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George Obst details how creating a culture of listening uncovers your dentist-clients' unmet needs and gives you a leg up in meeting their expectations.
Want to boost sales, market share and profits even if dentistry is in a temporary no-growth or downward mode? Put your clients in charge of running your laboratory by consistently seeking their feedback and making changes to improve operations and service based on what you hear.
This customer-driven business concept is detailed in The Customer-Driven Company: Moving from Talk to Action, by Richard Whiteley, and I saw it work firsthand during my 20 years as a member of Dental Services Group's (DSG) management team.
Before you can give customers what they want you have to know what they want. And while many laboratories do a terrific job of communicating with dentists about technical issues, a customer-driven operation takes things a step further by creating a culture of consistent and constant listening that happens at every level of the business. For instance: Teach employees to solicit client feedback by having them ask two vital questions: "how are we doing, and how can we do better?" Then have a system in place so these customers' needs are communicated, discussed and satisfied.
Conduct client surveys or hold focus groups in which you ask these five questions:
What are your needs and expectations?
Which of these needs and expectations are most important to you?
How well are we meeting these needs and expectations?
How well are our competitors meeting them?
How can we go beyond customer satisfaction and truly delight you?
Customer studies find that about one-third of customer dissatisfaction is due to defects in products or services, so it's crucial to develop tools that monitor the client's experience on each and every case he receives. Ask clients to rate your laboratory's: * Ability to provide what was promised, dependably and accurately.
Knowledge and courtesy of employees, and their ability to convey trust and confidence.
Appearance and quality of the cases.
Degree of caring and individual attention provided.
Willingness of staff to go the extra mile and provide over-the-top service.
Real-World Case Studies
At DSG--a national network of 30 dental laboratories--we implemented these customer listening strategies a number of years ago. The labs gathered client feedback from customer surveys; customer advisory boards; and sales staff, managers and customer service personnel. Each operation then evaluated the comments to assess their frequency and urgency, and then discussed what actions they could take to better meet their clients' needs. For instance, one of the recurring comments many labs heard was that doctors wanted help reducing chairtime with dentures. As a result, the laboratories implemented a new time-saving, three-appointment denture technique that reduced the number of appointments a patient needed with the dentist. Another frequent comment related to porcelain shade issues, particularly with difficult shade matches. Some of the labs introduced shade matching systems and several offered custom shading services, including bringing the equipment to the doctors' offices. The increased focus on matching shades helped reduce remakes due to incorrect shades by as much as 90% with some customers.
Although the process took time and effort, the DSG laboratories that participated in these customer communication activities were more adept at responding quickly to customer concerns and implementing constructive changes. As a result, many of them experienced increased customer retention rates--in some cases up to 10% improvement or more. And, compared to laboratories that were not committed to this intensive level of customer listening, these operations usually fared better in both sales and earnings.
Here's a look at other feedback the laboratories received and the changes they implemented:
Client Feedback: We want more frequent pickup and delivery service, particularly for removable cases.
Laboratory Actions: Several labs hired outside courier services to supplement its employee drivers and provided more flexible pick-up and delivery times. One lab added a delivery run to better service outlying areas specifically for reline and repair cases, and another added a secure drop-off box at the lab for clients who wanted to drop off cases after hours.
Client Feedback: We need better and more frequent communication with the lab.
Laboratory Actions: One laboratory initiated in-office consultations on complex cases to better plan and coordinate communication between the dentist, patient and lab. Several others created a new position responsible for dedicated customer contact and communicating issues to management/sales for follow-up.
Client Feedback: We're overwhelmed by the number of new products and techniques.
Laboratory Actions: A number of laboratories began offering free, AGD-approved, in-office educational sessions for dentist-clients and their staffs on impression taking, bite splints, implants and other products. Some laboratories offered as many as three or four sessions each month, usually during lunch hour at the doctors' offices.
Dentist-customer advisors were also identified to test new products and then write evaluations. Based on their feedback, the laboratories chose which products to take on and used client testimonials to market the product. Some dentists were also asked to be instructors to other dentist-clients on a new product they found to be a valuable addition to their practice.
Client Feedback: We're concerned about product and materials safety.
Laboratory Actions: This concern surfaced during a rapid growth phase of offshore restorations. As a result, some laboratories became DAMAS certified to better document processes, material controls and traceability, and established more comprehensive employee training.
They also encouraged greater participation in technician and laboratory certification and, as they became certified, the laboratories marketed the benefits of doing business with a certified operation.
Roadblocks to Change
Transitioning to a customer-driven organization requires people to unplug from the old ways of doing things and plug into a new world. Initially many employees may not be comfortable with new behaviors and it's easier for them to describe the reasons why the changes "won't work." For instance, "We don't have time. We're too busy getting the cases out the door everyday."
Changing a culture requires reinforcement and repetition, and there are a number of strategies I used at DSG to help managers and employees transition to a new way of thinking: Define what is expected of your staff when it comes to client contact and feedback. Written goals are an ideal way to define expectations and at DSG we alway started with a job description, which included a reference to how the job impacts customers.
Make the lab's goals both measurable and visible. For instance, post your current customer retention percentage in a common area and then update it so employees can see their progress firsthand. Ask each employee to identify specific actions that will contribute to better retention.
Train managers and supervisors in customer listening and communications through a combination of outside speakers and inside training.
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