Navigating your networks

March 21, 2012

No matter how big or small your lab is, you’re not in this alone.

No matter how big or small your lab is, you’re not in this alone.

And if you feel like you have been, it’s time to make a change. As a lab owner or manager, you have a large network you should be tapping into on a regular basis, whether you’re looking for advice about a new technology you’re thinking of incorporating into your lab or you’re looking for a new technician to add to your team. Creating strong relationships with each piece of your network will help you stay up-to-date on the latest industry happenings and product development, and that will lead to higher quality work coming out of your lab as well as new dentists becoming part of your client list. But to reap the benefits a large network provides, you have to make an effort to build new relationships and further strengthen the ones you’ve already developed.

When thinking about who’s in your network, think about who you regularly interact with, or who you know you should be regularly interacting with even if you’re not. Dentists and their staff members, specialists, vendors, outsource providers, fellow lab owners, state and national association members and leadership, your employees, study club members and the folks in your community all should be considered part of your network. These people are your partners in dentistry, and working closely with them will not only help you grow, but also the industry as a whole.

“Laboratory owners and technicians are operating in a global market,” National Association of Dental Laboratories Chief Staff Executive Bennett Napier said. “It’s extremely important that individuals and organizations are linked in with all allied interest groups and professional peers to share information, ideas and be a part of affecting change as a collective body. The interdependent relationship between laboratories, dentists and manufacturers is paramount to positive growth for the domestic market.”

But knowing who’s in your network is only a small part of this. Now, you have to start building those relationships. Yes, that can be overwhelming, especially if the mere thought of networking makes you more than a little uncomfortable. But there are ways to get there; you just have to be willing to make the trip.

The dentist

Building strong relationships with your clients is key to ensuring you’re producing high-quality work, work that you, your dentists and, most importantly, the patients can get excited about. Effective communication between labs and dentists can be challenging to achieve, but if you take the time to reach out to your clients it will become easier and eventually it will be part of your routine. You can’t expect them to come to you; make a habit of calling or e-mailing them to check in. They’ll appreciate your efforts and will be more likely to come back to you with another case.

DLP Benchtop Editor and Matrix Dental Laboratory owner Tom Zaleske typically follows up on every case a week or two after it’s been delivered. It’s important to him to let the doctors know he cares about the end product, and wants to resolve any issues that may have come up or concerns the dentist may have. He also uses this time to get to know the doctors, and may spend a few minutes chatting about plans for the upcoming weekend or getting an update on the client’s daughter who just started college. But he also uses the time to talk business. If his clients are telling him their business is starting to slow down, that indicates to him it might be time to start actively looking for more clients.

But regardless of what they talk about beyond the case, these check-in calls are vital for establishing that relationship, to let your clients know you’re available and that you’re happy to resolve any problems that may have come up throughout the process. It shows you’re someone who takes action, and it also gives them a chance to tell you about problems you wouldn’t have known about otherwise.

“In the early years, I thought no news is good news, but that’s not really the case any more,” Zaleske said. “You can’t let your accounts just cruise along without checking with them and calling them. Now no news isn’t good news. No news now means maybe they’ve moved on to somebody else and are using another lab. In this competitive time you can’t just think things are status quo. You have to stay up front and make sure everything is good.”

It’s also important to keep the dentist involved while you’re still working on a case, said Mark Jackson, RDT, Vice President/GM for Precision Ceramics Dental Laboratory. When a case comes into Jackson’s lab, it’s logged into a computer and an order confirmation with a case number is e-mailed to the dentist. The confirmation e-mail includes a link that enables the doctor to check the status of a case until it’s delivered. While Jackson said many doctors still call with questions, this is a great way to keep busy doctors in the loop with a single e-mail.

Much of the communication between Jackson’s lab and his clients is done via e-mail, he said, because it’s the best way to document. But if there’s a problem with a case, the communication has to go beyond that. He’ll take a picture of a case and shoot the doctor an e-mail if he has a question, and if that isn’t enough he’ll set up a GoToMeeting or a Skype call. He has it set up so the doctor can actually watch what he’s doing in real time, and the two of them can talk about any problems or concerns live as he works on the case. That makes the doctor even more involved in the process and further strengthens that all important dentist/lab technician relationship.

