There's no denying the power of referrals to gain additional business for your laboratory. According to LMT's recent joint survey with Dental Economics, another dentist's recommendation is the most influential factor in the decision to change laboratories. It makes sense: there's nothing more compelling than positive words from a dentist who has first-hand experience with your work.
To gain referrals, you need to maintain the reputation you've built with your clients by providing top-notch service and quality products. But relying solely on word of mouth to generate business is a passive marketing approach - in essence, you're relying on your clients to do your marketing for you. And, ultimately, referrals may not fuel the amount of growth you're looking to achieve.
"Initially, many laboratory owners build their businesses through word of mouth and feel they can continue to grow in the same way for years to come," says Bill Neal, owner of Almaden Marketing Group, a full-service advertising and marketing firm in Fort Collins, Colorado. "Depending on how large they want to grow the business, they may be right. Eventually, though, there will come a time when the new business generated by referrals will no longer sustain the growth pattern. At that point, they'll have to do something to get the word out to a larger audience."
To effectively grow your laboratory, you need to reach out to dentists by implementing active strategies that market your laboratory's products and services. According to dentist-respondents in LMT's survey, two of the most effective methods for doing so are hosting laboratory-sponsored seminars and exhibiting at dental trade shows.
Laboratory owners already on board say both strategies provide an excellent opportunity for face-to-face contact and can be valuable in developing relationships with dentist-clients. "Seminars and shows allow you to see 10, 20, 30 or even 100 dentists in one day," says Marc Daichman, co-owner of Asteto Dent Labs, in Maplewood, New Jersey. "If you wanted to visit all of these dentists in their offices, it would take days or weeks."
In addition, they provide a forum for educating dentists about new products and services and addressing their technical or business challenges, enabling you to position your laboratory as an indispensable resource. "More than ever before, dentists are relying on laboratories to act as consultants," says Daichman. "When you fulfill that need, you are viewed as an authority, a leader, and even a partner."
If you're eager to become an active marketer of your laboratory's products and services, read on. Experienced laboratory owners offer their strategies for a successful event.
Hosting a seminar
Laboratory owners agree that education - not a hard sell of laboratory products or services - should be the focus of your seminar or clinic. "We concentrate on the topic at hand, not on our services," says Daichman. "Our objective is to offer a good program that will help us gain the dentist's confidence, trust and eventually his business." However, 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.
Seminars are especially valuable when your laboratory is offering a new product or service and wants to get dentists on board. For example, after five months as a beta test site for a new CAD/CAM system, Issaquah Dental Lab, Issaquah, Washington, is now offering the service to its entire client base and is getting the word out through a series of roundtable discussions held at its in-house education facility. In fact, it had to add three additional meetings to its schedule to accommodate the demand of dentists wanting to learn more about CAD/CAM technology. According to Larry Searles, co-owner, the lab's efforts seem to be paying off: nearly one-third of its clients have expressed an interest in fabricating these restorations.
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. You can also come up with timely ideas simply by reading dental publications, attending industry trade shows and meetings, or noticing a need from the work coming into your laboratory - for example, problems with impression taking.
However, a hot topic won't necessarily guarantee a good turnout; you also need to consider timing. Although Bob Wakitsch of Dental Craft Corp. in Ringwood, Illinois planned his implant seminar eight months in advance and designed a high-impact brochure to promote the event, he was forced to cancel it when just one dentist signed up. "We were puzzled about why it failed until we realized we had scheduled the seminar just one week after the Chicago MidWinter meeting," says Wakitsch. "Our clients had just taken implant courses and no one wanted to take time off again to hear more about the same thing."
In addition to considering other industry happenings, veterans of the seminar circuit say it's also best to avoid popular vacation periods - like around the holidays or during the summer months.
You'll also need to determine what type of format and venue are most appropriate. 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. "For our in-house programs, we limit attendance to 20 people or less," says Chris Waldrop, director of sales and marketing for Burdette Dental Lab, Birmingham, Alabama. "Anything larger makes it difficult to get one-on-one time with each attendee."
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? How about staff: are they friendly and professional? Is the lighting in the meeting room adequate for your needs?
When developing your budget, here are some key costs to 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.
Marketing your event is another expense to consider. Proper promotion is key and laboratories use a variety of methods: direct mail, statement and case stuffers, newsletters, websites, e-mail, faxing and having pick-up and delivery staff drop off invitations. Whatever your method, be sure your invitation clearly outlines the following: your laboratory name, address and contact information; the date, location and time of the event; registration information, including a deadline; and tuition and payment information, if applicable.
One way to offset costs is to charge a tuition fee. While some laboratories see their seminars as a profit center, others view them as an investment - not a money maker - and simply set fees to cover costs. "We charge a reasonable fee, but our goal isn't to make a large profit," says Daichman, who holds about 10 seminars a year. "Getting exposure and business for the long term is far more important to us than a few dollars in the short term." (For another cost-saving strategy, see Perfect partnerships below.)
