Inside Dentistry
February 2009
Volume 5, Issue 2

Marketing Spaces: How to Strategically Differentiate Your Practice

Charles W. Martin, DDS

The year was 1980. I had just spent 10 months as an associate with an established dentist who proved that outstanding relationships and rapport with patients alone could make a practice viable for years. He was as affable and pleasant a man as you could ever meet. I always thought that he should have been an attorney or politician. The reason that the associateship lasted only a few months is that the dentist eventually went bankrupt and turned in his license rather than face the wrath of the state board of dentistry caused by patient complaints. His poor technical delivery eventually caught up with him.

I quickly learned that it is not enough to be just likable; you had better be good at what you do. Back then, the world was much slower. The Reagan years were only beginning. Marketing professional practices was in its infancy. Now, all these years later, marketing is a necessity at every level of business and professional practice. Nearly every business worth its salt markets to some degree. But if a dentist markets like every other dentist, that dentist will get what the other gets. I learned early on that if my goal was to become just another dentist, I would likely amble along and take years to create a successful practice. Plus, it was the lore of our profession that it took 10 years to have a successful practice. It was called “paying your dues.”

But, like it has for so many business categories, the rules, and what could be expected from them, changed and changed rapidly. I remember lamenting (briefly) that the profession I thought I was getting into was not the one I found when I graduated. “Dues paying” was not going to be enough. I could have moaned and lamented and been a victim. But that didn’t seem like a successful strategy. Instead, I rolled up my sleeves and studied strategy, management, leadership, marketing, advertising, copywriting, media, and public relations. In the process, I have become something of an expert in the very things that few dentists ever get trained in, but that most sorely need.

Of all the marketing concepts I gleaned in those studies, if I only had one to share and instill in dentists, it would be: Every business and every practice has a position or market space on the continuum of public perception—how it is thought about and valued, what it does in very real terms, and what it stands for in the most subjective and connotative—and in every degree in between.

Even dentists who only get new patients from word of mouth still have a public persona among those patients and the patients they subsequently refer. The problem is, most dentists simply let this image happen to them. What a dentist becomes known for, how he or she is perceived, and his or her supposed expertise is often left to the whim and caprice of chancy public perception. Some dentists decide to advertise and market, painting themselves and their practices with the colors of that marketing.

The problem is that few dentists who market put much thought into exactly what their marketing is saying about them, how it brands them and, most importantly, how it positions them in the market. For example, is marketing a practice as sedation dentistry a good strategy? It depends. If the practice is in a market where people have been bombarded for years with multiple practices on multiple media with sedation dentistry’s message, it is probably not the best tactic. But, if the practice is in a market where no other practice is known for sedation dentistry, then it is likely a golden space available for the taking. Call it “market relativity.” The wisdom and viability of the balance of this article can be judged relative to each market and the market positions already held there.

Getting Started

Dentists should start by trying to figure out the position or positions they may already own. In all likelihood, all dentists who have been practicing for any length of time hold some position(s). This position could be a reputation for doing something well that could be parlayed into a brand among those patients chosen as marketing targets. So how can a dentist determine his or her existing position? Ask. Ask the patients. Ask the staff. The upside of this strategy is that whatever this reputation is, it is authentic. It happened organically, without thinking about or marketing it. During this process, dentists should take the opportunity to elicit testimonials, which will serve to build this reputation. The downside of this strategy is that it often fails to produce very strong, or very focused, feedback. But, it is a good place to start.

There are a number of positions that can enable success and strategically position a practice to eliminate the competition. The one position to avoid is that of “just another dentist who is located convenient to where I live,” and communicates that “a dentist is a dentist is a dentist.” If a dentist is just like everybody else, that dentist becomes a commodity. This is the thinking that makes patients question fees and methods. Dentists may hear: “Why does my insurance company say that your fees are not reasonable and customary? Why do you charge more? Why don’t you accept my insurance?”

Every insurance company works 24/7 to paint every dentist as the same. No attempt is made to pay fees based on training, experience, continuing education, results, or long-term success. Most likely, they never will—it would cost them money. It pays them to make dentists commodities.

Commodities are purchased based on price because they are common and not discernibly different. A widget is a widget is a widget. A dentist is a dentist is a dentist. It is not fair, it is not true, and it is the reality, unless dentists are determined to make it different for themselves.

So the first goal should be to change this thinking in yourself, in your staff, and in the patients you already have. It’s important to simply begin thinking this way. Have meetings about it. Write memos. Give awards to staff for the best differentiating idea. You must decide that yours will not be like other practices. So how can you be different? There are a lot of ways. Following are three common examples.

Be First

This is the position that Ries and Trout spoke of in Positioning, the Battle for Your Mind (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 1981), written more than 20 years ago. The key to this position is the perception that because something is first, it must be the best, with everything else an “also ran.” In their book, Ries and Trout correctly point out that while there are several far superior tasting fast-food burger chains, unless the moon flies out of orbit, McDonald’s® likely will remain market dominant because they were first. The same can be said for Coca-Cola and for dozens of other products in various market categories. The advantage for dentists is that each only has to be first in his or her local market. Not the first dentist in the market? That’s probably a good thing. You can, however, still be the first cosmetic dentist, the first implant dentist, the first sedation dentist, etc. Each dentist should determine what he or she can be first in.

Be Fast

This is the position of timeliness. Think FedEx. When they first started, no other company was promising overnight delivery. It still holds the market space for being the best in overnight delivery because right up there with reliability, what else matters when it comes to shipping? So would fast work for a dentist? Absolutely; for example, “At Dr. Robert Jenkins’ office, we guarantee that when you come into the office, you’ll spend no more than 15 minutes in the waiting room because we understand how important your time is to you.” And for implant or cosmetic dental practices, a claim of “an average of two fewer visits per smile” certainly might be compelling.

Be a Category of One

This is the position of Cirque de Soleil, the unique and hugely profitable combination of theater and circus. Disney has this position with its theme parks. Celebrities and successful politicians hold this position. Experts of any and every kind hold a position very much like this one. Dentists should ask themselves: What could I do that nobody else can? Once again, unlike national products or chains or celebrities, each dentist only has to be singular in his or her market. This item should be a procedure or technique.

Beware trying to use a particular product with the backing of national marketing as positioning. This is a very weak position, easily usurped when more providers for that product are added. For example, if “Dr. Carl Richards, DDS, is the only dentist in Memphis working with Lumineers® by Cerinate® [Den-Mat, Santa Maria, CA],” his position only provides a temporary marketing advantage until other providers sign on. For this product-specific position to work successfully, a dentist should be the exclusive provider of that product in the market area.

Differentiating Yourself

Now the questions are: How are you going to be perceived as different, better? What can you become in the eyes of your preferred patients that furthers your ability to get them to say yes and that places you in the preferred position? No matter how you plan to advertise, deciding to be different, deciding to fill a market space yet unfilled, could be the most important marketing decision you ever make.

Dr. Martin, an active practicing clinician since 1979, is a high performance practice management coach and consultant. He founded Affluent Practice Systems to serve dentists committed to technical excellence and compassionate care who want to go to the next level. Affluent Practice Systems helps dentists in the areas of practice growth, strategic planning, practice marketing, exceptional case presentation, personnel selection, performance metrics, profitability, and mastermind groups. He can be reached at cmartin@martinsmiles.com or by phone at 804-320-6800.

About the Author

Charles W. Martin, DDS
Affluent Practice Systems
Richmond, Virginia

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