Monday, May 11th, 2009

A tale of two dentists

A tale of two dentists
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As of late, I’ve been doing a little work in social media. I’m not particularly proud of this, but the fact is, we’ve learned a fair bit about it, and some seem to value our input. With that in mind, I’d like to take the next ten minutes to give you some reasons to forget about social media.

My teeth

I had a pronounced overbite as a kid. As such, I spent a lot of time with dentists. For a few years my mouth played host to a handful of lovely devices ranging from retainers to braces to spacers. Additionally, my Mom’s deep desire to keep dentist drills out of her kids’ mouths ensured a diligent tooth-brushing schedule. (To this day, I still brush five or six times a day.)

I’ve had a few dentists over the years. Most have been pleasant: the sort that pop-in for a brief moment after the hygienist finishes to say “hi”, crack a few jokes, check things out and move on. While sitting in that chair with “Happy-berry” flavored fluoride in my mouth, I’ve often thought about the business these folks are in. It seems a little like an assembly-line, and clearly a profitable one. (Still though, it’s not a job I’d want to take on.)

“Mr. Shiny”

Upon moving to Vancouver, I was tasked with finding a new dentist. My wife, Amea, had been transferred to a new fellow and noted that perhaps I should try him out. (I’m learning that as part of a family, it’s often easier to just keep everyone using one “provider”, so I signed-up.)

Now, I have to stress that this dentist and his staff were incredibly friendly. They smiled a great deal, had a contemporary office space with a nice view, and called a few times to check-in with me. Nothing at all seemed wrong with the formula; in fact, they seemed to have streamlined it to being the perfect machine: state-of-the-art tools, ordered processes, congenial interaction methods.

Upon being seated, I completed a multi-page questionnaire about my dental and physical health. After doing so, I was free to browse the many brochures offering straighter or brighter teeth. Alternately, I could recline and enjoy the commercials promoting much the same. These played on a large flat-panel display, which gave me a mild sun-burn as a result of its proximity.

My young, impeccably well-groomed dentist (who I have since nicknamed “Mr. Shiny”) finally made his appearance. He greeted me warmly and asked, “What would you like to change about your smile?” By the end of my appointment, I had a work-order in hand for approximately $1,000 in services. They seemed to believe that these were quite pressing matters that should be addressed quickly.

Another approach

Something about all of that rubbed me wrong–almost as though I had been processed through a machine of sorts. I avoided their phone calls for a couple of years, after which I decided that I really needed to get the espresso stains scraped off my teeth. My wife and I called about looking for a more suitable dentist and were recommended to one by some good friends.

This office was a little different. The decor wasn’t perfect; in fact, it seemed to have last been updated in the early nineties. There were no televisions marketing tooth-alignment systems, nor were there any brochures offering “the perfect smile”. Nope, this was simply an office containing the necessary equipment. Everyone was pleasant, but perhaps more naturally so.

My new dentist spoke with me for a few moments, and then proceeded to clean my teeth. I’ve never had this happen before; in my experience dentists dart-in and do the “big stuff” leaving the cleaning to an army of bubbly twenty-year-old hygienists. I was rather dumbfounded.

She explained that although this may be a less profitable approach, it helped her better “know” her patients’ teeth. She told me a little about her kids and how proud of them she was; no big sale–just a friendly chat. Along the way she mentioned that although her practice is small, at the end of the day she always feels good about the work she does.

I noted that I likely had work that needed to be done, given the results of my check-up and the procedures that were suggested two years ago. She looked closely at the x-rays and explained that although she’d love to sell me something, I really didn’t need any of it.

My appointment concluded with no brochures or work-orders for expensive (and apparently unnecessary) procedures. I simply left with a clean set of teeth.

The next big social network

Although “Mr. Shiny” had seemingly perfected the dental-business process, it felt as though he had foregone the actual practice of dentistry in interests of running a bigger, better, faster machine. Thing is though, I don’t go to the dentist for a big-screen television, high-tech gizmos, or to get the “perfect smile”. In fact, my dental requirements are rather simple: I like my teeth to be clean, and I want to have situations addressed before they become problems. That’s all.

The dentist I finally ended-up with simply concentrated on doing her job well. While so many of us are overwhelmed by the many things we could do to market our companies, I believe hers is in fact a much better way to do so.

Within five-minutes of leaving my new dentist’s office I called my parents to talk about how great the experience was. Since then I have told no fewer than ten people the same story. I’ve even started conversations with friends noting, “Do you have a good dentist? If not, I just found an amazing one!”

Now, there are thousands of companies who are ready to “sell” you social media. In fact, many present it as a “do or die” necessity. Now, I think social media is great and I agree that it helps us do a lot of things that we couldn’t have before. Nevertheless, it’s not a magic bullet and the sky won’t fall if you don’t use it.

I can’t find a Facebook page, Twitter profile, RSS feed, or even a website for Dr. Kerstin Conn. Fact is, she doesn’t need any of that. By simply concentrating on what’s in her client’s best interests, she’ll have people (like me) singing her praises in that upcoming new social network called “the real world”.

On a somewhat unrelated note…

After years of promising, I’m actually getting pretty close to publishing my first book. If you want to buy a copy (and in-turn pay for my kids’ inevitable braces), just send me an email:, and I’ll notify you once it’s ready to go.

