The actual percentage of adults in England who regularly attend the dentist has increased by an average of just 1% per year between 1978 and 2016* – that’s right, just 1% and that is despite the millions of pounds spent by dental practises each year on marketing. Perhaps not the greatest return on investment and maybe 1% would have happened without intervention because of other factors, such as the population becoming more savvy about their health in general?
Of course statistics are often only half the story, but the point we are making is that there is evidence to suggest that the message isn’t getting through; the fundamental message in dental marketing activities should be to encourage more people to attend the dentist regularly and of course there are numerous health benefits if they do, but are we really seeing the results?
Too often dentists are still talking about having ‘white space’ and they will often jump in feet first to ‘do some marketing’. But if the net effect of all that effort is that only a small percentage of the population are responding, then surely it is madness to continue to do the same thing (for another 38 years!) and expect different results?
Think about it, we have over 60 million people in a small island, most of whom have teeth at some point in their lives and most will at some point also tell you that they want to keep those teeth. Money and affordability aside, surely everybody should want to go to the dentist? A fanciful suggestion perhaps but that is not the point. The point is simply this, for some reason the marketing messages, the good intentions of most of the profession and the advances in technology and clinical ability are not dealing with the issue and are not tackling the big question – how can we actually encourage more people to go to the dentist?
In the meantime, the prejudices in the press, the intervention of the GDC, the anxieties and fears passed from one generation to the next et al are not exactly helping, but they are not the only issue.
To understand the problem and to get a glimpse of the answer it’s worth looking at how other professions have begun to rebuild their reputations. One place to start is banking and I am not just talking about the casino’s in the City but the real places in the high street. In the mid 1980’s, deregulation, the need to build market share and other factors caused the high street banks to become more like ‘normal’ high street businesses. In came Saturday opening, longer hours and somebody in the banking hall that you could actually talk to. Of course, all of this came at a cost that the profit generated for the banks from providing us with a basic current account could not cover. As a result and in the the short term we paid for it by buying services such as pensions and PPI and then over the last 30 years the banks have had to pay it back buy shutting branches, writing off bad debts, failing to meet their capital adequacy requirements and pumping back hundreds of millions in compensation for mis-selling us the services the first place. And how have they responded? Well, the marketing is now less about what they do and focus’s more on why they want us to believe they do it. If we are to believe the message then it is that they want us to trust them again, whether that be through emotive images of open collared 20 somethings teaching silver surfers how to get online or even just blatantly coming out with it like TSB have “we are here to help, not just sell you stuff”.
Ah yes you say, but dentistry is special and what on Earth has banking got to do with dentistry? Well, more than you may have thought because human nature is common place and trust has to be one of the fundamental values shared with all stakeholders in any successful business, community, society and yes even dentistry. To quote Simon Sinek, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it” and that why has to build a feeling of trust. It does not matter therefore what messages you put in your marketing, what prices you choose to reduce on a Wednesday, where you discuss treatment plans with a Treatment Coordinator or whatever fancy gadget you buy next…if you do not behave in a trustworthy way then nothing will change.
The GDC seem pretty clear on this too and as early in it’s standards as Principle One about putting patients interests first, to listen and discuss options (all surely a precursor to having a relationship built upon trust) the message is clear, that communicating your why through your behaviour is a priority. And yet, there is a pull in dentistry towards selling to patients that seems to be at odds with this and despite the frightening warnings and lessons from the banks in the 1980’s, that short term gain results in long term pain.
I asked Simon Thackeray, renowned Blogger, expert witness and advisor to the CQC his thoughts and opinions on this, particularly in the light of ‘Montgomery’;
“Well, the GDC of course also expect valid consent to be a fundamental part of our conversations with patients. They see this as a constant form of dialogue rather than a one off process, which is why sometimes the uncomfortable selling style conversations might not always fully comply with this.
Standard 3.3 states that the consent must remain valid at each stage of the investigation or treatment. Many people may or may not have heard of the recent Montgomery case which dealt with consent in a new manner, relating to the need to now find out what material risks the patient would place on a procedure. This has not to my knowledge been tested yet in dentistry, but it means that the conversations we have with our patients must be of a type that truly connect with them and not be based on a formulaic sales procedure that is not responsive to the patient’s own values and beliefs.
However, this has been present in GDC standard 3.1.3 since before the ruling in Montgomery, so it might be the case that nothing will really change in dentistry as a result. However, it is clear that the understanding of a patient’s requirements in all fields of medicine is now much more relevant than the original ‘doctor knows best’ attitude that has preceded Montgomery. This means that any conversation that could be deemed as selling to the patient must have all the options that are relevant to that patient presented. The only way that this can be done is by truly knowing your patient.”
So, the message is clear, we have lessons from other professions previously guilty of mis-selling, we have published GDC Standards now reinforced by Montgomery and the current crop of ‘new’ business thinking, taking us back to such fundamentals as listening to our customers and building trust.
All of this is pointing to one thing. To make a real breakthrough in the marketing of dentistry in your practice and for the whole profession, the primary consideration is no longer about communicating what you do and how do you do it, it’s about communicating your why and building trust.
Building and maintaining that feeling of trust is then about you and your team delivering a consistent message that does not become devalued by selling to your patients.
Simon Tucker delivers training courses and workshops on this subject I asked him to summarise how he recommends that you do this;
“Most people don’t like to be sold to, but if we want something enough, we all love to buy it. The job of the dental team therefore, is not to sell, but to help the patient buy what they want. You can do this by having a structured approach to asking questions and listening throughout your dental team.
The problem is that around only 5% of your patients want something done to their teeth, the rest just want to hear that everything is fine. This means that for 95% of your patients, that if they feel you are trying to sell them something, don’t be too surprised if they back away. If your patient feels uncomfortable with being sold to, no amount of treatment coordination or follow up contact will change that feeling. If a customer is unhappy, the words ‘sold to’ and ‘mis-sold’ are usually never that far from each other. This can be damaging enough for a business in the high street, but in dentistry the intimacy and surrounding ethical issues make the risks and dangers even higher.”
We have just released dates for two more communication workshops in 2016. These workshops will benefit dentists and their teams through learning how to attract and retain loyal and motivated patients, without resorting to uncomfortable sales techniques.
*BDHF – percentage of adults in England, regularly attending the dentist
Definitely a great post.
Thank you for the positive feedback!