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My Worst Dentist's Office Experience in My Entire Life

Gary North
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Jan. 27, 2012

Health care professionals are under pressure from the government to cut costs. They are also facing customer resistance. Customers are no longer patient.

If you are a health care professional, read this. If you sell anything for a living, use this as a model of how not to run a business.

My wife wanted to find a dentist for us. We have not been to one since we moved to Georgia in 2008. checked with Angie's list. She said this dentist's office had high ratings. I don't understand how.

I went for my appointment. The building was very nice. Large. Brick. The interior welcome was large and even a bit elegant. It had lots of wasted space. Yellow alert! Someone has to pay for this. Me!

There were three or four nicely dressed women standing around. They were clearly employees. It was 8:30 a.m. I was the only visible customer. Never, ever let a customer see employees standing around. Put them in a room in the rear, if necessary, but don't have them standing around. This screams "waste!"

I filled out the usual forms. Did I have any problems? No. Well, yes: the traditional wife with a calendar issue. "You haven't been to a dentist in 8 years. You've got to go to the dentist. I'll set up the appointment. You won't have to do anything except show up."

I have had 3 cavities in 64 years of adult teeth, all before age 35. I have a plaque issue. So what? I have a split back molar. I have had it since 1999. So what?

My teeth have caused me no problems, other than being crooked. So, I don't go to dentists often.

After 10 minutes, I was called. Why did it take so long, with all those women standing around?

The lady was nice. She did the x-rays. She was thorough.

Finally, a dentist came in. He looked like a 30-year-old out of the late 1960s. He had scraggly hair down over his ears. This was a clear signal: "I don't abide with middle-class values." This is unwise for any professional or any salesman. The person with something to sell on a repeat basis should not deliberately adopt an appearance that announces a break from the lifestyle of the people whose money he is seeking.

He did not have the same last name as the clinic had. So, he was probably a hired dentist. Someone in charge deliberately kept him on the payroll, hair over his ears. This said: "The owner is not minding the store."

Anyway, he was clearly a salesman. His demeanor said "used car salesman," except that used car salesmen get better haircuts.

He looked at the x-rays. He rattled off a list of bad teeth to the assistant: "18-crown. 13-crown." I think there was a third. I could almost hear the cash register sound of my youth -- the ka-ching sound that Quicken still uses for deposits.

He briefly explained why I needed these procedures. I might lose my teeth if I did not get this done. He offered no cause-and-effect explanation.

This was a dumb selling strategy. He could see that my teeth were in good condition. If they weren't, he should have spent time explaining my problems and offering advice -- such as flossing -- that would help me deal with them. But no. It was money that would solve my problems, and he clearly wanted a lot of it.

He was selling to a skeptic. I do not go to dentists. Do not try to sell thousands of dollars worth of services to someone who has clearly not been willing to pay a dime to anyone in your field. Recognize that it will take time to separate him from his money. This is common sense. The dentist was devoid of common sense.

I have never lost a tooth. I have never had a toothache. This guy wanted me to believe that if I don't put a crown on a chipped tooth, I might lose it, and two more to boot. I wasn't buying it. From this guy, I would not have bought a used car, let alone a dental procedure.

I had come in only for a cleaning. He told me that I would need a local anesthetic to have my teeth cleaned. No explanation. He said I could schedule it.

I said the magic words: "How much will this cost?" He would not say. "I'll have it estimated." He walked out. I never saw him again.

The assistant said: "You don't have insurance. There will be a discount."

I got it! Price discrimination. "Different strokes for different folks." Economists hate price discrimination, especially in health care. Why? Because it always involves government intervention to maintain it: restrictions on entry. I had first read about this in 1960 in an article titled "Price Discrimination in Medicine." She was talking to the wrong customer.

Then there was this question: Why would I need a discount? For a procedure that normally costs $85?

They both left. I sat. And sat. Where was the estimation lady? I got up wandered into the hall, looking for my wife, who was also getting her teeth cleaned. I went back to the room. I sat. And sat. Finally, I went to the billing desk. The woman had the papers. She began: "Normally, this procedure costs $950."

I stopped her. "I am not interested." She started to tell me about the discount. "I am not going to do this." I no doubt made my displeasure clear. This was not for effect.

Rule: When the opening bid is $950 for an $85 procedure, get out. Fast.

As I said, the outfit bills insurance companies more. How much more? I later found out from my wife. Over double.

I went to the room where my wife was in the chair. "I am not going through with this. You make your own decision."

I left. She could pay my bill.

Later, the billing lady told her it would have been "only" $400. This information from my wife sent a message to me: "We over-bill insurance companies as a normal practice." I regard this practice as immoral. It raises health care insurance premiums.

I went home and called the wife of a friend who has lived in the area for 35 years. I asked for a recommendation. She told me their dentist's name. They had used him for 30 years.

I called. I talked with his office manager. What would the cleaning cost? $85. That was what I had expected from the beginning.

She said there could be a special cleaning that cost $600, if my gums were bad. I had never heard of this. But $950? "No."

The dentist had not said anything about special needs regarding my gums. He said basically nothing to me. He spoke ,mainly to his assistant, listing the procedures. I heard this: "Sucker in the chair. Ream him." He was mentally ringing up sales. So was I.

If someone comes in expecting an $85 service, sell it to him. Then, once he is satisfied, you can attempt to up-sell him. Tell him of his special situation. Tell him that he really needs a more detailed, but (sadly) more expensive procedure. To have some overly busy, harried assistant announce the bad news without warning is not the way to do it.

If you make your money by up-selling people by 10-to-one in one shot, you had better take a Dale Carnegie course. At least read his book. When you try this without warning on the first visit, with about five minutes of consultation -- a professional's term for a sales pitch -- you are not likely to be successful.

I am scheduled to go in for an interview with the new hygienist. It will take 90 minutes. That seems long, but maybe the woman will use this time to gain my trust. Maybe the dentist will explain things to me, not ram thousands of dollars of procedures down my throat, which I am unlikely to buy.

The first dentist will never get me back. He won't get my wife back, either. She says she will also try the dentist our friend recommended.

So, what are the lessons here?

1. Don't have workers standing around.
2. Brief new clients on what is going to happen.
3. Don't lie about what the law requires.
4. Don't dress in a way that insults the customers.
5. Explain the case for an expensive procedure. Take time.
6. Don't delegate the main sales pitch to a low-paid assistant.
7. Have a well-developed sales pitch.
8. The sales pitch should stress benefits.
9. The sales pitch should be believable: reasons why.
10. The sales pitch should offer proof.
11. If you sell fear, sell it with graphic details.
12. Do not let anyone sit in a room thinking, "They are wasting my time."
13. The price should not induce sticker shock.

These are basic rules of any business that sells face-to-face.

Someone must be using this outfit's services. It has an expensive facility and enough women to move the customers through. But the dentist I met left the worst impression of any dentist I have ever seen, in a profession noted for unskilled demeanor.

I am glad that I have not spent much time in dentists' offices. My sympathy goes out to those who have.

I am reminded of an incident in Dodge City in Wyatt Earp's era. The notorious Clay Allison went to a dentist, complaining of a toothache. The dentist pulled the tooth. It was the wrong tooth. Allison returned, took the dentist's pliers, and pulled his tooth.

I think this was excessive, but it's the thought that counts.

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