Laboratory owners are using a variety of innovative strategies--from digital business cards to dentists on staff--to effectively market their laboratory's services and technical know-how.
Strategy: create digital business cards
Tom Zaleske, owner, Matrix Dental Laboratory, Bensenville, Illinois Employees: 1 Years in business: 15
When Tom Zaleske meets a potential dentist-client, he doesn't just hand him a run-of-the-mill business card. He gives the dentist a digital business card--a CD that contains 50 images of his work presented in a four-minute slide show.
Showcasing his work in such a unique, high tech way helps him stand out and creates interest in his services. "The initial reaction is usually 'wow, this is really cutting edge'," says Zaleske. One client even brought the CD to his study club and played it on his laptop for the rest of the members. Other dentists were so impressed that they called Zaleske for more information; some even began sending him work.
Zaleske began photographing his work after learning about its benefits as a communication tool at high-end ceramic courses (which he attends to get ideas for modifying denture teeth). "When I showed the photos to clients, manufacturers and other labs and they got excited, I knew I was on to something," says Zaleske, who worked at an in-house prosthodontics lab and also had outside clients. When he eventually built his own 400-square-foot laboratory in his home, he set up an area for photography--complete with proper lighting and a black backdrop--and began taking photos of every case with a high-quality Nikon camera. He then printed the photos on photo paper and handed them out to potential accounts.
Then, three years ago, Zaleske purchased a digital camera, CD burner and software that allow him to create the slide shows. Dentists simply pop the CD into their computers and, at the click of a button, the slide show begins.
Though Zaleske is enthusiastic about his strategy, he admits to some challenges. First, since intra-oral photography isn't essential in removable work, most of his clients are not set up for in-office photography and it's difficult to get before-and-after patient shots which are ideal to illustrate a dramatic esthetic improvement. Zaleske provides these clients with disposable cameras and then has the images scanned to a disk.
In addition, the method isn't cheap. Between the equipment and software, Zaleske estimates that over the past seven years he's invested about $10,000 (though he believes a lab could get started with as little as $2,000). It's also time consuming. Zaleske--a self-proclaimed computer nerd--spends several hours a week updating his photos and keeping the CD up-to-date. He even worked on the content of his initial CD for about a year before marketing it. However, he says it's time and money well spent. "I'm in this profession because I love it. I think the CDs tell my potential clients a lot about my work and about how I run my business."
Strategy: go one-on-one
Fito Hartman, owner, Qualident, Chicago Heights, Illinois Employees: 6 Years in business: 28
When Fito Hartman started his own full service laboratory in 1980, he didn't plan to specialize in implants. Then, in 1985, he worked on a case that involved restoring a completely edentulous patient with implants. When he later ran into the patient, he was inspired. "She looked great and said she felt great, too," says Hartman. "I saw the physical and mental impact the implants had on her life and, from that moment on, the concept of implants completely fascinated me."
At the same time, he was discovering that many of his clients lacked the necessary education and experience for this new restorative option and were looking to him for guidance. "I wanted to be the first laboratory in my area to offer this high-end service," he says, and began taking implant courses. "I was just starting out and the courses were expensive, but I was committed to learning everything I could."
Almost eight years and 25 courses later (in 1993), Hartman felt he was ready to start aggressively marketing his high-end implant services. Using current implant clients as references, he set up meetings with oral surgeons and periodontists in his area to detail his implant expertise and explain the repercussions of improperly placed implants. Hartman used the initial meetings as a starting point and, if a potential client seemed interested, he would invite the dentist to dinner. "My goal was to establish a rapport and ultimately develop a working relationship," says Hartman. "I was planting seeds, and you never know when a seed will start to grow." Hartman worked to cultivate the relationships: even if a dentist wasn't yet a client, he would often meet with him for a case consultation.
He continued his one-on-one approach for the next five years and, gradually, his implant business grew. "Since a lot of the doctors were unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the specialty, they were willing to put themselves in my hands," he says. Today, Hartman gets most of his new clients from referrals; he has also seen other departments in the laboratory grow as his implant accounts began sending him the rest of their work, too.
