There are lots of ways to run a successful dental practice, which became one of the biggest challenges facing Steve Bilt and his leadership team as they contemplated the future of Smile Brands Group Inc.
“Defining a simple agenda that supports what your customer wants and needs, understanding who that customer is and then delivering that value has been a big challenge,” says Bilt, the $600 million company’s co-founder, president and CEO.
“I could look inside the 400 different units we support and say, ‘OK, you can find every model under the sun in some way, shape or form working. But if we’re going to continue to expand and refine our services and systems to better serve and support those units, there has to be more consistency in what we do.’”
It’s a question that any business with units spread across the country or around the world must answer for itself. Bilt says it’s only getting harder to come up with the right answer because the market and customer needs are constantly evolving.
“So what may have been a focused-enough strategy five years ago is a path to doom five years from now,” Bilt says.
But as the members of Bilt’s team began to wrap their minds around what needed to be done for the company’s 3,800 employees, more than 1,300 affiliated doctors and hygienists, and their patients, they kept coming back to one philosophical belief.
“There’s no one absolutely right answer, but the right answer is one answer,” Bilt says. “If you think that through, it’s not saying my way is better than your way. You don’t have to make that call. You just have to say, ‘Look. We have to decide on one way, which might be a hybrid of models with each of us bringing something to the table.
“‘But what we have to do as a team is decide on one way and pursue that one way and make sure our systems support that one way and our talk and our attitude and everything we do down to our DNA supports that one way of us adding value into the marketplace.’”
Provide the best service
The operational evolution at Smile Brands was a four-year process that included a number of different opinions, ideas and suggestions. But one of the core ideals that the group settled on was finding the best way to harness all the dental skill that existed in the organization in order for customers to receive the best care.
“We used to say let’s just create a cocoon of support around this doctor so they can just be a doctor, period,” Bilt says. “Don’t have any other level of resource for them other than the fact that they get all the freedom to be a doctor.”
The problem with that type of practice in today’s world is it wastes so much potential to share expertise and solve problems.
“Any peer group is going to have some people who excel at one thing and have a lot of experience,” Bilt says. “But if you’re out in the dental office by yourself staring at a problem you haven’t seen before, you say, ‘Oh boy, I’ll figure this out by trial and error,’ which is what you would do 15 years ago. Or you’d pick up the phone and say, ‘Here’s what I’m looking at. What do you think?’”
Bilt felt Smile Brands had the capability and thus needed to make it possible for dentists who encountered these unique problems to be able to connect with a colleague in real time and reach a solution in minutes.
“There’s this opportunity in this digital age to create an incredible peer group in a lonely profession,” Bilt says.
The ability to use technology to solve problems or even for training purposes was just something that was too good to pass up. And the best part, Bilt says, is that the integration of the right technology at Smile Brands would also reduce expenses.
“The customer has somebody who has access to stuff that is so much more powerful,” Bilt says. “That gives the doctor the ability to charge less, which is great for the consumer as well. The combination of doctors being able to be just dentists so that they can see more patients means they have an ability to charge less because they have higher volume, and all the technology helps them lever their cost structure down.”
You get a great idea for your business and everyone is energized to make it happen. It’s at this point where trouble can be lurking.
“We all love that rush of the initial front-end strategy planning and brainstorming session that we all do,” Bilt says. “What we don’t tend to love is the concept of change management and how do you get from here to there?”
It takes work and effort to make a change happen and some of that work can be painful. This can very easily lead to the drifting of attention away from one project that has suddenly become a lot of work to another project that seems so much more fun to talk about.
“You allow another shiny strategic initiative to start while the change management and implementation of the prior one is incomplete,” Bilt says. “You don’t go back and measure whether the first shiny initiative did what it was supposed to do and then you get distracted with the next one and forget about ever measuring the prior one. That cycle can go on for decades. That gets people into a lot of trouble.”
