6 Jun 2022  •  Blog, Dental Landscape, HR & Employment Law  •  11min read By  • Dhru Shah, Craig Walsh, Karl O'Higgins, Michael Copeland

How to future-proof your practice (and your life)

There have been many lessons to learn over the past two years, but perhaps one of the biggest is that the future is unpredictable and uncontrollable.

Which means that there’s an even greater reason to put steps in place to do what you can to protect both your business and personal interests from whatever life might throw at you.

At this year’s Dentistry Show, we spoke to dentists Dhru Shah and Craig Walsh, managing director of EvoDental Karl O’Higgins, and dental financial consultant Michael Copeland about how to future-proof your practice’s, and your own, future.

Below is a brief overview of their top six future-proofing tips, keep reading the rest of the blog for their thoughts in more depth.

  1. Loyal patients that value what you do, are happy to pay a monthly membership fee, will recommend you to others and keep returning to your practice, are key for building a strong and stable practice in the long-term. To build loyalty, you first need to build trust; from the first point of contact and in all interactions, you need to show your patient that you understand their needs.
  1. As a leader, you need to understand what your strength and weaknesses are, you also need to do the same for your team. Knowing whose skills are best used where, investing in those areas for yourself and your team members and understanding when to delegate is important to get the best from everyone to boost business performance.
  1. To have a stable, retained workforce and recruit the right people you need to have a clear vision, created with your team, that percolates through the whole of the business. Your vision also needs to be part of your business plan. Your plan shouldn’t just be based on financials it needs to reflect your stance on mental health and ESG, to help build a team that will help you reach your goals.
  1. Find the right external support partners to keep all your plates in the air. Practice owners have to keep all the plates it takes to run a business spinning in order to keep growing. Having support from other companies or organisations is not only reassuring but also relieves some of the pressure on you and frees up your time to concentrate on the things you do best.
  1. Consider a cap on treatment time and clinicians’ time. This might sound like a radical business model, but if you crunch the numbers and understand how much you need to do each day to make it work, you can limit treatment time, give your team time to re-energise for the next day and still have a profitable and sustainable practice.
  1. Don’t forget that future-proofing includes life after work. Your business and personal finances are inter-connected; make sure that when you’re considering the future you look beyond your working life and consider retirement. Include your hopes for the lifestyle you want to have when you’re retired into your business plans, there are specialist financial organisations out there who can help you to clarify your vision for retirement and put the right steps in place.

Future-proofing your practice – a deeper dive into the detail

Dhru Shah: Build patient loyalty through trust

For a successful private practice with one dentist, you need 1,200 to 1,500 patients paying the monthly fee in order to be sustainable.

At that level, it’s not about marketing, it’s about building trust. And that is all about need; if a patient walks in to your practice and thinks, ‘this person understands my need’, you’ve won them over.

You’ve got the first few minutes of your email communication, your front of house interaction, your consultation, etc. to deliver that message.

Building trust also takes a long time. Research has been done that shows it takes 50 hours to build an acquaintance, 90 hours to build them into friends and 200 hours to make them into somebody who’s trustworthy.

Imagine how you could build that process for your patients so that when they walk in for the first time and you communicate with them, they think, ‘oh, they understood me’.

After that, do you send them a thank you for coming for a consultation message with a video of, ‘here’s our dentist and what they’ve said’?

Something simple and automated like that is a trust point for patients. That’s the energy that translates into building loyalty programmes, which help patients to value your service and feel happy to pay a monthly fee.

Craig Walsh: Invest in yourself and your team as leaders

You’ve got to invest in yourself as a leader and be very confident in the way that you look after your team. That shows in the morning huddle; it shows through the day when you’re tired and you ask. “How are you feeling?” or offer someone a cup of tea – small little things like that go such a long way.

Part of being a leader is also knowing when to delegate. When I became a practice owner and was thinking about the patient journey and which software and tools I needed to improve it, the main thing I did was find out who I needed to solve each problem best.

As a leader it’s okay, in fact it’s good, to acknowledge that you have unique skills but there are certain things you’re not going to be able to do.

I delegate those things appropriately to people that are very good at it. For example, my finances are handled by a very expensive accountancy team, and that works for me because it’s a good return on the investment.

