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How to Choose the Right Dental Practice Consultant

Dentists are not practice consultants

Dentistry is one of the more challenging professions to master. Not only do you have to learn to become an excellent clinician, but you must also understand and become successful at the various aspects of your business.

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Most dentists are more than just a clinician. Dentists, especially those in private practice, must be business people, managers, accountants, psychologists, educators and team leaders. The most technically accomplished clinician can fall short in creating a successful practice and office culture that makes our profession more enjoyable and profitable. This is especially true if she or he fails to understand and implement effective skills in communication, team leadership, business systems, capital expenditures, profit and loss statements, business growth strategies and marketing.  

The “right” consultant can help you ascertain how to implement a comprehensive and sound dental business practice plan. They can help you understand your practice’s financial and patient care numbers, create office systems and help build an office culture that enhances your business success. They can assist you in uncovering what is preventing you from reaching your goals by helping you see what you are unable to see yourself.  

Most of us were only taught to be a clinician in dental school; many of us never learned or acquired the necessary skills to evaluate and manage the business of dentistry. Consultants can provide direction on how to make required changes in you and your business to be prosperous. The key to success is openness to change and the willingness to listen and implement suggested recommendations. Simply having the information will not change anything in your practice – you must use the knowledge and take action. A good consultant will hold you accountable for positive change and successful implementation. They also will help you navigate any roadblocks that will likely arise while you set forth on this journey.

Realizing I needed a dental practice consultant

I can personally attest to the power of a consultant. Eight months ago, if asked, I would have told you my practice was healthy, strong and thriving. Yet somewhere in the back of my mind I had questions.

  • Why do I feel like I have nothing to show for all my education, hard work and passion to my patients, staff and the practice?  
  • Are my practice’s core values and mission statement not being heard or seen by the community and even some patients?
  • Why do I sometimes struggle with cash flow, making payroll and deciding which bills to pay and when so I don’t get behind?

One slow month in either production or collections would deplete my reserves, making me nervous and stressed about finances. Outside of the financials, I felt like I had to oversee every aspect of the office. I was getting tired and frustrated. These responsibilities (and accompanying stresses) took too much of my time, time that should have been spent in the operatories doing the dentistry I was passionate about.  

I realized I had a problem that I didn't know how to correct. I also knew I was unhappy with my office culture. With corporate dentistry coming to a neighborhood near us, I knew the time to act and make changes was imperative to my future success. I knew it was important to create a practice identity that was synonymous with high quality, patient-centered care; however, I did not know how to implement this idea.

A Spear Visiting Faculty member suggested I hire a dental consultant based on his own similar experiences. I decided to take this person’s advice, but the key was finding the right match for me.

Finding the right dental practice consultant

At the time, I would have told you consultants are people who come into your office, tell you all the things you need to change and solve all your problems for a fee oftentimes approaching $50,000. This approach would not work for me as I have spent years trying to create and implement the “Spear Model.” I was not going to let anyone convince me to change the way I practice and the core values I hold so dear.

At Spear Education, the ideal is to be unique, demand excellence from ourselves and deliver superior care have been instilled in us. These ideals and beliefs are exemplified in the manner in which we deliver patient care. In doing so, we are able to create a new and unique experience for our patients. We are passionate about delivering optimal dental health, creating an efficient and dynamic office, and always displaying our core values and mission – from the first phone call to when a patient walks into the office; throughout a patient's evaluation and treatment; and finally to payment and aftercare. I felt, and still feel, this culture of “patient-centered and optimal dental care” is more important than the amount of money I make. However, the bottom line matters, and I needed to find a way to make both these worlds coexist.  

One approach that can safeguard high-quality, patient-centered care while ensuring financial success is creating practice-management systems, which is defined as the business principles utilized in the formation, operation, or management of a dental facility. Each office will have similar systems, but the message behind each will vary. It is the message behind the system that is critical. How you, your staff and patients perceive that message will determine if it will be implemented and successful. Each office message must be unique, thus necessitating the creation of unique systems. When creating your practice-management system, you must know who you are, why you practice and what your core values are. The “right” consultant can guide you so your message can be felt and seen by all in a consistent, predictable way.  

So, the real question is, how do you pick the right consultant? The answer is this: Know what questions to ask and, even more importantly, know your mission and core values. 

