From reinvigorating marketing to enhancing employees' skills, laboratory owners share strategies for staying productive when workloads slow down.
If business is slow, don't make the mistake of thinking you're without work. In fact, you've got a big job on your hands. "During slow production times, we're busier than ever: we're thinking, planning, creating, doing all we can to keep the business healthy," says Steve Killian, CDT, owner, Killian Dental Ceramics, Irvine, California. Whether they're projects you've had on the back burner or brand-new ideas that will help you operate more efficiently once the normal workload resumes, the key is to use this time constructively rather than waiting for things to improve. LMT contacted 100 readers to hear how they make the best use of downtime. Here are their top five strategies:
First and foremost: marketing. "This is not the time to hang a 'Gone Fishing' sign on your laboratory door," says Andy Woods, owner, Blue Box Dental, Brandon, Mississippi. "A slower period is the time to reconsider your market position, unique selling proposition and the way in which you communicate it, and the response you're getting from your target market." Many laboratory owners say that since their customers are also slow, they're having to concentrate on winning new accounts in order to keep up their workloads. They're making more cold calls, developing new marketing pieces, working on demonstration models for sales visits and even contacting former clients in an effort to woo them back. Others are focusing on increasing business from existing customers; after all, these are easier prospects because they already know you and your work. This might mean cross-selling denture work to current C&B clients or simply persuading dentists to try services they're not currently using. For example, at Utah Valley Dental Laboratory, if there's extra time after fabricating a PFM, technicians will sometimes mill an all-ceramic crown at no charge so the dentist can compare the two restorations. "Everyone in our laboratory--from management to ceramists--has been working hard to mine additional, more profitable work from existing clients," says Jim Thacker, vice president of the Provo, Utah lab. "There's a lot of 'low-hanging fruit' out there that has been neglected over the years."
Nurture client relationships. Since your dentist-clients may have more time on their hands too, now is the perfect time to ramp up your contact--either in person or over the phone--and strengthen your relationships with them and their staffs. This is especially important during a recession; the bleaker the economic picture, the more people want to do business with companies they know and trust. "We do all we can to get our arms firmly around our current clients so they don't become past clients. We stay in close communication to monitor our service and how it measures up to their wants and needs. For example, we provide feedback cards with every case and call to clarify any negative feedback and to reassure the client we are doing something about it right now and to thank him for the time he took to respond," says Killian. "Then we change--and quickly--anything that doesn't fit our clients' picture of the ideal situation. 'Prima Donna Dental Lab' is dead. Customer service is king." Keeping in close touch during downtime also helps you ascertain if the economy is the only culprit or if there's another issue behind the sluggish caseload. "We all have short-term downtimes but when it goes beyond that we need to know why," says Richard Knecht, CDT, RGK Dental Lab, Inc., Friedens, Pennsylvania. "You need to call on clients and ask why they're not sending work: are they just slow themselves or is it your fees, adjustment issues, remakes or something else?"
Empower your staff to develop solutions. Use employees' extra time and brainpower to get their input on marketing or streamlining strategies. "We always held monthly lunch meetings, but now we're having them more frequently," says Amos Harting, owner, Harting Dental Arts Lab, St. Louis, Missouri. "At a recent meeting, for example, I challenged technicians to think about why a dentist should do business with us rather than the guy down the street whose crown costs $100 less. We ended up talking a lot about how service and communication are paramount. The most valuable tool I have is the people who work with me." At Knight Dental Group, Inc., a certified DAMAS lab, downtime is an opportunity for more frequent Continuous Improvement Process (CIP) meetings, where the staff looks at each standard operating procedure to see if it's sufficiently comprehensive. "Essentially, we are identifying issues, defects or barriers that may interfere with quality or productivity. We're discovering that some of the procedures are outdated," says Warren Rogers, president of the Oldsmar, Florida laboratory.
Heighten training and education initiatives. During downtime, many laboratory owners make cross-training a priority in an effort to enhance their staff's versatility and internal communication. "Right now, we're cross-training in every position. We're a small lab and want each employee to be able to complete a restoration start-to-finish so they understand each step that goes into the fabrication and how those steps are interdependent. For example, in dentures, we want the waxers to fully understand how their waxing impacts the finisher and polisher," says Diane Hughes, owner, Oak Tree Dental Lab, Columbus, Ohio. It's also a good time to challenge technicians to do their current jobs better without the stress of production. Laboratory owner Brad White saves tips and techniques he's read in magazines and procedure manuals to share with his staff during downtime. Then, he'll encourage technicians to challenge themselves using that new information. "For example, I'll ask them to measure their time on certain steps, and attempt to improve efficiency without sacrificing quality," says White, owner, Perdue Dental Laboratory, Sarasota, Florida. "I don't micromanage my fellow technicians; instead, I trust and inspire them to care about the business as much as I do."
Launch new products. Some laboratory owners shy away from investing in new technology in this economy, but those who are confident in their laboratory's ability to weather the storm say this is the perfect time to take the plunge. You have more time to research and comparison shop, not to mention incorporate the product and accommodate the learning curve. Laboratory owner Sunny Bhatti is using this time to launch Ivoclar IPS Empress Esthetic and IPS e.max. "Launching new products is always a little scary and we had to 'sell' it to the employees, pointing out the benefits of learning a new skill set and streamlining procedures," says Bhatti, Hogan Dental Laboratory, Huntington Beach, California. "But it's been worth it because the price point and profit margins are much higher and we've seen an increase in business because of it."