Every entrepreneur would love to set up shop in some imagined market everyone else has overlooked. The reality is that any affluent audience for a product or service has been subject to years of saturation targeting and once people decide they trust a provider, it’s very hard to convince them to switch their loyalty.
As the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported, 20% of small businesses with employees fail within a year and another 10% by the end of their second year. Within three more years, another 30% close their doors:
And studies show that the rates overall tend to be steady, regardless of the economy. There are many factors that determine those who survive and thrive, so let me explain how I approached the challenge for my dental practice in the extraordinarily competitive Hollywood-Beverly Hills area of Los Angeles.
Start with a customer base
Whether you are an aspiring chef or a lawyer ready to go out on her own, it’s easy to imagine that everyone who praises your dishes or your impressive knowledge will flock to your new business. There are myriad reasons why they might not show up, from their personal financial situation to the influence of others in their professional network.
Although a third of Americans don’t see a dentist regularly, a new practitioner might imagine they are just waiting for the right one to offer services that suit them. At the same time, the other two-thirds already think theirs is their most affordable best choice or they would be easily tempted to switch loyalties when they see an ad offering discounts for new patients.
After working for other dentists, I knew the location I wanted to be in for my own practice, an area I felt was somewhat underserved, but with demographics that were promising for increased dental needs.
I worked as an associate at a practice for nine months before buying it in 2002, renaming it Wilshire Smile Studio. While acquiring an existing business means paying a premium for the advantage, the most expensive mistake can be starting from scratch to climb a very steep competitive hill.
Never lower your standards
Whatever business you enter, there will always be the temptation to attribute a slow start or a pause in growth to competitors who prey on naive customers who don’t appreciate the quality difference. Customers (or patients in my case) do need to be educated: it is easy for them to believe unsubstantiated advertising claims, testimonials that seem to be written by the same person or were incentivized, or to fall for the initial discount trap and then be reluctant to change when prices go up gradually.
Those you want to retain are eager to learn, to understand your business, to be treated as someone who wants to make an informed choice. Never take for granted that they fully appreciate how you differ from competitors and use every means to explain this in detail repeatedly.
Like advertising, one effort at this does not permanently convert anyone. At Wilshire Smile Studio, we have placed photo books of our work in the waiting room, provided printed brochures, make multi-media presentations while the patient is in the chair, and explained imaging of their oral health and the options for treatment. And we always make sure we have answered all their questions.
Deploy an integrated marketing plan
Once your business is moving along, it is easy to go on cruise control with marketing, which may seem costly, while hard to justify in precisely measurable results. You might, for example, assume that you can eliminate advertising and rely entirely on social media, forgetting that many older customers may have good salaries or retirement plans, but don’t want to spend their valuable time fighting Twitter wars, browsing Instagram pictures, or playing with the latest apps on their phones.
All these are important as part of a total marketing plan, which should start with an up-to–date website that has content which is search-optimized for keywords. That means that you regularly post new articles or blogs that are purely educational, not overly promotional, which will earn you a higher ranking when a potential customer searches for what you provide.
I hired top writers and SEO specialists to be sure I landed on the first pages for the terms my potential patients might search. Other ways we have reached current patients with reminders about our services and prospects have included an emailed newsletter, texts, postcards, media coverage, phone calls, and even movie screen ads.
Hire and partner with only the best
When you’re very busy, it may be hard to remember the names or anything about the personal backgrounds of many of your customers. Yet they want to believe that you know something about them and care about their needs. If you don’t have a photographic memory, get help by hiring frontline staff who are enthusiastic about customer service, have a talent for recalling details about individuals, and can brief you before you meet with someone.
Maintain a digital file about your most important customers. At Wilshire Smile Studio, we have a staff that is not only technically skilled, but they express empathy for the health problems of our patients and are eager to solve them.
Likewise, when we partner with specialists to come to our practice on a regular basis, we thoroughly vet them for both professional and personal qualities, knowing they share our values. We only work with a dental laboratory that does the very best work and vendors who provide the highest quality materials.
Too many other practices seem to think that patients will never notice when corners are cut, but in the long run prioritizing profit over providing the optimum service backfires and results in negative word of mouth. Never underestimate how smart your customers are and how expensive it will be to try to redeem a lost reputation.
Following these principles has helped make Wilshire Smile Studio one of the most successful local multi-specialty practices.
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