Within your team, if you put the right people in the right places, they will love what they do and, from a clinician’s point of view, they often end up generating more treatment. If I have members of staff that feel more comfortable talking to patients about a plan, compared to others, then that’s what they do because that is more profitable for the practice.

You just have to listen to your team to understand what their skills are and what their passion is.

We’ve moved nurses into other roles and we have long-standing members of staff that I’ve repurposed, because I can see that there’s so much more in there. And then they come alive, and that helps to grow the business.

Karl O’Higgins: Have a clear vision and build a team around you that’s consistent with it 

It’s important to future-proof your business in terms of its model: your vision, values, your mission, business plans, financial models and standard operating procedures.

The first thing I did in the last three companies I’ve been fortunate to lead was make sure that we had a vision, values and mission, and that those were owned by the team in the business. The vision for my business is ‘a functional, confident smile on every face’. That’s it, and that took probably two half-day sessions to come up with.

Your vision might be different. If you haven’t got a vision, take time out to develop one. But don’t do it on your own, otherwise your team won’t buy into it and they need to because it gives you purpose and direction and it’s from that vision that your culture will start to form.

Recruitment and retention are probably the hottest topics right now. And that’s not just about pay, it’s about having a clear vision, values and mission. It’s about team members having a job description that really matches what they do and that links into their appraisals and goals.

Do you sit down once a year and work out a budget for the business that’s got goals associated with it that aren’t just financially focused? Do you have a business plan that isn’t just a financial plan?

If you just do a financial budget on an Excel spreadsheet, you’ve probably missed the biggest component right now in this climate, which is mental health and the Z generation coming through who want to know about your environmental social governance credentials. All of that needs to be in your business plan.

Future-proofing is all about having your goals communicated and regularly monitored in a two-way conversation, because that will bring people towards your vision.

Michael Copeland: Seek support to keep your plates spinning

Continuing on from the idea of delegating well and bringing in external help, such as accountants etc., as a business owner I’d suggest seeking as much support as you can so that you can focus on doing what you do best.

Dentists are generally spinning a lot of plates, having that extra support makes it less likely that one will drop but if it does, someone else will be there to catch it.

It gives peace of mind so that you can continue to be entrepreneurial and invest in yourself to grow the business.

Support can come in all shapes and sizes. Quite often I find myself helping dentists to develop clarity of their vision and assist them along the journey of building their practice and making any necessary changes to achieve their goals.

Of course, we also have the Wesleyan Financial Services advice arm, Practice Plan membership, general insurance and professional indemnity – so we’re helping dentists in a lot of ways, not least as potential plate-catchers.

Craig: Consider introducing a cap on treatment

As a private dentist, it’s currently incredibly busy day-to-day, and it’s getting busier.

Patients are savvier than ever before. They know how to do their research and they attend the practice asking for treatments that you didn’t even know they knew that they could have had.

Since the pandemic, dentistry has changed in a way that we’ve never expected, and I think the customer base is one thing that is radically changing.

Society is speeding up, not slowing down. The pandemic was a tragedy, but also a blessing for some to actually slow down and take that time out with their family, friends and loved ones.

We all turned off for three months but now we’re back at work playing catch-up – and it’s supercharged. We have to be incredibly careful that we don’t try and say yes to all of these patients because a lot of our staff are running so hot that I’m worried that they’ll burn out.

So, we’ve put caps on how much treatment they can do and there are caps on the time that the clinicians can do.

I know that sounds a bit bonkers in terms of a business model, but I know what my operating costs per surgery per day is, I know what I need to hit and so do my team.

Once that’s hit, I don’t want them to work any harder. I want them to come back to work the next week feeling refreshed, energised and ready to go again.

Michael Copeland: Think ahead to life after work

Future-proofing your practice is not just about building a strong business while you’re working in it but also making sure it gives you the life you want when you retire.

We spend a lot of time sitting down with dentists and asking, what’s your end objective? Where do you want to get to? What does that look like? Where do you want to be?

From there, we can build a plan that gets you there – whether that includes the NHS pension scheme or not. The NHS pension is a good benefit, but there are other ways to fund a fulfilling retirement too.

In dentistry there can be a blurring of the lines between personal finances and business success, especially when the goodwill value of a practice can be an integral part of retirement planning.

Personal and business finances can impact each other quite significantly, and what I do is help dentists to understand how this is the case and to think about the different scenarios for their future, both professional and personal.




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