Greg Thayer knows what it means to have loyal clients. Owner of Thayer Dental Laboratory, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, he still retains 20 of the original 24 customers he had when he opened his laboratory 30 years ago.
But Thayer also knows the danger of relying on long-time customers for the bulk of his work: they get old.
"These aging dentists have many positive attributes: we have wonderful working relationships and they produce a lot of work, pay on time and accept reasonable pay increases," he says. "But as they get older, they take time off without worrying about their incomes. Some may choose to just retire and shut the door rather than selling their practices and, if they do sell, there are no guarantees that the new dentist will remain a customer. The key here is to diversify your customer base."
A diverse roster of clients is always an important ingredient in a healthy business, but as baby-boomer dentists eye retirement, the issue is coming front and center (See below). Some laboratory owners--baby boomers themselves--say they're not concerned because they'll be retiring right along with their customers. But that assumption can be detrimental if your exit plan is to sell your laboratory to a third party. "A potential buyer wants a customer base that is providing sales now and is primed to provide continuing and growing sales in the future," says Thayer. "Therefore, you need to create value by actively attracting young dentists into your laboratory."
So how young is young? Some say the "sweet spot" in the dentist demographic is the 30- to 50-year-old group, because they're far enough away from retirement but have enough experience to be more productive customers. "Our sales representatives call on doctors fresh out of school, but we don't push too hard for their work because they're prone to remakes for the first three or four years in practice. After that, we pursue them aggressively," says David Nunnally, CDT, owner of Derby Dental Laboratory, Louisville, Kentucky.
In fact, Danny Diebel, CDT, will only work with dentists who have been out of school for at least five years. "Until then, they don't have a good overview of dentistry and what goes into a quality restoration," says Diebel, owner of Dental Arts Studio, Austin, Texas.
But others see new graduates as prime candidates for recruitment, believing that the extra attention they give these dentists now promotes loyalty in the future. These laboratory owners offer themselves as a resource to students and new graduates by networking with dental schools, speaking at study clubs and even inviting them into the labora-tory. "We hold an open house for students from the local dental schools and we introduce the staff, show our work processes and offer hands-on demonstrations. The personal touch is what brings these new graduates to us and helps us begin a relationship," says Nabil Elmasri, owner of Cedars Dental Laboratory, Orlando, Florida. Elmasri also stays abreast--via public record--of dentists who have recently earned their licenses and sends them a congratulatory letter, along with an invitation to the lab and an offer to help them find a practice in need of an associate.
Lord's Dental Studio takes the approach of being a resource to new dentists even further. The Green Bay, Wisconsin laboratory has a program specifically designed to support its retiring customers and the new dentists buying their practices, bringing in accountants and lawyers and helping to broker deals. "There are no guarantees but if we can help make the transition go smoothly, there's a better chance the new doctor is going to stay with us because he or she has witnessed firsthand our capabilities and the personality of our laboratory," says Don Warden, president.
The new generation
Whether recently out of school or with several years under their belts, one positive attribute of the new generation of dentists is that they've grown up in the digital age and are generally very receptive to new technology and materials. And, when compared to their older colleagues, some lab owners say they have a more cooperative spirit. "In my 20 years in this business, it seems that most younger dentists are a little more open to the support a good laboratory can provide and are aware that the complexity of today's dental practice calls for a team approach," says Andy Woods, owner of Blue Box Dental, Brandon, Mississippi.
Of course, there's still the downside that laboratory owners have been lamenting for years: the ever decreasing amount of coursework on laboratory-related procedures in dental schools. "Older doctors were more involved with lab work during their education; they were doing lots of gold work and there was a lot more emphasis on removable prosthodontics and impression-taking," says Shaun Keating, owner of Keating Dental Arts, Irvine, California. "These days, dental students have only one or two weeks of laboratory procedures; they could benefit from more, and so would the lab."
Despite that frustration, lab owners continue to find the silver lining. "The good news is that younger dentists need to look to the laboratory for advice and guidance in choosing which restorative options will be best for their patient," says Thayer. "The key is to help them understand that the laboratory's technical expertise is not there to 'trump' their clinical experience, but rather to complement it and help them understand treatment plans that work in the real world, with real patients."
To view a chart of one laboratory's sales volume broken down by client age, click here.
How old are they, anyway?
According to the American Dental Association's 2006 Survey of Dental Practice, here is a breakdown by age of general dentists who are sole proprietors or partners in dental practices.
Note that over 60% of dentists are age 50 or older.
|65 and older||11%|