The Art of Communication
Pursue positive, collaborative relationships with dentists
Steven Pigliacelli, MDT, CDT
Our industry has changed so much in my 40 years as a dental technician. I was 16 when my brother-in-law, Lenny Marotta, introduced me to the profession and asked me to work for Marotta Dental Studio, which at the time was just the two of us and my sister in their basement. In 1981, the industry was very adversarial; the dentist had contempt for the laboratory, and the technician had contempt for the dentist.
Some of our accounts in those early days were always hostile; every sentence was filled with suppressed rage. Others were demanding and impossible to please. We had our "deadbeat" accounts who would use us for a few months and then stop and not pay their bills. Too many dentists treated us as subservient and talked down to us. With university work, the residents could not communicate what they wanted and ended up disappointed.
It was in 1990, after the birth of my first daughter, that I decided to make a change in how I interacted with not only my clients but also our technicians, front office, and partners/family. Over the next 10 years, I established relationships with clients as a partner and necessary member of a team-no longer in a subservient, confrontational relationship, but as comrades. I managed to slowly replace the negative, undesirable accounts with great people. We can now discuss case designs, options, and problems without fear of "losing the account." My relationship with residents also changed when I listened to their concerns and started teaching them what we do and why. The laboratory as a whole benefited.
The First Steps
Today, between digital evolution, dental school curriculum changes, and financial debt, the new dentist graduates are way behind the 8-ball. When these dentists and others call to potentially work with our laboratory, we have a certain protocol in accepting new accounts. We have specific questions we ask, and information we want to know prior to working together.
Here is a list of questions you can ask potential accounts-and the "red flag" answers to watch for-with the goal of building a client base that is collaborative rather than confrontational.
1. What is the dentist's specialty? The best accounts tend to be general practitioners, prosthodontists, and, depending on the laboratory, orthodontists. Many periodontists and oral surgeons do participate in the team concept with the restorative dentists, but if a specialist has a sign on the wall saying, "Practice limited to…" and crown and bridge is not listed, this a red flag. They may not have the proper training to perform these tasks, which can result in excessive remakes. You can develop a negative reputation.
2.. What laboratory did you previously use? Why is this important? All laboratories fit into categories, from small boutique ones through mega production facilities. Dentists have similar categories, and you may not have a proper fit. The last laboratory a dentist used may have been the worst in your state, legendary for its poor quality and service, and you may have the classiest, best-quality laboratory. If the dentist used that other laboratory for 13 years, how likely are they to mesh with you? Perhaps you are a production business and the dentist was using the highest-priced boutique laboratory. Do you think you can please this dentist? Be honest with yourself. We need to know who our competitors are and what market we are targeting.
3. Who referred you or how did you hear about our laboratory? Keeping a record of how you get accounts is helpful for many reasons. Was it from hosting a dinner meeting or seminar? Was it from a website, online advertisement, email blast, or something else? Was it a referral from another dentist? Do you do anything to thank the other dentist for the referral? Periodically examining the cost of how you try to attract new accounts vs how many accounts you get will tell you what to spend more time doing and more money on.
Once you accept the new account, working with a dentist for a while is when you find out who they really are. In my early days, every phone call was a dreaded experience. When I was told a certain dentist was calling, I would drop my head back and groan. More than anything, the problem was the accepted roles of dentist and technician. Talking down to technicians was an art form dentists had perfected. But there is no reason to treat people poorly. There isn't any caste system that exists to separate us from them. Unfortunately, many people live this way in all industries.
Sometimes when I have had a difficult time with a dentist, I have told them I cannot work with them any longer. Once the dentist realized they could not threaten me with leaving, they often changed their attitudes, and we could continue working together in a more productive manner. Years later, I still work with and am very good friends with many of the dentists with whom this happened.
I also pay attention to tiny details about clients. For example:
1. How do they treat restaurant staff? If we meet in a dinner setting, I always pay attention to how they treat the server.
2. How does their office staff treat me? Too often, we will criticize office staff for being rude, but their attitude is often a reflection of their boss.
3. How do they treat your office personnel? I recall instances when dentists' arrogance and condescending manners would bring my office staff to tears, but then they would greet me with, "Hi, Steve! How are you doing?" I will not tolerate this.
4. Do they pay the bill? If the account does not respect you enough to pay for services rendered, then they are not worth keeping as an account.
Finally, do you mesh? Like any relationship, sometimes it just is not a good match. Both of you are doing your best. There is just something about the work, the personalities, and the pairing. If this is the case, end on good terms and move on, leaving open the possibility of working together again in the future.
Life is way too short to have animosity with professional colleagues. By working hard to develop positive relationships with my dentists, and cutting ties with those who just are not good fits, I have reached a point where I enjoy working with my clients and am immensely proud of my team at the laboratory.
About the Author
Steven Pigliacelli, MDT, CDT is Vice President and Director of Education at Marotta Dental Studio in Farmingdale, New York.