Not only do these types of communications keep your doctors happy and in the loop, it may even inspire them to refer a friend or two your way, Zaleske said. If dentists are happy with your work, they’re happy to refer-but you have to ask. Just let them know you’d love to work with more clients like them and chances are they’ll know of someone looking for a new lab. The best part? Most of these referrals will end up being great clients who pay their bills on time. They don’t want the embarrassment of a friend or trusted colleague finding out they’re not paying their bills, so they’re extra motivated to get you that payment on time.

The dental team

Yes, building that relationship with the dentist is key, but that’s not where your interaction with the dental team ends. The hygienists, the assistants, the front office and the specialists are all part of your network, said Lonni Thompson, CDT, owner of Image Gallery in Dublin, Ohio. Everyone at her lab knows every doctor’s staff, and who they should call with problems or questions. Her office manager connects with each office daily, but that doesn’t necessarily mean talking with every dentist every day. The team members are trained, knowledgeable dental professionals and can help answer your teams’ questions so the doctor doesn’t have to, which is something a busy doctor is likely to appreciate.

“Those communications are extremely important to be competitive. They help keep your remake issues down and keep the dentists happy as well,” Thompson said. “We’re a high-end boutique lab so to compete we have to provide services they need that will help make everybody’s lives easier.”

Thompson’s lab also does a lot of implant work, so that means she needs to have strong relationships with oral surgeons and periodontists. She also works closely with orthodontists on some cases, providing consults for all three specialities when necessary. Making sure everyone on the team is on the same page is key to ensuring the patient receives the best results, with minimal problems along the way. That can’t happen if you don’t find a way to connect with them and communicate.

Specialists outside of dentistry also can be part of your network, Jackson said. He has a cone beam CT scanner in his lab, and sends every scan to a radiologist for review. He sends the radiology report DICOM file to the radiologist via an ftp transfer. The radiologist then sends back a report, which may show problems the patient is having that aren’t related to dentistry.

“My own son was having braces done and the orthodontist ordered ceph tracing. They did a CT scan on my son and found a 5 mm mass on his brain,” Jackson said. “It ended up not being a problem, but the fact that we can have experts look at scans and screen for pathology means they can potentially intercept a life threatening condition. They can find obtrusions, tumors, cysts, all types of things we’d never even consider at the point of treatment planning.”

If it’s an implant case, Jackson also sends the DICOM file to a prosthodontist for review before he sends the scan to the doctor. He’s developed a website, precisionsurgicalguides.com, to make communication for everyone involved in the process that much easier. Doctors anywhere in the world can upload DICOM files to the site and Jackson’s lab can complete the implant case. The website features a dialogue box where doctor, lab tech and specialists can talk back and forth about the case. They can pull up these conversations and the CT file at any time, which is a great way to keep everyone on the same page and constantly communicating.

“I see a need for more accurate implant placement. I think the technology is out there but it’s really expensive for the average doctor,” Jackson said. “We wanted to make that service available to doctors. A CT scan can be done at any scanning center in the world. They upload the file and we get it back to them quickly and have it reviewed by a prosthodontist and a radiologist. We have a team of people working on the case, and they can be anywhere in the world.”

Working closely with specialists not only may lead to referrals from their office and improved patient outcomes, but that type of team involvement is a great value add to your clients. The constant communication and feedback gives them confidence that the lab will deliver a high-quality product, and also makes their lives easier.

Trusted vendors

The vendors you work with are out in the marketplace and likely are pretty up-to-date on what’s going on in the industry. They are a great resource for you to find out what’s happening in your area, said Kevin Hudi, General Manager of DSG Clearwater. Without giving away any secrets, they can share what’s working in other labs and what’s not. They also can help you steer clear of areas where people are in a price war. They have a wealth of information, you just have to take the time to have a conversation.

“They also give you extremely valuable information about how their products and services work, too,” Hudi said. “Dental labs and technicians seem to think they’re experts on everything, but we should rely on the experts that developed the products and materials to tell us how to use them best.”

Keeping in touch with vendors is vital to the quality and consistency of the products you produce, Hudi said. They keep you updated on any changes to instructions and how to use the product properly, and they also can keep you in the know about new developments, features and benefits of the products you use every day.

