Dental laboratories take client relationships to a whole new level by providing continuing education opportunities that combine work and play.
You could say that Jimmy Stegall took to the idea like a fish to water.
Several years ago, Stegall was giving a presentation at a dental study group meeting and using some of his Canadian fishing trip photos as 'break' slides between topics. A few of the dentist-attendees said, "Great shots. Now why don't you hold a seminar there?" And Stegall, vice president of Sherer Dental Lab, Rock Hill, South Carolina, thought: why don't I?
After eight fishing trips--some in Canada and some in Alaska--and a few duck hunting expeditions to Mexico, Stegall's traveling continuing education programs are such a hit, they fill up virtually as soon as he announces dates.
Like Stegall, an increasing number of laboratory marketers are helping clients combine work and play by putting a travel and recreation twist on continuing education. It's popular with dentists because it's an opportunity to earn CE credits in a relaxed, enjoyable setting--and even allows them to write off part of their travel expenses. For the laboratory, it's an unparalleled opportunity to bond with customers, enhance communication and solidify partnerships.
"Experiencing this kind of education together takes the relationship to a totally different level. You can spend just four days with someone in this setting and learn a whole lot more about him than you could in 10 years of day-to-day laboratory work," says Richard Willes, owner of Utah Valley Dental Laboratory, Provo, Utah. Willes is a co-sponsor of "Ride and Learn" and "Learning Curves," programs that offer dental continuing education during scenic motorcycle tours.
Karen Dodd agrees. "These environments give you the opportunity to go beyond products and techniques. The relationship becomes stronger because you've spent time having fun and chatting in the golf cart about your families," says Dodd, director of sales and marketing for Dodd Dental Laboratory, New Castle, Delaware.
The real beauty of these programs is that there's no hard sell, no "let-me-tell-you-about-our-crowns" component. Rather, the mutually understood objective is to learn together and enjoy the camaraderie. "Everyone is there to have fun, and everyone's guards are down," says Marc Daichman, co-owner of Asteto Dent Labs, Maplewood, New Jersey, who has been sponsoring continuing education opportunities in conjunction with recreation since 1986. "And because these dentists have decided to travel with you, there's a level of trust and confidence already placed in your laboratory before the event even begins."
In fact, these laboratories have found that if there's any "selling" that happens, it's their dentist-customers who are doing it--simply during the course of conversation with other dentists who have joined them for the trip. This is a dynamic that Dr. Michael Fay, a retired dentist and consultant who plans Dodd's "Learn and Leisure" weekends, keeps in mind when pairing attendees on the golf course. "We have some extremely loyal clients who join us for these weekends and I try to team them up with other dentists who don't know much about us," says Dr. Fay. " They often start talking and share the success they've had with the laboratory. It's invaluable because dentists respect what other dentists have to say."
And though relationship building--not bottom-line building--is the goal here, many laboratories have gained new clients as well as additional work from current clients who felt more "bonded" to the laboratory after the event. And at least one laboratory owner says his programs have even attracted business from non-attendees. "We've gotten new clients who have never come on a trip. But because they've heard about them, they perceive us to be a creative, fun and forward-thinking laboratory with which to partner," says Daichman.
Laboratories have different approaches to choosing the location or activity to pair with their seminars. For example, Daichman plans events that he feels hold a wide appeal: annual Las Vegas trips and cruises to the Caribbean. "Vegas has always been a big draw for us. Cruises, if timed right and the price is good, are also very popular," he says. "We really do our homework to get the best prices for our clients. And this year, we scheduled the cruise for a school vacation week so they could easily bring their families."
Other laboratories plan events around their clients' hobbies and interests, such as Stegall's fishing trips. Similarly, since many of Dodd Dental Laboratory's clients are University of Delaware football fans, the lab holds its "Learn and Leisure" weekends when the team is playing an 'away' game in Williamsburg, Virginia or Annapolis, Maryland. The laboratory purchases a block of tickets to the game and plans golf outings and sometimes even meals. "The beauty of those locations is that there are plenty of other things to do, so doctors and their families can mix and match activities to create the weekend that's most enjoyable for them," says Dodd.
When Treasure Dental Laboratory was planning its "Ski and Learn Seminar", it chose Sun Valley, Idaho because of the great ski facility and accommodations--but also because it is the home of one of its clients who offered to do an in-office, live-patient demonstration to complement the lecture portion of the seminar. "The attendees love the opportunity to spend time in another dentist's office to see how he does things. They ask question after question and just soak it all up," says Sheri Hamberlin, co-owner of the Idaho Falls, Idaho laboratory.
But you don't necessarily have to travel to dazzle your clients with this kind of educational experience. Oral Tech Dental Laboratory, Pearl, Mississippi held a "Spa Day" in nearby Jackson for female dentists. Attendees were treated to massages and facials and listened to presentations on soft tissue contouring, customer service and stress. "Spa Day started out as a unique way for Oral Tech to thank its clients, but it developed into a larger event that attracted dentists from the greater Jackson area," says Andy Woods, president, who invited clients by hand delivering invitations and chocolates.
Laboratories also exercise a number of options when it comes to planning the educational component of their programs. For example, Stegall conducts the seminar himself; his Technology Update: Hot Topics in Dentistry is popular with attendees, since he updates it every year to cover new developments from a clinical, operative and restorative standpoint. Others choose to hire clinicians and other speakers, although this can add to the cost.
One way to keep expenses down is to turn to manufacturers, who are often willing to provide speakers, sponsor meals or even supply materials. "The first time we held our seminar, I asked six manufacturers to donate materials for the hands-on portion; not only did our attendees have the opportunity to play with some new products, but each got to take home a box of supplies. In return, each vendor got a list of the dentists who had attended," says Stegall.
When choosing a topic, the key is to stay abreast of what is going to be hot with your clients. "It has to be a subject that not only interests the dentists, but that also can bring them information to grow their practices," says Daichman. "We love endodontics; it's a very profitable area of dentistry and there is always new information to share. Other big draws are implant and cosmetic-related topics."
Nuts and Bolts
If you are interested in offering work-and-play educational opportunities, consider the following:
The time element. The work's not over once you've chosen a location and seminar topic. Other logistics, such as negotiating group discounts, coordinating attendees' accommodations and planning complementary activities, can be time-consuming. For this reason, some laboratory owners prefer to handle seminar registration only and refer attendees to a travel agent for all other arrangements.
Setting a price. Making a profit on the program itself is not a priority for most laboratory owners. Instead, they total expenses--such as speaker fees, special events such as dinners or golf, and accommodations if attendees aren't making their own arrangements--and set the seminar fees accordingly in order to break even.
Getting the word out. One thing that helps keep expenses down is that big promotional efforts aren't usually necessary in the long run. "The first year or two that we held the program, we had to make a lot of phone calls and do some mailings," says Dodd. "But now, our attendance has grown because of repeat attendees and word of mouth. We don't even need to print any promotional materials." However, you may find that programs that can accommodate large numbers of dentists--or bigger trips that clients might not wish to take every year--require more marketing effort.
Your 'guest' policy. Will you limit the number of guests dentists can bring? While some laboratories plan trips with the appeal of family vacations in mind, smaller gatherings can quickly fill up with guests who have nothing to do with the dental industry. This is a situation that Stegall occasionally faces, since his group stays at intimate lodges that only accommodate 15-25 people.
"It can get awkward, and I try to be as flexible as possible with clients who want to bring a fishing buddy or a son, for example. One time, we ended up with a few more non-dentist guests than we would have wanted," says Stegall. "But you know, that's ok. How cool is it to watch a long-time client creating memories with his son? It's not always about making teeth."