We are always amazed at the number of truly unique situations that arise during the sale of dental practices. We are involved in such transactions across Canada, and the regional differences can be quite fascinating. As in my first instalment on this issue (Ontario Dentist, April 2001) I want to share with you some observations and submit a few pointers in the hope you can learn from the success stories of your colleagues from all regions of the nation. Some manners of effecting a proper transition are unique to local customs and attitudes, but these simple tips may assist you in the event you buy or sell a dental practice.
Letters of introduction
Most owners will prepare and sign a letter that introduces the new owner to the patients. In a recent transaction, our client stated that he made personal, hand-written notes on about half of the letters. These were private comments to his longest-standing patients; a very nice touch in my opinion. What surprised me was that his staff then asked if they could make notes on the other letters, as they were of the opinion it would be good for the practice and the new owner. So they in turn made personal notes on the remaining letters. On some letters, all the staff made a note, on others, just the receptionist, assistant or hygienist made one, depending upon whom they thought knew the patient best.
This is an excellent idea, and one that I wish I had thought of before. What a wonderful way to show the patients that all the team members of the practice care. It may not be appropriate in all cases, but I recommend that my clients now consider this very personal touch when selling a practice.
The purchaser often asks if they should sign the same letters, and here my advice is that they should not do so. Allow the departing dentist to have his or her last say, then you the purchaser can send as many letters or newsletters as you wish in the future; another item I recommend.
Purchasers often ask if they should hold an open house after the closing of the sale. My answer is yes, absolutely. What a fantastic way to meet and greet the patients in a non-clinical fashion. If possible, the previous owner should be there, giving him the opportunity to make some final goodbyes, receive any “Thank You” cards and to personally introduce the new dentist. All the staff and their spouses should be there. Make it a wine and cheese event if you like, and allow people to visit over a period of time, not all at once, such as between 4 and 8 p.m. on a weekday.
If the new owner has invested in any new technologies such as intraoral cameras or computer imaging systems, this is the perfect time to show them off. As well, many dentists I have spoken with are now taking continuing education courses, and an open house would allow you to share your new knowledge with patients. Any time you can educate them about a new procedure in a non-threatening or clinical fashion, you stand a better chance of having those individuals understand and retain the information.
In some transactions, such as those precipitated by the sudden disability of a practice owner, that person is often not available to attend the practice ever again. One dentist, who had to act very quickly to purchase a practice, immediately arranged for a professional photograph to be taken of him and the selling dentist, standing together, shaking hands in the office. It was a very good quality photo and the purchaser then used it as a powerful communication tool.
Firstly, and with the past owner’s approval, he had the photo transposed onto every copy of the letter of introduction that the owner was able to sign, and then sent it to all the patients. This demonstrated both that the dentists were at least familiar with each other, and that the past owner had some time to prepare his successor for the practice. The purchaser also had a large colour copy of the photo framed and signed by the past owner, and hung it in the reception room. In some small way, I believe this approach may reinforce the patient’s perception that their dentist of many years is still watching over the new owner. And finally, the photo was also inserted into the first newsletter sent out by the purchaser, which further cemented the memory of their former dentist into the patient’s mind.
Not everyone may choose to go to this much effort, but it worked very well in this instance. The purchaser’s endeavours may have added to the patients trust of their new dentist, as they clearly showed great respect for the late practitioner.
A note of caution: the disability or passing of a dentist is a very sensitive issue. Please be careful when combining death and disability of a dentist with your communications. It can be upsetting to some patients, as they may perceive your honest efforts as being an exploitation of their previous dentist’s tragedy.
Staff meeting with new owner
A purchaser called me earlier this summer to say he had just spent some time with the staff to plan the schedule and other details for the period after the closing date. He went on to say that they met at the selling dentist’s house for a barbeque and that they all spent the afternoon together. This transaction had not even closed and they were carrying on like friends even before the first day of working together. As a result, these people began their relationship acting like a team from Day One.
The new owner called me one week after closing to say that his first week in the practice was “Incredible!” The selling dentist was not working any longer, and his efforts to arrange the barbeque, and then allow the staff and new owner to simulate working together prior to the actual closing date, added to the success they were – and still are – experiencing.
These little touches can mean so much to staff, and in turn, they may show their appreciation by fully endorsing the new owner to the patients.
Many clients we represent are suffering from some type of chronic pain or disability, which sometimes forces them to cease practising before their planned retirement age. In such cases, we see their disappointment as they are committing to the final terms, and they often ask how they can help the purchaser, even though they can no longer treat patients.
One of our clients in this situation recently offered the purchaser an association with him, for absolutely no money. He simply wanted to help the individual meet the patients and become acquainted with the practice. He stated that he would be available as needed, for one or two days each week, and expected nothing in return but a thank you. I also think he was able to make himself available because he had not made any retirement plans, as he had not intended to stop practising so soon.
In my position, I sometimes hear stories about a dentist who bought a practice and, subsequently, had many of the patients leave. Our surveys indicate that, on average, 85 to 95 per cent of patients will remain with the new owner in a properly planned transition. I am puzzled as to what could have happened in the instances when dramatic patient loss is reported. Perhaps it is simply a matter of the differences in the dentist’s personalities, in which case retaining a patient – or not – may well be out of your hands.
These tips are intended to assist with the intricacies of a transition between dentists, regardless of whether or not a professional practice broker is used to guide the process. Perhaps my observations will assist you someday. I encourage you to share a unique situation with me, and if you do, I’ll try to include it in a future column. Please respond to me either by the phone number below, by fax at (905) 820-4705, or via email at email@example.com. I am certain there are many more individual methods of effecting a transition that I have yet to discover.
Ontario Dentist – October 2001