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. "From start to finish it took us about six months and quite a bit of paperwork to complete the AGD process," says George Englund, co-owner of Issaquah Dental Lab. "But credits are important to dentists, so in the end it was worth it."
AGD certification costs $450 and providers must pay that fee every two to four years when they reapply; for information call 888-243-3368. ADA CERP providers pay an initial $400 fee and $250 annually; for details, call 312-440-2869 or visit http://ada.org/prof/ed/ce/cerp.html.
Exhibiting at a trade show
A trade show can provide a friendly, informal venue in which to detail your laboratory's products and services to new clients, cross sell to existing accounts or simply expand your name recognition.
When selecting the best shows for your laboratory, consider your market. For example, since Daichman targets the New York and New Jersey area and wants to network with existing accounts and generate new leads, he exhibits at a large regional show, the Greater New York Dental Meeting. On the other hand, if you're focusing on cross selling to existing accounts, a smaller, local show that caters to your client base may be a better option.
A local show may also be more economical. For example, Burdette exhibits at seven shows a year and Waldrop budgets $2,500 to $3,000 for state shows and $10,000 for large regional shows. His budget covers the cost of the exhibit space; rental of any audio visual equipment; designing, printing and shipping of promotional materials; and meals, travel and hotels, if required. Whichever shows you select, reserve early to guarantee your space - some exhibitors make reservations up to one year in advance.
One way to maximize your investment is to promote your presence through pre-show mailings. The promotion doesn't have to be elaborate, even a simple postcard can be effective. Ask show organizers if they have promotional materials for exhibitor use and if they sell or rent a mailing list of attendees. Also consider including an incentive to draw attendees to your booth. Burdette's pre-show mailing can be redeemed for a free gift - like a bur kit donated by a manufacturer - at the booth.
At the show, keep in mind that your goals are different for clients vs. non-clients. "With clients, we focus on strengthening the relationship," says Daichman. "We simply want to visit with them, give them any special news or freebies, get feedback on our business with them." With non-clients, the key is to uncover how you can service them. "If a dentist walks up to a laboratory booth, he's having a problem somewhere, whether it be price, quality, or service," says Waldrop. "Your job is to find out what that issue is."
To create dialogue with potential accounts, try asking a variety of questions: Are they having any problems with their current lab? Is there a service your lab offers that they're not currently getting? Be sure to have a strategy for capturing their contact information so you can add them to your mailing list. If you don't want to ask the dentist outright, consider collecting business cards through a raffle.
Although handouts that detail your laboratory's products and services are important, don't rely solely on them to do your selling. At all times, your booth should be staffed by employees who can detail each product or service being promoted. Remember, offering a professionally printed handout to every attendee who walks by simply isn't cost effective. For instance, think about the amount of material you collected at the last trade show you attended. You likely kept the few you were interested in and threw the rest away. Try creating a simple, one-page flyer to hand out to the masses, and saving the more expensive pieces for after-show follow up or only for attendees who show a real interest.
The key to making your active marketing strategies work is to stay active; don't let generated leads lay dormant. "If you don't follow up, you won't get a lot of business," says Waldrop. "If you get out there, visit offices and get on the phone, you'll be much more successful." After a trade show, Waldrop immediately distributes leads to his sales people and launches a series of letters and phone calls. The laboratory generally expects 25% of its leads to become accounts who send $1,400 or more of work a month.
Keep in mind that even proactive marketing strategies and follow up won't generate business overnight; repetition is key. Your laboratory will gain additional business and new clients when the dentist needs you, not when you need his business. The idea is to stay visible so that when a need arises, your efforts have put your laboratory at the top of his list. "Many times, doctors attend our seminars year after year but don't send us work," says Daichman. "Then, because we've stayed so visible, they think of us when they finally do have a problem and send us business."
Partnering with manufacturers or suppliers can relieve the financial burden of your events and enhance your marketing efforts. As co-sponsors of a seminar, they are often willing to pay for a well-known clinician or sponsor the lunch portion of your event. At a trade show, they can donate prizes to draw attendees to your booth. For example, Burdette Dental Lab, Birmingham, Alabama, recently teamed with a manufacturer to offer a free bur kit to attendees. In addition, through contact with their own dentist-clients, manufacturers can promote your event through word of mouth or even include invitations with product shipments.
Another creative idea is to partner with non-dental sponsors. In order to help curb the costs of its yearly golf tournament and seminar, Learning on the Links, Burdette Dental Laboratory recruits local businesses that offer services and products that may be of interest to dentists--including banks, car dealerships and golf shops--as sponsors.