Today, Hartman is a member of the International Congress of Oral Implantologists--a study club that provides him with a network of potential new clients and gives him the opportunity to stay abreast of the latest implant developments.
Though getting to the top of his specialty took time, Hartman feels it was worth the wait. "It took some trial and error," he admits. "But you have to look at your mistakes and say 'I'm going to learn from this. Then, if you get the word out that you're good at what you do, your business can take off."
Strategy: present seminars to dental study clubs
Steve Killian, CDT, president and co-owner, Killian Dental Ceramics, Inc., Irvine, California Employees: 20 Years in business: 19
Steve Killian's role as a technical educator started out as a bit of a fluke. While working on a case that involved a new restorative material, the client invited him to give a presentation to his UCLA study club. Armed with photos of his work and manufacturer-provided slides, Killian gave a 20-minute presentation on the topic. He was continually interrupted by the doctors with questions and even acquired a new account.
With the successful UCLA seminar under his belt, Killian decided to pursue seminars as a way to further the laboratory's reputation for quality and technical expertise. "I wanted to focus on something that would give us a competitive edge, and chose implants since they were a relatively new technology," he says. Over the next several months, he attended continuing education classes and poured over manufacturer-provided information. He photographed all of his work and established step-by-step techniques for both the laboratory and the dentist. He also documented problems he encountered and solutions. When he had enough material, he and his brother Greg, also his partner, devised his presentation with slides and handouts.
Killian's next step was to book seminars with dental study clubs that had ready-made audiences. He began contacting oral surgeons and periodontists in his local area. "When I found a doctor that sounded open to the idea, I would follow up continuously until he agreed or told me to buzz off," he says.
Study clubs were receptive and, for the next three years, Killian gave about one presentation a month, eventually expanding his topics to include new restorative materials and communication between the dental office and laboratory. "The presentations definitely opened the doors to potential clients," he says. "Even if we couldn't get a dentist's business right away, we wanted to be sure we were first in line when he was ready to switch. It helped dentists remember our name."
Although Killian gave his last seminar two years ago--they demanded a huge amount of time and effort--the strategy helped contribute to the laboratory's significant growth over the last seven years: a 20% growth in sales each year and an increase in technicians, from four to 20. However, Killian is quick to make this point: "The success of our laboratory always goes back to one thing: the fact that we delivered the quality we promised."
Strategy: add a dentist to your laboratory staff
Doug Baker, D.H. Baker Dental Laboratory, Traverse City, Michigan Employees: 49 Years in business: 23
Tell a dentist that your laboratory has an on-staff dentist; you'll have his ear and maybe his business. "Since hiring Dr. Damon Adams in 1996, our laboratory has doubled in size, both in number of accounts and employees," says Doug Baker, who also credits the technical reputation of his technicians. "In fact, we have a waiting list of dentist-clients."
Before hiring Dr. Adams, Baker spent much of his time providing technical support to his clients, and was often overwhelmed by the volume of questions and the required research. To optimize the laboratory's ability to provide this support, he hired Dr. Adams.
Although Dr. Adams wears many hats, including handling the lab's marketing, his main focus is serving as a technical liaison to the lab's clients, both over the phone and chairside. "Our doctors appreciate having an experienced peer to talk with about treatment planning, preparation, cementation/bonding and even marketing," says Baker.
The laboratory doesn't aggressively market the fact that a dentist is on staff--most area dentists find out through word of mouth--but it does get the word out. Dr. Adams is the editor of the laboratory's quarterly newsletter and writes its technical articles. In addition, since Dr. Adams coordinates the laboratory's seminar program--which can attract up to 300 dentists per course--he often gives the opening introductions and explains his role at the laboratory. (Dr. Adams also lectures independently for laboratories and dental organizations throughout the U.S. and Canada.) "By the end of the seminar, all the doctors in the audience know we have a dentist on staff and some instantly want to send us their work," says Baker.