This is so important when you’re talking about big investment products, Jackson said. You can take the information you get from your vendor regarding new studies or findings about the material and share it with current and potential customers. This keeps the product hot and in front of your customer, rather than letting it get stagnant. It also ensures you’re getting the most out of your investment.

For Jackson, it’s important for him to stay on top of the latest technologies. His lab thrives on new product development, he said, and he’s constantly introducing new technologies and materials to his customers. Having a good relationship with his vendors is a big part of making that happen. Not only can he tell his clients about the products he’s thinking of bringing in to his lab, he also lets some of his dentists test them out, which is just another element of how he builds that lab/dentist relationship.

“I have a group of doctors who are really sort of on the cutting edge. What I’ll do is float these things past them first to see what their interest is and get them involved in testing these materials before I introduce them to the rest of my clients,” he said. “Once something gets some traction, we’ll do e-mail blasts to customers. We update our website, send out press releases, send out direct mail and post on Facebook. We use every channel we can to stay in front of our clients.”

Outsourcers

Chances are, no matter how big your lab is, you’re going to need to outsource. Regardless of what services you might need, an outsource provider such as Dale Dental can make it possible to offer restorations and services to your clients that you otherwise couldn’t.

Dale Dental only works with labs, not dentists, and that means they’re not your competition, said Dave Lesh, founder of Dale Dental. That is one of the big advantages of adding an outsource provider such as Dale Dental to your network.

“It’s important for you to have friends in your network who are genuinely part of your lab’s success and who consider you the most important customer,” Lesh said. “You’re not the most important if you’re sending cases to a lab that also works with dentists.”

Dale is a great option for both bigger and smaller labs, Lesh said, because even if you have invested in your own equipment, there are too many options to offer your clients everything they want. Dale does have the equipment, so if you include this outsourcing lab in your network, you can provide what your dentists are looking for, regardless of what it is, rather than risking them sending the case to another lab.

“Don’t be afraid to offer your doctors everything we have available,” Lesh said. “(When I worked in a lab) Doctors would call and say ‘hey do you make whatever product,’ and I’d say ‘No, doc, but great news we make this other one, which is just as good.’ The doctor would say ‘great I’ll send it to you when I get the case.’ Then guess what? You never get the case because the doctor called around and found someone who could make the product he wanted. Everybody gets calls like that all the time and the doctor never sends the case. Don’t try to steer customer decisions.”

But a service like this isn’t just about providing restorations your lab can’t offer. Some labs use Dale Dental when they’re busy and need the extra help, or if they’re thinking about trying a new product and want to give it a try before they make the investment in the equipment. But no matter why you’re using this outsourcing service, every case you send them will come back to you for your final touches before it goes out to the doctor, Lesh said, so your lab can finish it for fit, function and esthetics exactly to your dentists’ preferences. Lesh’s job is to empower you to make the case for your doctor, not turn you into a broker.

Having Dale Dental in your network will only improve your relationship with your clients, as you’re able to offer them more and more services, making you their go-to lab when they’re looking to try something a little different.

Other labs

When thinking about who you need to build relationships with to strengthen your networks, you have to include other lab owners and technicians. Not only are they great people to bounce ideas off and learn from, they may even send you referrals.

Zaleske has set up a network of cross referrals, he said. He doesn’t fabricate partial dentures. He will set the teeth on them, but making the casting is a separate specialty his lab doesn’t do. Early on in his career he found someone who does do that and formed a relationship. But he had to make sure it was someone he could trust; it had to be someone who provided the same quality of work as his lab, and it had to be someone who wouldn’t be competing with him for business.

“A doctor calls and says I need a partial frame made. I send it on to that lab to fabricate the frame and he sends it back to me and bills the doctor separately for his work. The beauty is the lab gets the full fee he would charge the doctor and he doesn’t have to discount me,” Zaleske said. “I refer my doctors to send the work to him and in return he does the same for me. It’s almost like we’re marketing for each other. We cross refer back and forth doctors because we’re doing different things…that works ideally with labs that do only removable and only do fixed.”

This takes a lot of trust, as does working with another lab that does your milling. Again, you have to be sure the lab you’re working with has the same quality standards as you do, Thompson said. Remember whatever comes out of that lab will have your name on it. Use your network to help you find the right fit. Take the time to go out to these labs and talk with them before you decide which one fits best with your lab and your niche, and keep the communication going once you make your choice.

