79 Ways to Fail in Dentistry – Chapter 3: Customers, Cosmetics and Clarity

79 Ways to Fail in Dentistry – Chapter 3: Customers, Cosmetics and Clarity

Today's dental practices face a number of challenges, and as an experienced dental professional and business coach, there are common themes that I am regularly asked to provide advice and guidance on.  So in this chapter of my series, 79 Ways to Fail in Dentistry, let's focus on the three C's; Customers, Cosmetics and Clarity.

7. Customers, Consumers and Clients. Understanding the Differences Between Them and Patients

Since advertising rules were relaxed in the late 1980s there has been pressure from commerce for dentistry to embrace “consumerism” and to let go of that wonderful word “patient”. The pressure to change often comes from those who have never been involved in this, or any other, profession; where the patient is protected, where their needs and wants are sought, understood and where honesty comes above all else.

Female dentist with mature male patient in dental chair

The temptation to seek what can feel like safety in the bosom of consumerism is high, especially when it might be associated with a higher income, but the fudging of definitions can become a slippery slope. Let’s look at the first step from patient to client. I have seen this justified because it somehow feels better to ask someone who is a client for money but can somehow feel wrong if they are a patient. One influential writer has suggested that people are clients when they make a commercial decision to be treated but patients when they are actually treated. I think that only adds to the confusion, if they are patients at any stage let them remain so.

Further down the road and you may want to start referring to the people that you treat as your “customers”. If that is the case then remember that customers can easily feel entitled to make transactional one-off deals with those people with whom they deal. That means the customers can take it or leave it, they can visit other suppliers and seek other advice. In one subtle step they have gone from someone with whom you have a one-to-one relationship which should be important to, and valued by, both sides to a transactional relationship where they can feel they can buy what they want, when they want and where they want.

Let’s not get confused with wanting to learn the best way to treat people (remember them?) by looking at things labelled as customer care, client relations and consumer awareness. Becoming too allied to commerce can bring the temptation to treat people only as consumers, that is they become less discerning, more fickle and much likelier to seek another, ahem, service provider.

Female dentist consulting with female patient holding x-rays.

Having patients is a privilege for very few. Dilute the terms, confuse the message and blur the relationship at your own risk.

8. Cosmetics. Presuming That Everyone Wants, Sees the Need and Is Willing to Pay for Aesthetic Perfection

I know that cosmetic dentistry is a multi-billion pound/dollar/euro business. I understand that the thought of people willing to pay top dollar/pound etc. for your services is an exciting one. Of course you must ask your patients are they happy with the appearance of their teeth (or their smile if you wish). Here are my seven ways to fail at cosmetic dentistry:

  1. Not knowing your patient. What is their motivation? Their real motivation? Why now? What do they think they are going to look like at the completion of treatment? Is that realistic?
  2. Not understanding the patient’s true knowledge of what is involved. If you show almost miraculous before and after photographs, shouldn’t you show, or at least tell, what goes on between start and finish?
  3. Trying to run before you can walk. Select your cases with great care. What are the real chances of the ideal case walking in to see you the day after you complete a course?
  4. Calling yourself a “cosmetic dentist” before you have completed and documented at least 100 cases, by that time you should be comfortable enough in your own skin to not have to attach “cosmetic” to support your ego.
  5. Tying yourself to one particular system of alignment or restoration. You must be able to think outside a manufacturer’s box else you run the risk of you serving their needs rather then they serving you.
  6. Presuming you can walk the wire without a net. This is no career for a dental “free-climber”. Things will go wrong, get a mentor, a backup, someone who is non-judgmental and for whose time you are willing to pay.
  7. Presuming that everyone will want everything you have to offer, the very first time they meet you. The relationship between the patient and their professional is a marathon not a sprint.

Happy smiling female patient with tooth colour chart held up to her mouth

I know that I sometimes come across as negative but these pieces are called “How to Fail” for good reason, to encourage caution, to make the reader think twice before undertaking elective treatment. I am aware that dentistry can and does changes lives for the better; I also know that massive settlements are sought and made in all fields of cosmetic medicine when things don’t go according to plan. The idea is to sleep after a job well done rather than to wake at 4am worrying about unseen consequences.

9. Clarity. Just Turn up and Let the Road Take You Where It Will

Clichés abound about planning, “Fail to plan - Plan to fail” is one, and the alliteration, and “Proper preparation prevents poor performance” is another. There is a reason that they are clichés and that is because they are true. This of course is a series about “How to Fail in Dental Practice” so there is no need for you to think about preparation or the importance of being clear about exactly what you want from your practice and your life inside and outside dentistry.

Dental team consulting together over patient x-ray and notes.

You don’t need to hear that success comes to those who are ready for it, for those who expect it and who have clarity about themselves, their place in the world and how they are going to move towards their goals.

In fact there is absolutely no point in having any goals at all, let alone any plans on how to reach them. I often use a sailing metaphor when dealing with clients for the first time. If you were going to sail a boat from Plymouth to New York you would probably need to have some charts (maps) of the Atlantic Ocean. You might think it wise to take a compass, some food, and a means of making water. You would probably have had some experience in ocean sailing, in map reading and navigation and understand all the data that your radar, depth gauges, wind speed and radio provides.

Or you could choose to point the boat roughly in the direction that you knew New York was when you set off. One problem here is that there are things called tides, currents and wind, which will change the direction you need be heading. The changes keep happening, every minute of every hour and you must make allowances - or you have as much chance of getting to Barcelona, Cape Town or Cardiff.

Confident female dentist in clinic

Clarity is essential if you want to make progress at anything, you must have a way of measuring your progress, of knowing where you were, where you are and the direction you must take towards your planned destination. Remember that for most of your journey you will not see your destination, it is a significant distance ahead of you and it is easy to become discouraged.

Always measure your progress against where you have been, that way you can enjoy your gradual success.


Alun Rees - The Dental Business Coach


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