Quite some time ago Charles Revson, chairman of the board and founder of the giant Revlon cosmetics empire, made some comments during an interview that have since become gospel in the marketing community. When asked to describe his business, he made the following distinction: “In the factory we make cosmetics. In the store we sell hope.”

Revson’s instincts were entirely those of a marketing man. He understood that he produced a product that was easy to manufacture, that many other competitors could (and did) duplicate, and which consumers could do without.

Most important, he clearly understood that consumers had an entirely different perception of his product than did those who manufactured it. In other words, Revson understood that he was in the business of marketing, not of producing cosmetics.

What business are you in? Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How easily could your patients replace you if they chose to switch dentists?
  • How quickly could your patients find another dentist within a few miles of your office?
  • How many of your patients act as though their dental treatments are absolutely essential?
  • How many of your patients have any understanding whatsoever of the techniques, materials, instruments, or procedures you employ in your treatments?

For 99% of you, here are the likely answers:

  • Very, very easily.
  • In about 2 minutes flat.
  • Practically none.
  • None.

In other words, you are in the same business as Charles Revson. He manufactures cosmetics, you manufacture dental treatments; but you are both in the business of selling hope. The only difference is that he knew it, while many of you still don’t.

The fault isn’t entirely yours. In fact, most of the blame lies with the educational system in which you were trained. In dentistry, there is a tremendous gap between process and output. Virtually all of the training provided to dental students is process‑oriented and highly technical. Little attention is paid to the output, or “finished product” you are supposed to create: a healthier patient.

The bottom line is, in fact, that many dentists fail to even perceive what their final output actually is. Proof of this can be found in the language of dentistry, the clearest indication of the cultural orientation of dentists to their work and patients. Most of the time, completed work is referred to as “production”, “finished restorations”, and the like. When there is reference to patients, it is usually made abstract as “patient visits” or “patient records”. The noun “patient” becomes an adjective describing “visits” or “records”!

This tendency toward dehumanizing patients by focusing on process instead of output is quite inadvertent; it is the result of years of technical training and practice. Nevertheless, the implication is that many dentists fail to understand their marketplace and role in it. The result is a public that is indifferent and even hostile to dental care, and many missed marketing opportunities for you.

The problem was best summarized (and lampooned) in a cartoon, I found in The New Yorker several years ago. It was so insightful that I now include it as a slide in my marketing seminar.

The image in the cartoon is that of a dentist standing next to a patient who is seated in a dental chair. The patient is obviously extremely nervous — not only is there perspiration on his forehead, but he is gripping the sides of the chair so tightly that the seams on the chair’s arms are splitting.

The dentist is unaware of his patient’s fear because his back is turned; he is facing, and obviously admiring, a poster of a tooth on the wall. Staring intently at the poster, and speaking out loud to himself — and perhaps the patient — he is saying “Now we are about to begin our journey through the pulp, down the nerve shaft, and on past the root . . .

Obviously the practitioner is lost in his admiration of the intricacies of the tooth and the technical wonderment of the work he is about to complete. He is totally engulfed in the process.

Even many of those dentists who have been actively engaged in aggressive marketing have fallen into the process/output trap. Many dental advertisements have tended to describe procedures and use technical terminology that is both unfamiliar and uninteresting to prospective patients.

Who wants to know, really?

For example, implant advertisements have featured anatomically accurate cross sections of the lower jaw, with implant fixtures prominently displayed. These images would be more appropriate in a horror film advertisement. Other common graphics in dental ads have included close up photos of teeth and gums. The photos contain no faces, no eyes, no personalities‑‑just photographs that are identical to what one expects to find in dental textbooks or case studies.

The same is true in some of the copy found in dental advertisements. It often is too long‑winded on descriptions of procedures and materials, and contains little or no emphasis on patient benefits or concerns. In short, dentists who create these ads are examples of those who do not know what business they are in.

The distinction between process and output can often be best explained by considering the difference between products and services. Earlier I noted that dentists tend to refer to their output as “production” in their language and literature. Combined with the emphasis on process, the implication is that dentists tend to believe that they are engaged in the production of tangible products, such as restorations, bridgework, or orthodontic appliances.

This belief is precisely the misnomer. The above are merely tools that you create along the way to completing your real output, a healthier or happier patient. If you make the error of thinking of restorations and the like as your final “product”, you are failing to make precisely the distinction Charles Revson made in the interview I quoted earlier.

In fact, dentists are not engaged in the creation of any products at all; they provide professional services. And the important distinction between products and services is lost if you focus on your process instead of your outcome. Like the character in the cartoon, your focus will be completely different than that of your patients. This will create a gap in perceptions that will seriously damage your marketing and communications efforts.

One major difference is that while goods are produced, services are performed, ie, you perform, rather than produce surgery. If you think of yourself as always doing a performance, then your communications skills, personal habits, body language, and appearance suddenly become as important as your clinical skills. Since it has been clearly established that patients judge the quality and acceptability of their dentists on these non‑clinical attributes, the marketing implications are apparent.

Dental services are thus intangible. Patients can seldom actually see them, as they would a product in a store. An important component of dental marketing must therefore be to overcome this lack of tangibility by creating as many tangible representations of your service as possible to augment your case presentations and marketing efforts.

The use of before‑and‑after photography (full‑face) is an example of a tangible representation, as are patient testimonials and well‑written and designed brochures. These are actually props that you can use in your “performance”. They should be presented and used to identify patient benefits, rather than practitioner processes. Thus, study models, anatomical drawings, and other items used in dental education should not be part of patient marketing. Many patients are intimidated by overly realistic or graphic devices.

Tangible Results

One implication of the above is that an increased emphasis on cosmetic dentistry will help your practice not only because the public is interested in it, but also because the results of cosmetic procedures are more visible and tangible than most others. As a consequence, marketing professionals tend to encourage it with their dentist/clients.

One of the ironies of good dentistry (other than cosmetic) is that it usually is “invisible” as well as intangible. If you provide outstanding preventive care in your practice, than your patients will have few dental problems. If they have few dental problems, they may fail to recognize your contribution, since nothing ever goes wrong. Your “process” will be ignored or discounted, particularly since it is discomforting when performed.

Thus, another form of tangible evidence to include in your marketing efforts is some sort of reminder of the consequences of non‑treatment. Literature about people who neglected dental care and suffered serious consequences will serve you well if it is available for patients in your waiting area.

The important point is that patients do not see themselves as purchasing a product when they visit your office. They are purchasing a promise — your assurance that your services will provide them with better health and appearances. Your responsibility is to understand the distinction between process and outcome, so that you can make the transition to perceiving yourself as a service provider rather than a product producer.

Once you determine the true nature of your output and begin to address its intangible and qualitative nature, both your internal and external marketing efforts will be more successful.

Why? You will be communicating with your patients on their terms rather than yours. Like Charles Revson, you will be addressing their hopes, rather than your skills.

-Kirk Peery