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From consistency and good service to referrals and successful seminars, these tips and techniques help you maintain the relationships you have and find the customers you want.
Make Consistency King
Inconsistent quality is the number one reason dentists switch laboratories. But, as you know, the technical variables and realities of laboratory production and workflow demands make achieving consistency inherently challenging. Here are some steps to getting your laboratory on track:
1. Get employees on board. Thorough training is the key to giving them a clear understanding of your expectations, how to achieve them and their role in the overall production process.
2. Develop procedure manuals. Documented step-by-step procedures give technicians a point of reference. It can be a time-consuming process but owners who have written manuals say they eliminate a lot of mistakes and significantly reduce the number of remakes. Involve your technicians in the process of creating a manual; ask them to review their fabrication procedures and develop written standards.
3. Consider a formal quality management system. While programs such as ISO 9000 or DAMAS don't tell you what your procedures should be, they provide a framework for defining your laboratory processes so you're able to repeat them consistently each time.
4. Establish frequent QC checkpoints. Final case inspection is important but it shouldn't be the only quality control system in place. Building a system of checks and balances into the entire production process allows you to find and fix errors more quickly. For instance, you might have a senior technician check each step of a trainee's work, or the department manager review each case before it goes on to the next department.
5. Develop a quality control checklist. Foster employee accountability by sending the checklist around with each case and asking each technician to compare it to the case before approving it. If the case doesn't meet the criteria, he has the authority to send it back to the appropriate department to be redone.
6. Consider pre-scheduling cases. If your technicians are constantly rushing to meet tight deadlines or are overloaded, something has got to give and it's often product consistency that gets shortchanged. To ensure an even workflow, some laboratory owners use pre-scheduling where the laboratory, rather than the dentist, determines the turnaround time for each case. There are a variety of software packages on the market that can streamline the pre-scheduling process.
7. Document client preferences. Just as your employees need to know what you expect, you need to have a clear understanding of your dentist-clients' expectations regarding contacts, occlusion and esthetics. Recording those preferences and including them with each case ensures that all of your technicians can reliably meet your dentists' needs.
8. Speak up when necessary. Of course, the dentist's work plays an important role in your ability to fabricate a consistent product so it's crucial to develop a level of communication where you're comfortable addressing a customer's inconsistencies. Be clear about your expectations and find clients who are committed to giving you what you need to produce a consistent product.
When to Fire a Client
Fear of financial loss and concern about damaging your reputation can certainly make you wary about "firing" a dentist-client. But laboratory owners who have wrangled with difficult clients say it eventually becomes clear that ending some relationships is crucial to your business' well-being--and to your peace of mind.
Here are four tips to help you determine when it might be time to bid a tough customer farewell so you can focus on more positive, mutually beneficial customer relationships:
1. As soon as possible into a conflict with a client, assess whether or not you want to try to resolve it and continue working with him. If you wait until things escalate, you risk losing your temper and later regretting how you handled it.
2. If it's an account of a considerable size, making the decision to "fire" him is all the more difficult. But look carefully at the price you and your staff are paying in terms of stress, remakes, and the time spent attending to his demands; you may find he's not as profitable a client as he appears to be.
3. Make a proactive effort if you decide you'd like to salvage the relationship. Contact the dentist, calmly explain the difficulties as you see them and ask for his input. Try approaching it from the vantage point of "it's nobody's fault, let's get together and see if we can work it out." You may find the customer is appreciative of the opportunity to clear the air, too—or at the least, that he'll gain a new perspective on the situation.
4. Of course, not all clients are going to be amenable to a conversation that requires them to change or accept blame. So when you have to "fire" a dentist, calmly and professionally explain why you can't continue the relationship and let him know that, after a specified date, you will no longer be able to accept his work. There may even be situations in which you feel comfortable referring the client to another laboratory that might be a better match for his needs. The key is to avoid hostility whenever possible and not to burn any bridges for the sake of your reputation.
Show ThemYour Stuff 48% of dentists say case samples are influential in their decision when choosing a new laboratory. "Use samples to create a dialogue; ask about his preferences—does he like tight contacts?—and let him know you can do that for him," says Bob Wakitsch, Co-Owner of Dental Craft Corp., Ringwood, IL, who also suggests that you try to incorporate an interactive aspect to showing your work. "Let him bend a flexible partial so he can see it won't rip or tear. Or, instead of just taking a beautiful crown with you, also take a light source to show how the porcelain reflects light or a microscope so the dentist can check the margins."
5 Laws of Good Service
Devoted customers return again and again, even if the business doesn't offer the lowest price or the fastest turnaround time. Why? Because customers are looking for value, and value is a combination of what they receive as well as how they receive it. Here are some strategies to keep in mind when evaluating your laboratory's own service effort:
1. Be responsive. Make your clients feel secure in the knowledge that you're available to them and will respond promptly to their requests and concerns. For example, if a dentist-client calls with a patient in the chair, are you or one of your managers immediately available to talk to him?
2. Be flexible. Phrases like "that's our policy" or "there's nothing I can do about it" stop customers in their tracks. Whenever possible, show your clients you're going the extra mile to meet deadlines or honor requests as long as it's not hurting your lab in the long run.
