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The Real Thing

The Real Thing

The marketing world--indeed the world--was shocked recently by the announcement that the Coca-Cola Company, after four and a half years of market research, was changing the 99-year-old formula for its Coca-Cola soft drink. This turned out to be a huge mistake, and the old formula was restored less than 99 days later. Even people who did not drink the product favored the old Coke, so complete has been the brand identification of Coca-Cola.

What Coca-Cola attempted to do was to gain a bigger market share by changing the product. This is a standard ploy in a competitive market. You can try to increase market share for your present product, change the product, seek new markets, or add new products.

Change "product" to "service" and consider orthodontic practice. We are often told that you can't stay in the traditional practice, that you must make intelligent decisions to change, but those who suggest this usually don't (can't) say what the intelligent decisions are. Before we get too excited about throwing out the traditional orthodontic practice, we ought to take a lesson from Coca-Cola.

If market research has been exposed as an inexact science, what is to be said for predicting the future? The future is not reliably predictable. It may be wiser not to presume a discontinuity among past, present, and future. The chances are that there are more continuities than discontinuities, and that the discontinuities are usually not predicted correctly, if ever. Most of the discontinuities are actually continuities that we failed to predict. One of the great discontinuities of our time grew out of the post-World War II baby boom. The baby boom and its effects were not appreciated until very late along, and certainly were not predicted. Strangely, the subsequent baby bust and its effects were also not predicted or appreciated. Yet population trends have the longest advance warning of any demographic factors, because most of them relate to people who are already born.

The private, fee-for-service, referral-source practice of orthodontics is one of the most rewarding enterprises in the history of man. It should not be abandoned without a serious effort at survival. " I am a great believer in luck" , Thomas Jefferson said, " and I find the harder I work the more of it I have" . There is no indication that any well-motivated, well-trained orthodontist cannot succeed in the foreseeable future if he or she is willing to work hard at learning and applying knowledge that was not a part of our formal education--management, marketing, behavior motivation, communication.

The wise orthodontist takes from tradition what is good and rejects what is not. For him or her, there is no tradition bond--only building on orthodontic strengths that have evolved from our past 99 years or so and eliminating as many weaknesses as are in our power to affect.

What are orthodontists' strengths? Specialty training and knowledge, a sense of quality and the ability to deliver it, the substantial benefits of orthodontic treatment, individual attention, continuity, entrepreneurial motivation, high public approval, and the fact that people come seeking treatment.

What are orthodontists' weaknesses? The fact that treatment is usually elective; growing competition in a stable child market; inattention to management and marketing (letting things happen instead of making things happen); authoritarian management; insufficient delegation with trust, responsibility, and authority; lack of differentiation of specialty; lack of differentiation of individual practices; and unsuitable personality and temperament (relating better to things than to people).

Building on strength appears to be the pursuit of excellence. Eliminating weaknesses appears to be the building of new strengths, especially in management and practice building. Success may come more easily to those with outgoing personalities, but there is not just one combination of personality and style that works. Attracting patients is one thing; effective practice administration and treatment is another. There is room in orthodontic practice for the naturally friendly, caring orthodontist and for the kind and considerate authority figure. There is diminishing room for the authoritarian figure, and almost no room for the practice that lacks consideration for the patients' and parents' time, comfort, convenience, and need for communication.

Opportunities still abound to achieve practice growth and continued success in the private, referral-source orthodontic practice. There is an opportunity to increase market share of the child market by better management, and especially by better internal marketing. There is a great opportunity to increase share of the adult market by having an adult practice in an adult environment. There are opportunities to add services--especially TMJ and lingual orthodontics. There are opportunities to add geographic markets through satellite offices, sometimes at considerable distances from the main office. There are opportunities to differentiate one's practice from all other practices.

Some practices need a tune-up and some need an overhaul. There is still time to maximize success in the form of practice we know and prefer. It will not come from looking into crystal balls. It will come from whatever organized effort it takes to understand one's strengths and weaknesses and to apply the strategies and tactics we may know, but have not used. There may always be a threat of failure, but that is the entrepreneurial condition. There will always be the possibility of sweet success, and that is also the entrepreneurial condition. That is the real thing.



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