One key to avoiding stress and keeping your organization focused is to let people who have expertise in certain areas apply that skill to get the work done and isolate the flaws before full implementation.
Listen to their needs, their suggestions and their feedback on the best way to implement your new system.
“The docs are our thoroughbreds, and we’re the plow horses,” Bilt says. “If we’re doing it right, the plow horses plow and the thoroughbreds run. That’s really the point of the model. Let them be the thoroughbreds they are and let us plow the fields or build the track. That’s what we’re supposed to do.”
Define what you want to accomplish and get it into a plan that everyone understands and agrees to. Make sure they are aware that while there will be highs and lows along the way, the end goal will make it all worthwhile.
“My role is to help provide some vision for what we’re trying to do,” Bilt says. “What do we hope to accomplish? I try to provide support for people executing it so that they can do it properly to make sure the phases are properly led, staffed and resourced to have some level of establishing accountability for the results of each phase.”
Be a good communicator
Another major step in the transformation of Smile Brands was figuring out how to roll out the changes at each of the 400 locations. Who goes first? Who needs the upgrade most? Which locations will be the hardest to change?
Bilt says there’s no perfect way to roll out a big change. But he says communication is always the key to making it work.
“Most people are less attached to the outcome that they want in terms of where they are in the order of priority than they are in understanding why you made the decision you made,” Bilt says. “I love to know why you’re doing what you’re doing. That shows respect for me. Then I want to know how I’m impacted. Are you getting to me and if you are, when? What should I expect?”
Bilt poses a scenario in which somebody might feel strongly that his or her location should be the first to be upgraded because it is the company’s most profitable unit.
“You could say, ‘You know what, I agree with you,’” Bilt says. “‘That’s why you’re going last. You are the best market. You want to go first because you’re the best. I’m saying you go last because I’m not going to mess with you. I can’t afford it and it’s too risky.
“‘So I’m going to the worst market because if we screw it up, it costs us the least.’ We could have the exact same rationale and the exact opposite conclusion.”
Explain to people your thought process behind the implementation of change and they’ll be much more likely to be onboard with you.
“You have to do it multiple ways,” Bilt says. “I always say the rule of three when it comes to communication. If you have a new concept or an important concept, you better give it three passes to get it communicated because there is always a gap between what we think we’re saying and what people are hearing.
“It just takes multiple passes to get it right and allow them to process it and understand it.”
As Bilt looks back on the process, he says there are always things that could have been done better.
“Everything is a journey,” Bilt says. “So how did we go along that journey and how did we carry ourselves and how did we perform and how did we pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off when it got tougher than it was supposed to get? Those are the stories that make a career.”
How to reach: Smile Brands Group Inc., (714) 668-1300 or www.smilebrands.com
The Bilt File
co-founder, president and CEO
Smile Brands Group Inc.
Born: New York City
What was your very first job?
Delivering The Denver Post in the snow. Back then, it was a crazy job for a kid. You took capital risk. You had to buy your newspapers from the newspaper. You had to deliver them, collect your own money, then pay back your cost of the newspapers and you kept your margin. So if a grumpy old neighbor didn’t want to pay for the paper, it was the 13-year-old kid losing out and not the newspaper. So I learned a lot of lessons on that job.
Who has been your biggest influence?
I have to give a lot of early credit to my dad. He helped me when I was going to fall down too far in the newspaper job by helping me fold the Sunday paper or pull the cart through the snow when it was too deep to physically move it. He did help with that job to make sure I had some success or at least got that job done.
The other thing is he was really good about not knowing all the answers to the stuff he was dealing with in business. He’d actually bring up a lot of the questions he was facing at the dinner table and let me opine.
I got this notion that a business is a living, breathing thing that had to be managed and cared for and fed. It was very formative from that perspective to be able to hear and listen and participate in some of those conversations about what makes a business go and how does it go and how do you do it and how do you care for it?
Don’t try to do it all.
Communicate at every turn.
Finish the job.