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While you need to exert relationship-building efforts with all of your customers, a new customer requires extra attention because he's not yet invested in your laboratory. Demonstrate from the start that working with your laboratory will be a great experience. Show that new customer you're different than any lab he's dealt with before. Here are five ways to do just that.
1. Lay out the welcome mat. Have a specific procedure in place for acknowledging a customer the first time he sends a case to your laboratory; it can be as simple as a phone call or letter thanking him for his business. Some laboratories send a welcome package including laboratory brochures, credit policies, fee schedules and case boxes, prescription pads and even novelty items inscribed with the laboratory name.
Boos Dental Laboratory, Minneapolis, Minnesota, also includes photos and contact information of department managers so it's immediately clear who the customer should contact with questions. Department managers also follow up with a telephone call to introduce themselves. "We want to demonstrate to new customers that they're going to get service that goes beyond the restorations, and that we want to be a resource, not just a supplier," says Matt Beckrich, regional vice president.
For some laboratories, the welcome is a virtual one. Aim Dental Laboratory, for example, has a section on its website dedicated to new clients; they can download prescription forms and brochures or request an ordering kit, which includes boxes, pre-paid shipping labels, and prescription forms with the dentist's name on them. The goal? "We want new customers to feel that it's easy to do business with us," says George Auspitz, controller of the Brooklyn, New York laboratory.
2. Know their preferences inside and out. Whether it's with a technical preference questionnaire or simply a phone call, develop a clear understanding of the new client's expectations. What are the things he looks for when receiving a case back from the lab? Does the client like tight contacts? What style of laterals does he prefer? What about occlusion?
"Those first few cases are a very fragile time," says Beckrich. "The client is trying something new and watching the results very closely. We need to show we understand that even the most subtle things are important to him."
Laboratory owner Jeff Hucek uses his introductory phone call to not only cover technical and esthetic preferences, but also business-oriented expectations. "We establish a game plan, which includes topics like whether he wants the case back one week or one day before the seat date, does he prefer UPS or FedEx, will statements be paid by check or credit card...those kinds of things," says Hucek, Acorn Dental Ceramics, Crivitz, Wisconsin. "During that 'settling in' period, you don't have the luxury of assuming a single thing."
And while you're finding out what the customer likes, it's good to discover what he doesn't; in other words, why did he leave the last lab? "You can learn a lot about a customer's sore spots by talking with him about his previous experience," says Lisa Ford, speaker, author and customer service expert. "And make sure those hot buttons are shared with everyone in the lab--and not just in one person's head--because if you make the same error as the previous lab, you immediately set off red flags."
3. Follow-up, follow-up, follow-up. Make a point of checking in with new customers after the first several cases to get their feedback. Even if you include a quality control card with each case, picking up the telephone not only shows you're going the extra mile but allows you to gauge the dentist's impression of your laboratory.
"We make sure that new customers receive a lot of proactive communication and consistent follow-up. It allows us to continually monitor how they are perceiving our relationship," says Don Warden, president, Lord's Dental Studio, Green Bay, Wisconsin.
It's also a way to determine how much "hand-holding" the dentist really wants. "We find reasons to call the new client, and our managers are able to judge how much communication is necessary," says Beckrich. "For example, some doctors prefer written communication and don't want to come to the phone all the time. We want to take every opportunity to build the relationship, but we don't want to overwhelm them. It's about finding the right balance between being as helpful as possible without being intrusive."
To ensure the laboratory stays on top of potential problems or concerns, Beckrich and his department managers track work from new clients with a monthly report that itemizes the number and types of cases the customer has sent to the laboratory. If work from a particular client has dropped off, the department manager contacts him to address it.
4. Remember the power of perception. Since a new customer doesn't have a history with you, every interaction with your laboratory builds your reputation in his mind. "If a first impression is negative, then antennas go up to find other negative things. See everything through your customers' eyes," says Ford.
To illustrate the point of negative impressions in her seminars, Ford refers to management guru Tom Peters who coined the phrase "coffee stains" after an airline executive told him that passengers will judge the quality and maintenance of jet engines on whether or not they see coffee stains on the meal trays.
"Every business owner has to ask himself, 'What are our coffee stains?' What are the things that reflect badly on our operation?'" says Ford. "Are invoices correct the first time? Are names always spelled correctly? If not, you're adding to this customer's sense of, 'uh-oh, I better check this lab's work closely because they're not very detail-oriented.' You've put that antenna up."
5. Solve problems creatively. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, the coffee stains get in the way and something goes wrong with a new customer. When that happens, how you recover will make or break your opportunity to have a long-term relationship.
For example, new customers at Lord's Dental Studio are pleasantly surprised by the laboratory's service guarantee, which says that cases will be on time or they're free. "Over the years there have been a few occasions when a new client's case wasn't shipped on time," says Warden. "When we didn't charge for the case and offered a letter of apology and a small gift for the patient, it communicated to our customer that we understand the value of both the doctor's and the patient's time and that we stand behind our promises. Based on the reactions we've received, we know we've given them a value they have not experienced before."
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