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In an emerging trend, associate dentists are stepping out to do their own marketing, apart from the practice that employs them. But this is a move that needs rules to make it work. By John Burfitt
About a year ago, a series of requests for specific marketing advice was the signal to dental marketer Angus Pryor that there had been a decided shift in the professional rules of the dental game.
Pryor, CEO of Dental Marketing Solutions, tells of receiving calls from a number of dentists employed as associates in clinics, wanting to set up their own individual marketing programs.
And Pryor says that shift for associates to establish their professional branding has since increased, and is now a trend.
“Before that first call, I had never had one like it, but I have had a large number since,” Pryor says. “They’re all saying the same thing—the principal in the clinic is booked out, but the associates are not, and so they see doing their own marketing as being proactive and doing something about it.”
Under the terms most associates work under in a practice, it’s understandable they want to be operating with a full appointment schedule. In most cases, the principal pays back to the associate between 40 and 60 per cent of the fee for each patient treated. That’s a lucrative deal when the schedule is full, but can be financially problematic with too many empty spots.
Adding to the challenge is the principal is almost always the preferred practitioner patients are referred to, and if a practice does not have its own robust marketing to keep up a flow of patients through the doors, an associate can find themselves sitting idle.
“An associate who has an entrepreneurial spirit will do something about this, so they have a full book,” Pryor says, adding it’s mainly millennial dentists who are taking charge in this way. “There’s a changing behaviour with millennials in terms of how they operate and how they are prepared to promote themselves,” he says. “They probably also have access to a market that the principals don’t.”
Even so, there are some rules that need to be followed to ensure the personal branding by the associate dentist is not at cross-purposes with that of the practice that employs them, Pryor adds.
Individual marketing activities need to follow professional guidelines, with the usual options including Google My Business reviews, a website and some targeted social media activity. An associate’s website should also include a detailed section about the practice where they work.
Most importantly, however, the principal dentist should be well across any individual marketing the associate is undertaking. “Everything must pass what I call the ‘reasonableness test’, which is the associate must have an upfront conversation with the practice owner so they are clear about what’s going on,” Pryor says. “Most principals I know are delighted when an associate does this. It fills the appointment book.”
Ensuring the associate’s marketing falls within the branding guidelines of the practice is also essential. “I’m sure the employment contract for every associate dentist has words outlining how their behaviour and activities must represent the best interests of the business,” he adds. “The owner has a right to say, ‘This particular point is not accurate so I’m going to ask you to take it down.’ But if you had a clear conversation at the beginning, agreeing on the extent of what they can cover, there shouldn’t be any issues with it.”
Dr Jamie Workman began working at Sydney’s Maroubra Dental Centre three years ago, but he wasn’t taking over a list of existing patients so there were significant gaps in his appointment book. This led him to explore various marketing avenues available.
“The practice wasn’t actively marketing so I had the choice to rely on what they brought in, or take more of a proactive approach,” he says. Creating his own website and also setting up a Google My Business listing had a positive impact on his bookings. “It does require effort and you really value every patient that comes in.”
It took Dr Workman a few years to achieve a full book in a competitive location, and he believes his marketing efforts helped to fast-track the process.
“My principal doesn’t mind me engaging in these activities; he’s just happy to see a much fuller book and know I’m busy,” Dr Workman says. “Everything I have done has been on brand, with the way I work, and also the way the practice positions itself.”
He does stress, however, that taking such initiative is not necessary for all dentists. “You must consider what your endgame is,” he says.
“For me, it was ensuring I had a full book as an associate. If the clinic you’re working for provides you with a full list, your time is best spent getting paid to service these clients. I’ve spent a lot of time and money learning to market myself, and that’s where I’ve seen the best return.”
Consultant Caroline Ucherek of CJU Medical Marketing agrees there will be continuing development of this trend in the coming years, but advises some caution, especially in relation to marketing guidelines both the principal and associate need to follow.
“And that’s where there can be a problem as many practices don’t have good branding or marketing guidelines in the first place, so when an associate wants to do their own thing, they may have no rules to follow so that everything is in alignment,” Ucherek says.
Which is why outlining a comprehensive approach to marketing with a clear message by the practice about their services can prove more powerful than a splintered approach by a number of different associates. “We often find a lot of these arrangements tend to be handshakes, with nothing formalised or in writing so that everyone knows where they stand,” she explains.
“My advice is to put some structure around the guidelines of your practice’s marketing so each of you know what the rules are and, importantly, what the expectations are from each other. When that’s set up and done well, that’s when you see situations like this working out well for everybody.”