Howard Speaks: What Dentists Can Learn from the Downfall of Sears by Howard Farran, DDS, MBA, Publisher, Dentaltown Magazine

by Howard Farran, DDS, MBA, Publisher, Dentaltown Magazine

In February 2014, Forbes published an article titled “Sears Still Missing the Boat: 6 Ways the Brand Can Be Saved.” Sears has been on a painful decline for the last decade. When I was a kid, Sears was the be-all end-all. It was all things great. I can still remember sitting around with my five sisters looking at the Sears Catalog. We’d circle things. We’d make Christmas lists. It was fantastic.

Sears was one of the first department stores to carry exclusive product lines including DieHard Batteries, Kenmore appliances and Craftsman tools. But now, it’s had its lunch handed to it by Lowes and Home Depot. But why?

The smartest economic gurus in the U.S. and Canadian market insist the market is split in two—half shop on price and half shop on service. But companies, department stores and even dental offices have to have one of the two. They can’t cater to both markets successfully.

For Sears, it used to be all about the service. You knew when you walked into Sears that its product lines were good quality and that you would receive great service if you had any questions or needed help. Now, you walk into Sears and nobody can explain anything about a battery or a tool or an appliance. Its service has taken a plunge but it hasn’t made up for it in price. Other stores, like Wal-Mart for example, have the same products but offer them at a better price.

On the other side of the coin, every time I go into Home Depot and have a question, I get it answered immediately (and of course, realize I need more equipment and tools). I end up being led by the sales associate to four other aisles to find things. It’s good business. That store is staffed with a bunch of people who know what they’re talking about.

This is interesting to me on the dental side of things because I go into dental offices all the time. Nine out of 10 dentists don’t let their staff talk intelligently to patients. Hygienists are afraid to show patients a cavity on an X-ray because they’re “not the doctor.” This is absurd.

The patient is sitting in the chair and the dental assistant is taking a PA and a bitewing for an emergency. The tooth is completely bombed out. It’s obvious that the tooth has to be extracted. The patient asks the dental assistant, who has been working for the practice for years, what the verdict is. She doesn’t answer because she’s afraid of her own doctor. She’s afraid of being knowledgeable staff member. So basically, the doctor wants to be Sears.

I often hear dentists use the excuse: “It’s illegal for a dental hygienist or an assistant to read an X-ray.” Can you name one hygienist, dental assistant or receptionist in America who is serving time in prison for reading an X-ray? It’s not like you, the doctor, are going to go in there and take the hygienist’s reading on the X-ray and just start doing a root canal blindly. No! You are going to evaluate it for yourself. You’re going to ask her to clarify if her handwriting is messy. You’re going to discuss what she saw versus what you’re seeing. This is why the “it’s illegal” excuse is just crazy. It’s crazy for the patient’s questions to be put off and it’s not fair for the staff. They’re knowledgeable, so let them show it in the work they do. The same way the knowledgeable employees at Home Depot take pride in their work, your assistant’s knowledge in the work she does is one of qualities that make her proud to work in your office. And it’s what keeps staff turnover low.

The best thing about having knowledgeable staff is that they’re empowered to do well, which means they’re often the longest-retained employees. Mary at the front desk might not be able to say for sure whether a tooth needs a root canal, but between a little knowledge about what might be causing the patients pain and the fact that she’s been sitting by the doctor’s side for 20 years… patients trust that. It’s selling the invisible.

I continue to hear dentists talk about how they want to operate on service not price. They want to develop a high-end practice. They want to do implants and veneers. It’s interesting to note that these are the same doctors who often come to meetings alone rather than bringing their staff. All I can say is “Where is your team!?” Where is the person answering the phone at your practice? The person who answers the phone should be sitting in a class on ortho or perio or root canals or gum disease. That person is going to be fielding 90 percent of the questions. That incoming call is one of the most powerful things in dentistry.

The greatest stores (those that are continuing to be successful in this economy) are all adding new services. Nordstrom added Topshop. Macy’s expanded their shoe department and partnered with Finish Line. They’re also continuing to train long-term staff to be knowledgeable. The workers know the brands inside and out. They offer specialty services like tailoring and personal shopping. Or in Home Depot’s case, tool rental and installation offerings. They’re differentiating themselves through staff as well as product and service offerings.

You need knowledgeable workers. Our team has busted our butts for 15 years to develop our online CE program. All you need to do is spring for a pizza or sandwiches and you can sit around a table for an hour at lunchtime with your team and watch a CE on Dentaltown. Right now we have about 215 courses online. You could watch one a week for four years and still not finish them! These courses are particularly great because they’re only an hour long (which is about how long our attention spans work effectively). You need knowledgeable workers. You shouldn’t be watching these courses alone. You shouldn’t be learning alone!

There is a lot to be learned from Sears. The failing department store and the stores that are thriving have one big difference—knowledgeable staff. So, which model are you going to follow?

Howard Live
Howard Farran, DDS, MBA, is an international speaker who has written dozens of published articles. To schedule Howard to speak to your next national, state or local dental meeting, e-mail
American Association of Dental
Office Managers (AADOM)

San Diego, California
Teresa Duncan – 732-842-9977
Peoria District Dental Society
East Peoria, Illinois
Annual Fall Seminar
Detroit, Michigan
Dr. Joseph R. Nemeth, DDS & Associates
Don Tremblay - 248-357-3100


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