Avoiding the 'Purple Elephant'
Posted Sep 23, 2013, Published 2013-09-01
Several years ago we received a case that sparked a complete shift in the way our lab is run. A doctor asked us to make two zirconia crowns for a 17-year-old girl. The crowns were to replace teeth #8-9 and the prescription specified that the length of the centrals be 18mm long! We called to clarify the instructions and the doctor confirmed that the patient had a standard bite, nothing was out of proportion and that she wanted teeth that were 18mm long.
Over the course of five phone calls, we presented every possible failure scenario. The doctor insisted: 18mm. In the end, we produced and delivered the crowns as directed. The case never came back and the doctor tells us it went very nicely. We continue to do business together and all is well—except for the fact that somewhere in Southern California there is a woman with tusk-like incisors!
At my former company, one of my salespeople had a saying, "If a client wants us to make our product look like a purple elephant, then our only question should be 'African or Indian?'" Indeed, somewhere, there is a laboratory happy to make crowns look like purple elephants.
What do you do when a doctor asks you to produce restorations you believe to be poorly designed, prepped or planned? Obviously you want to consult with your doctor in a professional manner in an attempt to come up with a solution that meets the doctor's desires and satisfies your technical concerns. But when that doesn't happen, your choice is simple: refuse to do the case or wade into waters that are filled with doubt and uncertainty.
However, after this case, we did three things that helped us remove the subjectivity from the case analysis process and take the agony out of working on cases we know are improper. And these three things have defined our business more than any other decisions we've made over the past 18 years:
We created a mission statement. In business, this sounds like a cliché. In fact, when I started 6-11 Dental Studio, my mission statement was so non-specific that it could have just as easily been applied to a yogurt shop. A proper, well-thought-out mission statement will guide your critical business decisions. For example, my mission statement identifies the patient as the client, so we've established objectives, goals and benchmarks that reflect that distinction. I recently returned a large case to a doctor who, in my humble opinion, improperly served the needs of the patient. I lost the client as a result of this decision but, in the end, I believe we saved time, money and emotional energy.
We defined our market position. Many labs try to be all things to all dentists; we don't. As a result, we focus our production and marketing efforts on a segment of the dental market we can win: dentists who value quality, fit, function, esthetics and communication as much as we do. In my lab, we have defined 11 competitive features—including our technical capabilities, communication style and product mix—that we can communicate to prospective clients. These features were "designed" into the business and reflect the kind of company we strive to be and the level of service we strive to provide.
We created a communication plan. Specifically, we created a presentation for our prospective clients, employees and suppliers that explains the type of company we strive to be (our mission statement) and the type of customer we serve (our market position). We share it openly and often. It's clear, credible and powerful. I present this plan a few times each week and every time I do, it reinforces who we are and helps us see clearly when decision making might otherwise be a bit murky.
As lab owners and managers, we're required to make difficult judgments on cases several times each day. For me, the best decisions I have ever made are the cases and clients I turned down. I realize it can take a great deal of discipline to pass on work these days and the truth is that every lab owner has a different set of tolerances concerning the cases he will accept. We use these tools to provide consistency in our decision making. By knowing who we are and who we are striving to be, we can avoid purple elephants and focus on moving our business forward.
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