3. Keep your promises. You've heard the phrase "under promise and over deliver." When you pledge to do something you're not sure is possible, you're setting your client up for disappointment. For example, if there's any doubt, aim on the high side when quoting cases; if the bill comes in lower, the customer will be pleasantly surprised.
4. Resolve complaints promptly. Things can go wrong even when you have the best intentions. But if you have a relationship with your customers, they will tolerate mistakes if they're handled appropriately. Studies show that seven out of 10 customers will do business with you if you resolve the complaint promptly in their favor.
5. Offer peace of mind. Many laboratories say that offering technical consultations and helping to educate clients on new materials are at the heart of their value-added benefits. With the rapid pace of technological change, these are opportunities to demonstrate that you're truly part of the dental team and want to ensure the success of each case.
Reel in Referrals. 83% of dentists say another dentist's recommendation is a key factor when choosing a new laboratory. To maximize word-of-mouth referrals, ask dentist-clients for testimonials for use when calling on prospective clients or developing marketing materials. In addition to asking just a general opinion of your laboratory, ask the client to share a specific story that illustrates your laboratory's commitment to quality and service. For example, a time when your laboratory met a seemingly impossible deadline or was the key to an especially complex case.
Be sure to acknowledge those customers who do refer others to your laboratory with a thank you note or small gift. If you don't express your appreciation for the referral, you may not get another one.
Connect with Your Clients
While customer satisfaction results from dentists getting what they expect during each interaction with your laboratory, loyalty is derived from the personal connection you've developed with them. A consistent product and reliable service are essential, but building a strong relationship is the key to tying customers to your laboratory long-term. Consider these strategies:
1. Stay in touch. The single most important thing you can do to maintain strong customer ties is to have an ongoing flow of communication. Newsletters, email and telephone calls help you stay connected but, when possible, personal visits are paramount. While person-to-person meetings can be an effective means of discussing problems or introducing new products, they are also valuable from a strictly relationship-building standpoint; use the opportunity to get to know the client and his staff and to "pulse check" the relationship.
When your clients aren't local, that face-to-face relationship building takes more effort. Try to attend large, national dental meetings that are popular with your clients or travel to regional shows where you have several customers.
2. Offer individualized attention. When a customer feels you're listening and aware of his individual preference and needs, it bonds him to your company. In addition to tracking technical preferences, some laboratories also record professional and personal information such as where dentists attended school or details on hobbies and family members. The better you know the client, the more you can service him with a personal touch.
3. Show appreciation. Find ways to deliberately and frequently thank your clients for their business. Many laboratories have travel credit programs whereby doctors who keep accounts current receive a percentage of their balance in credits for airline tickets, hotel nights, etc. But randomly rewarding customers can be equally effective: plan a special event, bring lunch to the office staff or commemorate holidays with small gifts or treats.
4. Remember the office staff. Consider everyone in the dental office—not just the dentist--to be your customer. The staff influences his buying decisions and having a pleasant relationship with the team facilitates your ability to service the dentist.
CE: The Ultimate Soft Sell
Since they're not a hard sell, laboratory-sponsored education programs are the perfect vehicle for solidifying your relationship with current customers and getting your name out to prospective ones. If you're new to the seminar game, here are some tips to ensure a successful program:
1. Focus on a new product or service. Pique dentists' interest with a hot new product or system and show them how their practice and patients can benefit. If you're not in the midst of launching a new product, ask your clients for input and tailor your program topics to their needs or interests or tackle an issue you've noticed with work coming into the lab (for example, impression-taking). Manufacturers and suppliers are also a valuable resource and often can offer assistance with topics or even provide a speaker.
2. Consider timing. Before scheduling your seminar, check the dates of national and regional dental shows or meetings to be sure you're not in conflict with one your clients regularly attend. It's also best to avoid popular vacation periods—like around the holidays or during the summer months.
3. Decide on the format and venue. Do you want to present a large lecture-style program or a smaller, hands-on course? For smaller seminars, hosting the event at your laboratory is not only economical, it offers a personal atmosphere that gives dentists a chance to see your operation and meet some of your staff.
If you decide to hold a larger event that your laboratory can't accommodate, investigate hotels or meeting facilities in your area. Since the site will be a direct reflection of your laboratory, consider the following: Is the facility convenient and easy to find? Does it offer a good overall impression? Is the lighting in the meeting room adequate for your needs? How about staff: is it friendly and professional?
4. Set a budget. Consider room rental fees for off-site events, refreshments, giveaways or prizes, speakers' fees and travel expenses, audio visual needs, as well as the time required by you and your staff to plan and execute the event.
5. Plan your promotional efforts. Direct mail, statement and case stuffers, newsletters, websites, e-mail, social media, and having pick-up and delivery staff drop off invitations are all effective ways to get the word out. Be sure your marketing clearly outlines your laboratory's contact information; the date, location and time of the event; registration information, including a deadline; and tuition and payment information, if applicable.
Offering continuing education credits can also draw dentists to your event. Most state dental boards accept credits from sponsors accredited by the American Dental Association's Continuing Education Recognition Program (ADA CERP) and the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD), however, the accreditation process takes time, so start early.
6. Don't sell; schmooze. Although the seminar shouldn't be a hard sell of your services, it's key to network with attendees during downtime and provide them with more information on your laboratory; for example, hand out a presentation packet that details your lab's expertise with the product being discussed.
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