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Dr Michael Tam has built his career on a culture of compassion, kindness, appreciation, and gratitude. He says that’s the true secret behind the success of his two Sydney-based Smile by Design clinics. By Shane Conroy
Dr Michael Tam does not do things by halves. You may recognise him from his TV work on shows like the Seven Network’s Bringing Sexy Back and The Body Specialists, and an occasional ad here and there, but Dr Tam is no actor. He has built two highly successful dental practices and is one of Sydney’s most sought-after cosmetic dentists.
Dr Tam credits much of his success to cultivating a team-first culture and focusing on the complete patient experience—in and out of the chair. His passion for helping improve his patients’ self-esteem has been a constant throughout his 30-year career.
“It’s amazing how a new smile can make such a difference to a person’s life,” he says. “I see it all the time. A patient comes to us feeling self-conscious about their smile, and they leave with this new self-confidence. It’s like they are a changed person. It’s incredibly fulfilling to be part of that process.”
Dr Tam is not only focused on clinical outcomes. He currently owns and runs two successful Smile by Design clinics—one in Bondi Junction and one in North Sydney—and says it’s his team-first approach that’s critical to the success of the practices.
“An engaged team creates loyal patients,” he explains. “We put a lot of time and effort into team morale. I want my patients to walk into a team environment that’s full of positive energy. That’s part of providing a complete patient experience. It’s more than what happens in the chair.”
A fateful dinner
Dr Tam’s journey began a long way from the bright lights of Sydney. He was born and bred in Auckland, with parents from Hong Kong who put strong value on education.
“It’s a classic immigrant story,” Dr Tam says. “My parents didn’t speak a word of English when they arrived in New Zealand. There were five of us kids in the family, and it was all about education. We have two dentists, a doctor, an optometrist and an accountant.”
The young Michael Tam enjoyed the arts at school and knew he wanted a career that allowed artistic expression. He considered going into plastic surgery, but decided on cosmetic dentistry. He attended the University of Otago, then worked briefly in New Zealand after graduation. But it was making a connection with a leading cosmetic dentist at a conference that really got his career going.
“I knew I needed a good base, and I was looking for mentors,” he says. “I remember going to an aesthetic dental conference in Auckland. I was fresh out of dental school and super keen. At the end of the seminar I was asking a multitude of questions, and the lecturer—who was like the god of cosmetic dentistry at the time—invited me to dinner. Our values aligned, and he offered me a job in South Yarra in Melbourne. I haven’t looked back since.”
New kid on the block
Then came a job in Canberra, and a move to Sydney where Dr Tam became a partner at Greenwood Dental in North Sydney. That was in 1996, and he spent the next decade or so building his experience there.
“I started as the new kid on the block, and it was a wonderful learning experience,” he says. “It was a brand new, eight-chair facility and we had a fantastic 10 years together.”
When health issues struck one partner, the other partners decided to sell the practice to Pacific Smiles Group. Then Dental Partners took over. Dr Tam stayed on through the corporatisation of the practice, at times splitting his week between implant and surgical consultations in Sydney and on the Gold Coast.
“Whilst there was clinical autonomy, which was important to me, and support with staffing and other back-end processes, I ultimately wanted to be the captain of my own ship,” says Dr Tam.
After a five-year earn-out, Dr Tam went out on his own to establish and grow Smile by Design.
“I bought a cosmetic practice in Bondi Junction which came with some patients, so I wasn’t starting from scratch. But in the early days, I was only seeing a couple of patients per day so there was a lot of room for growth.”
Captain of the ship
That was in 2012 and Dr Tam has since built Smile by Design into a thriving practice with four dentists, two therapists, a support team of 10 staff, and a second Smile by Design clinic in North Sydney.
“The North Sydney clinic wasn’t an existing practice, so we had a clean slate to build a brand new facility,” Dr Tam explains. “It’s about four times bigger than the Bondi practice with five chairs, an implant suite, and a recovery room.”
Dr Tam purpose-designed the North Sydney clinic as a home for his high-end cosmetic and implant dentistry. His commitment to providing a complete patient experience extends well beyond the clinical aspects of his treatments.
“It starts from the moment the patient walks in,” he says. “I’ve been told the North Sydney clinic serves more like a business lounge than a dental practice. We have fish tanks, aromatherapy oils and overhead TVs with Sennheiser headphones. And our treatment coordinators are there to make the patients feel comfortable along their entire journey with us.”
Dr Tam says about 80 per cent of his business is driven by word-of-mouth referrals, and he often thinks about how his patients would describe their experience at Smile by Design to others.
“I call it the ‘significant other’ conversation,” he explains. “When a partner or friend asks the patient, ‘How was the dentist?’ they don’t only describe the clinical outcomes. They talk about how the practice looks and feels, whether the receptionist was friendly, what energy the dentist conveyed—all the little things that make up the patient experience. That’s a big deal, and something that dentists often overlook.”
Leading with compassion
Achieving a positive, calming energy across every touch point the patient has with the practice doesn’t happen by accident. It requires time, effort and careful curation.
“I believe positive energy flow is critically important to our success. That’s all about having a connected and compassionate team.
“No one person makes Smile by Design successful. As a practice owner, I remove the ego and understand that our practice survives and thrives on human interaction, and we all try hard to create a positive, supportive culture.
“People have good days, and bad days and in-between days. It’s how we support the team and our patients throughout the day that makes all the difference. If we take what we learned yesterday into today with positive intention, we will always be set up for success”.
Dr Tam says communication is key, and he begins every day with a team huddle. “We go through any learning points from yesterday and look at what we can organise in advance for tomorrow. That’s how we create a sense of calm for today. Patients absolutely pick up on that energy.
“I believe that everyone is seeking relevance and connection in this world. When we foster a culture of compassion, kindness, appreciation, and gratitude, that in turn provides a positive, calm energy flow to our patients. Success for Smile by Design starts and ends there.”