Buyer's resource

March 21, 2012

When it comes to advice, it is far easier to give than to receive. Most people have opinions on just about everything and are more than happy to share with anyone willing (or unwilling) to listen. For an independent small-business owner, such as a dental laboratory operator, the search for dependable sources of useful information often results in too many conflicting points of view from too many sources with hidden or blatant agendas. The key is to assess where the guidance originated and take everything with a grain of salt.

When it comes to advice, it is far easier to give than to receive. Most people have opinions on just about everything and are more than happy to share with anyone willing (or unwilling) to listen. For an independent small-business owner, such as a dental laboratory operator, the search for dependable sources of useful information often results in too many conflicting points of view from too many sources with hidden or blatant agendas. The key is to assess where the guidance originated and take everything with a grain of salt.

Colleague Collaboration

When Chris Brown helped build Apex Dental Milling from the ground up in 2007, he was in an unenviable position faced by many new lab owners, as well as those just trying to keep up to date: where to turn for reliable information on the myriad choices for equipment, supplies and materials.

“I didn’t know where I could go to get information,” said Brown, Business Manager for the milling center located in Ann Arbor, Mich. “Unfortunately, I had to do what I think a lot of lab owners do, and that’s just go through a trial by fire, trying this and that.” He adds that this hit-or-miss approach can work for smaller supplies like burs; “It’s something else when it’s a $1,000 handpiece or a $100,000 milling system.”

To help with his task to equip a high-tech milling center with everything from brushes and burs to CAD software and CAM hardware, Brown sought out input from others who had the same day-to-day and long-term concerns that he faced.

“I found for me talking with other labs really was my best source for information,” Brown said.

Fellow lab owners and managers very often are beneficial go-to resources for seeking and sharing information on topics including purchasing decisions, business and employee management, financial planning, and material usage techniques. Being part of a fairly small industry-compared to other health care fields-dental laboratory owners see the collegiality rather than the competitiveness of their profession when it comes to sharing information and knowledge with peers.

According to the November 2010 DLP Purchasing Survey more than two-thirds of lab owners (70.8 percent) rely on colleague recommendations when making purchasing decisions. The same percentage said that they do research on the Internet, and 58.3 percent replied that they do research by attending dental technology trade shows.

Alan Barnes, facilitator of The Barnes Group, a think tank and technical consortium of independently owned dental laboratories from across the U.S. and Canada, agrees with Brown on the need for intra-lab communication.

“Linking with other labs and being able to talk with your colleagues is important,” he said.

The Barnes Group members (currently 11 lab owners) meet via conference call twice a week and then a third time every other week to discuss subjects directly related to the profitable operation of a dental laboratory, including partnering with manufacturers and suppliers to establish fair pricing and service, as well as sharing information and ideas on topics such as sales and marketing strategies and the evaluation of new technologies.

“We have labs of all different sizes that make significant contributions,” Barnes said. “We feel that it’s important not to focus on just one size of lab. All of us have pretty much the same needs.”

The sharing of information among lab owners does not need to be in the format of an organized members-based buying group but could instead be an informal gathering of peers through Web-based outlets such as social media and e-mail forums. Barnes also recommends collaborating with colleagues at state or local dental association meetings.
“You can listen to the lectures and hear the panel discussions, and then go out on the exhibit floor and test the equipment or find out more information,” he said.

 

In-House Consultants

As valuable a resource other lab owners can be for helping gather and discern information before making buying decisions, there’s another set of peers even more convenient and familiar with your particular needs.

“Employee involvement is paramount,” Barnes said. “One of the things that can backfire is when a lab owner decides, ‘This is what we’re going to buy,’ and then they buy it and bring it in. Employees should be involved on all different levels of leading the lab, and making decisions and purchasing should be part of that.”

However, results from our Purchasing Survey show that less than 5 percent of responding lab owners involve their employees before making a purchase.

Barnes added that the size of the lab is irrelevant to employee inclusion in decision-making, primarily because they are the ones who are going to be using the equipment after the purchase and therefore are directly related to your return on investment.

“Owners who spend more time in preparing their group and their teams/departments on what they’re going to bring in have a better chance of implementing it properly,” Barnes said.

In addition to your own staff, use external non-industry consultants such as accountants and business advisors to obtain an impartial view.

Vendor Viewpoints

While getting input from other lab owners and managers as well as your own staff provides real-world experience for making purchasing decisions, Dean Mersky, DDS, VP of Sales & Marketing for Dentalle Inc., cautioned that colleagues should not be the only source lab owners use for buying information.

“When lab owners need help or they have a question about how to manage a material, they turn to each other. They don’t ask the manufacturers,” Dr. Mersky said.

Obviously, the manufacturer will have data on performance and reliability, but as Brown puts it, “You take that with a grain of salt.”

Brown said that when he talks with vendors about their high-tech equipment, he doesn’t just ask about the features and benefits but also the problems involved with the item in question. He even finds two layers of satisfaction with their responses.

“I love to watch a manufacturer squirm when I ask them, ‘What’s wrong with your system?’ or ‘Where does it not excel?’ To me, that’s what I want to know,” he said. “I want to know where your system isn’t great, and is that important to me or not.”

 

By asking these types of questions, he feels that he gets a more complete answer than a simple, “Why should I buy your product?”

He added, “If somebody is willing to say somebody else does a better job but this is where we excel, that says an awful lot about the credibility of the manufacturer. You’ll see how honest the manufacturer is, and it helps you as a buyer make an informed decision.”

In addition to pointing out their own flaws, Brown said manufacturers should offer information as to steps they are taking to correct or upgrade possible deficits.
Dr. Mersky agrees that it can be challenging to get “a straight story” from manufacturer sales reps, which may be a reason dental lab owners and clinicians turn to one another for advice.

“There’s inherent questions that can’t be answered even from the manufacturer in concrete form, such as service,” he said.

Some of the points that may be best answered by users involve breakdown rates, service issues, warranty follow-through and unforeseen costs of use, Dr. Mersky said. Barnes recommends approaching vendors as allies rather than adversaries.

“You have to have a good working relationship with them. You want to have a partnership relationship where you’re in it together,” he said. “But it helps to have it all in writing. Intentions are one thing, but performance is another.”

With such a partnership in place, Barnes said buyers have the opportunity to ask vendors for add-ons like facility tours or trial test-drives on certain equipment. KaVo recently introduced a program (trykavo.com) that allows dental practices to try its electric, air-drive, hygiene and ­diagnostic handpieces for a 5-day risk-free trial in the dental operatory on actual patients.

Separating the Chaff

Once all the information and opinions from employees, colleagues and manufacturers has been gathered and analyzed, it’s up to the lab owner to sort through all the data to make the final decision. In doing so, certain patterns will emerge, which Brown refers to as the “common thread of truth.”

“Talk to enough people, and you’ll eventually be able to filter out personal preferences from actual fact and ­dependable information,” he said.

Dr. Mersky cautions about taking the extreme viewpoints, treating ­phenomenally positive or notably negative as anomalies rather than the model.

“In trying to get a real-world estimate of a value, ask more than one user or purchaser as they could have an exceptional judgment,” he said.

Ultimately, however, the responsibility for making purchasing decisions lies in the hands and the mind of the ­business owner.

“Sometimes, you’re going to have to make a calculated risk,” Barnes said. But by gathering information from knowledgeable sources and then using your experience and judgment to guide your buying determinations, you can minimize the overall risk involved.