Follow @karj to hear about these posts first.

Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Wade says:

    This sounds like the way my wife gains patients every day. (also young, she's two years out of school) She's a Kansas City family dentist, does all her own cleanings and knows each of her patients. She's stolen many a patient from "the machine" of which you speak. She also hasn't a clue what Twitter is...

  2. Jay says:

    Finally, some common sense about social media. It is no magic bullet and great as it is for many things, it is fast beginning to irritate me how many people are speaking about Twitter who have no clue what it is, what it does or why they would want to use it.

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  4. Brad K. says:

    I found some of the people near me didn't have websites - so I asked for a business card. And posted it on my pages. I asked nothing, a few get a little exposure. Since - a niche site for new draft horse owners - has been up since 1998, it has a certain cachet. I got behind and have a stack of cards to add, yet I like to think that I have helped one or two at least as much as I appreciate what they have done for me.

  5. DoreenatDMS says:

    Thanks, Erik ... and congrats, glad you found a good one: A good dentist *is* hard to find :) I think your post certainly exemplifies the WOM we all know and love. I think, as you commented on a post of mine a little while ago, social media can merely amplify the efforts you are already doing, not replace them. Far too many people think they just have to jump on the bandwagon .. and those folks tend to have the same amount of commitment and discipline (sarcastic) applied to their other, more traditional marketing and outreach activities. There just seems to be a lot of people who view confuse the *tools* as *the* strategy. They're just tools. It sounds like your dentist has figured out her toolkit just fine. :)

  6. Liesa Billings says:


    I couldn't agree more.

    Initially I thought social media networking would get great contacts and referrals.

    I have chugged to a grinding halt with that expectation after a realization that the only good thing gained from social media is a connection with like minded people. Now I enjoy it again!

  7. TomM says:

    Before I moved to Victoria from Vancouver last year, my outgoing dentist, who I'd been with for 19 years, sent me off with a cautionary note. He said that 80% of patients require "new work" when they move to a new dentist.

    Now this is one of the most successful dentists in Vancouver, a former member of the UBC dental faculty, and respected member the dental community. He has no interest in advancing his own practice or slagging other dentists. But the implication was clear: when you move to a new dentist, most of the required work is unnecessary, driven by the profit motive you allude to above.

    With this, he referred me to an colleague from his graduating class, a guy who shared his "no work unless necessary" approach.

    I recently came back from my first visit and guess what? No cavities, no crowns, no veneers required. Just a good old fashioned teeth cleaning. I'm glad to be in such good hands.

    Thanks Eric for reminding us of the most important business lesson of all -- providing honest, dependable service tailored to your client's needs -- and nothing more.

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  9. Daron says:

    Great post, I hate those sort of up sell dentists. I foolishly let one of those type re-place a couple old metal fillings a few years ago because "insurance would pay for most it" and one of those replacements went bad and ended up resulting in a nasty expensive root canal. I'd still love to punch that fat bastard in the face. I enjoy the blog.

  10. Dustin says:

    Once again a wonderful post. Everything you said is all to true.

    My father has ran a custom cabinet business for years and has always been successful. Despite having a graphic designer as a son he don't advertise short of the logo, I designed, on his truck. He moved to a new city just over 2 years ago and his business is already doing well because of the same situation you talked about. He does good work, takes care of people, and is proud of the work he does.

    It's the modern day mentality of making money, instead of having something to be proud of. There are to few business today that think like that.

  11. I still travel 50 minutes each way to a different state, because I have been with a dentist exactly as you described since I was a teenager. I have done his marketing for him many of times and every time I think about switching to a closer dentist I remember how good a dentist he is.

    I have even on occasion falling asleep in the chair while fixing a cavity.

    I like the motto of create something you are proud of not something that is shiny and says 'look at me'.

  12. Preston says:


    I like your analogy (and I'm glad you found a good dentist!), but I'd be careful not to carry it too far. What I'm hearing is "If you build it, they will come," and many a new business has faltered or even failed using that mentality. Using social media to advertise is a bad idea, one likely doomed to failure. Using social media as a person connecting with other people who then look into your business as they get to know you-- that's the "social" part of social media. In that regard, social media is just a different way to do what you described in your post. That is recommend to your friends goods or services you think they might appreciate.

    So if it's just a different way of doing what we're already doing, then what's the big deal? I submit that it's about being where the people are. People are on Facebook, YouTube, etc. If you want to establish genuine relationships with existing and new customers, you can do it by A) hoping to catch them in the street or B) going to a huge party. Personally, I'd rather go to the party.

  13. Stephen Beck says:

    I too don't think social media is always suitable, but its important to note that most brands are existing in the social space whether they participate or not, and the big fear for most is that if they don't step up and participate and try to guide the conversation they are a part of, then most of what exists of them in this arena is negative.

    The biggest issue with social media is that its such a massive blanket term, and utilizing this medium can be any one of a million approaches. The challenge is that the voice that is used by brands in social media often doesn't work if it's selling anything. The brands that seem be be using it well are using it mainly as real time customer service, which would be a useful approach for most any organization that can act on it.

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