead, ask a lot of questions, listen to your patients and thoroughly evaluate their needs, then recommend the best treatment plan to give them the best results.

If you’re interested in further exploring the art of sales, I highly recommend the following books that can be very instructive:

The Greatest Salesman in the World,” by Og Mandino.

Integrity Selling for the 21st Century,” by Ron Willingham.

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Nate WilliamsThe Art of Selling Dentistry

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