You should try to answer the following questions:

  • Who are you?
  • What you are you passionate about? 
  • What do you believe in? 

In my humble opinion, the mark of a great consultant is a consultant who is willing to become part of your team rather than the team leader. If you have a consultant who looks at your numbers and says, “Do this and change that,” you have created a scenario in which you are following their mission and values. Instead your consultant should listen and understand your values. Only then can they help you and your team create and implement the beliefs, mission and core values you hold dear through your office systems.

What practice consultants should do for you

Consultants can help create systems and a culture to improve practice efficiency and profitability. These systems should help you understand practice finances such as payroll and overhead. Systems can improve office flow, patient care and treatment acceptance. However, before consultants can do this, you must work with your team to create each system stemming from the ideals of your core beliefs. If your team is not part of developing these systems, they will not own them. If they do not own them, your team will quickly return to old habits and you will not be able to make the necessary changes you hoped to achieve. When you and your staff create each system, the entire team commits to new care delivery processes, thereby becoming accountable for their implementation and success.

In addition to helping you define new systems, a consultant also should help you create a positive culture in which all team members hold each other accountable to achieve your office’s mission. I cannot stress the importance of accountability. Each staff member has to understand they play an important role in making the office grow and become more profitable. 

To further understand the power of office culture, I recommend reading Patrick Lencion's “The Advantage,” “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” and “The Ideal Team Player.” These three books became the foundation of how my office and team now work together toward a common goal. The messages from these books provided me with the insight to convey my goals and visions to the consultant. This enabled us to create office systems about which we all were passionate and to which we were all committed to adhering. It was not an easy process, but it was critical to the change we all desired.  

My consultant is always guiding, educating and reminding my staff on how each person in the office is responsible for the office’s success. Each person is now responsible for each other and the patients, ensuring our mission statement is carried out. A failure by one means a failure by all. It takes great culture to make that a reality and patients can, and will, see and appreciate it.  

The results of hiring a dental practice consultant

With time and hard work, we are creating a completely new practice culture, and the feedback from patients has been overwhelmingly positive. Suddenly, new patient referrals started to come in. I believe the reason is that patients tell their friends and family about their positive experience.

Our systems and culture created this. Everyone is now accountable to help manage overhead, which in turn helps staff understand and explain our fees. They no longer are nervous or uncomfortable when discussing comprehensive treatment because they believe in treating patients comprehensively and optimally. Their insight into the office’s numbers made them appreciate each person’s role, and they began to help each other so the office can succeed. With a better system and culture there is better teamwork. The ultimate outcome is a more profitable and enjoyable work environment.

In only eight months I have seen the benefit and advantage of having the “right” consultant as part of my team. I can now say my perception regarding consultants was misguided. The changes I have been able to make have been profound, not only for me, but for my staff and patients as well.  

It is important to remember that a dental consultant is not going to magically fix things. It takes a high-functioning team, hard work and a willingness to make difficult changes, many of which involve the dentist him/herself.

The first step is being committed to change. Clinical skills alone are not enough in today’s challenging environment. You need to be able to combine technical skills with a strong office culture and practice-management systems.

I am fortunate to have learned from personal experience how a consultant can help make desired practice changes. In only a few months I was able to significantly change my office cash flow as well as understand, interpret and manage office finances, all while creating the systems that will ensure a successful and enjoyable office environment. More importantly, I was able to collaborate with someone who took the time to listen to my mission statement and core values and then show my team a path to make them come to life through our office culture and patient care. I can truly say it has been the best investment I have ever made.

Questions to ask prospective practice consultants

If you are thinking of hiring a consultant, asking a prospective consultant the questions below can help you decide if she or he is the correct match for you and your practice needs.

  1. Will your systems be based on your or my core values and mission statement?
  2. How will you help me create and understand the ideal practice numbers and where can we decrease our overhead?
  3. How do you define profitability?
  4. What are your feelings on team culture, and what are the essential elements to create it?
  5. How can you create accountability and ownership of systems?
  6. How can you help us express our office core values both internally and externally to tell our story in a consistent manner?
  7. How can you improve how the office communicates with both new and established patients?
  8. How will you evaluate the dental hygiene department? (This is critical and is a big profit potential for every general dental office. In order for your dental hygiene department to be profitable you need to have a philosophy of care for disease intervention at the earliest stage and a formula to prevent systemic disease for your patients.)