It’s also great to have other lab owners to talk to about the latest material developments, to turn to for advice about a case and to share ideas with. Take the time to build a camaraderie with your colleagues. Make friends in the industry who you can turn to with questions and ideas.

“One of the things that is a huge benefit to me and a lot of other people is communication with our peers, having other lab owners to bounce things off, to trade and share ideas and to help solve technical problems,” Jackson said. “So many small labs or one man labs working out of home are virtual shut ins. They don’t go to dental meetings or get CE so their world stays very small. Expanding your horizons and opening up to other technicians around the world gives you a better feel for the landscape and lets you predict trends, where the business is headed and where technology is headed.”

The associations

Labs, wherever possible, need to participate at the local, state or national level with allied organizations, Napier said. These associations, including the NADL, offer great opportunities for networking and learning, but are outlets not nearly enough labs are using.

“There is strength in numbers and by participating as a member or volunteer leader with an association, great things can happen,” Napier said. “The strength of groups like the ADA has come from the fact that nearly 70% of licensed dentists belong to the ADA, where technicians, at the state level or national, participate in associations at between a 10-40% market penetration rate. This means that more than half of all technicians and laboratories are sitting on the sidelines and not necessarily tapped into what is truly happening in the marketplace.”

Beyond the fact that you need to be more involved with your industry, if you’re someone who works in a small lab and doesn’t have a huge network of colleagues, these meetings are a great place to start, Hudi said. Go to a state association meeting and make an effort to meet people. Exchange business cards and then start with light interactions when you’re back in your lab. Maybe ask a few questions via phone or e-mail to start building a rapport.

Thompson agrees that attending meetings and being involved with associations is important to network building, and also suggests looking at local dental study clubs. She was invited to join two study clubs in her area, and even though there is a fee for membership, she jumped at the opportunity. She’s the only lab that is part of these study clubs and said she has gained a lot of respect and clients because of her involvement. 

“When we get involved things happen, but we need to work together,” Thompson said of the importance of getting involved with associations and study clubs. “I love this industry. I’ve been in it for 38 years and I’m more excited about it today than I was when I first started. But it’s difficult. We work long hours and we work hard at it. But I think if we work together we can change the industry for the better for all of us.”

Your employees

The people working in your lab to provide your clients with a high quality product are another important part of your network, and you have to communicate with them constantly, Hudi said. 

“It’s important that information gets cascaded throughout the organization. Your employees need to feel like they understand what their contribution is and that’s measured in sales dollars and customer retention,” Hudi said. “And if we don’t find ways to give them that information, they don’t understand what they’re doing and how they fit into the overall scheme. If they don’t understand that they can’t be as effective as they can potentially be.”

So what are some ways to communicate with your employees? Hudi recommends using a white board in the lab. As important information comes in, he posts it there to make sure everyone sees it, including stats that show how the lab is measuring on key metrics. Not everyone in the company has e-mail, so this is a great way to get important messages out to his employees. He also holds meetings a few times a week to address important topics. He keeps them up to date as much as possible, and that helps them understand their role, which leads to a better product for your clients.

Make the time

Yes, your work keeps you busy. Yes, you want to spend time with family and friends and doing the activities you enjoy outside of work. But you have to find the time to be involved with your industry, to network with the different people who make it work. It not only helps you grow your lab, it helps unite the industry and gives its developing technology a higher profile, Napier said.

Not only that, networking with others in your industry will help rejuvenate you and renew your passion for what you do. Thompson recently took a trip to Florida with 11 other lab technicians for an association event, and described what she learned during that trip as invaluable. She now has a new network of people she can call and ask questions, or turn to for advice when she’s hiring a new employee, something she recently did.

These friendships and connections are what keep the industry strong, and they’re also what keep you and your lab strong. You just have to make the effort to strengthen each piece of your network and become an active part of your industry. If you don’t, you, your clients and their patients are missing out on so much.

“When we’re stuck in our labs all the time, we get wrapped up in our heads,” Thompson said. “We need other people to bounce our ideas off. It makes for a better life and for better communication.”