The Lesson for Dentists in the Demise of Kodak

In 1996, Eastman Kodak had a market value of over $30 billion, and was considered the fifth most valuable brand in the world. In September 2013, the final bankruptcy of the company made its shares worth nothing. Zero.image

How did this happen? In the beginning, George Eastman started with a brilliant idea: make photography easier and more portable. It worked. Over the years, the business evolved, and Kodak believed that its business was about making better and better film, and it did that. And it dominated the film photography industry, and almost completely ignored the onset of digital photography.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t what people cared about. We all have boxes of photos that we never look at. What people really want to do is share photos, as easily and quickly as possible. We take pictures to show other people. George Eastman wanted to make photography easy. Digital photography does that, much more easily than film can. The company wandered away from Eastman’s guiding principle, believing it was in the film business, when it was in the sharing business.

Here’s another clue. Instagram, a simple program to enhance digital photos on cell phones, sold to Facebook for one billion dollars after two years of operation and not a single dollar of revenue! Why? Because Facebook knows people want to share photos easily.

So how does this relate to dentistry? Quite closely, in fact. I meet many dentists who believe that if they just become better dentists then this will automatically get them more patients. Some were even told this by their ivory-tower professors in dental school. The truth is, if you build it, they still won’t come. Most people do not know how to evaluate a dentist’s clinical skills. But they can evaluate the experience of being in the practice. In about ten seconds.

That experience starts with the website, social media and the phone skills of your front desk people. And is carried through by everything else that patients see, hear, taste touch and smell in your practice. From the design of your reception to your scrubs to the words you use.

Kodak believed it was about better film. Some dentists believe it’s all about more skills, more courses, more training. Those are still valuable, but building a practice is as much or more about the convenience of receiving that dentistry, either with more convenient hours, IV sedation, Invisalign, CEREC or other same day dentistry technology, or better phone skills, a nicer looking reception area and an effective online presence.

I know many dentists with B-level clinical skills who have thriving practices because they understand what patients want. And I know several A+ level dentists who are hanging by their fingernails, hoping that they’ll stop losing more patients.

The world is changing. Loyalty is harder to gain with patients. They expect convenience, a nice atmosphere, and ease of payment. Because of this, a number of dental practices are about to have their own “Kodak moment”, when their value gradually diminishes to essentially nothing. Their patients will have left, and will have not told them why.

So I’m telling you why. If you think you don’t need a nice reception area, and a clean, technologically advanced practice, and a friendly staff, and an active Facebook presence and a dynamic website, you’re fooling yourself. The decline of your practice will be gradual, until it’s rapid. Think I’m way off base? Ask the guy who had a little coffee shop and thought Starbucks wasn’t going to affect him. Ask the computer store owner who didn’t think Dell computers would change the industry. Ask the film editor who didn’t think digital editing would catch on.

Keep taking your clinical courses, and getting better at providing high-quality, comfort-conscious dentistry. You’re a medical professional. But don’t think for a minute that, in the next decade, that’s going to be enough.

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9 thoughts on “The Lesson for Dentists in the Demise of Kodak

  1. Fred, you are espousing what I have been saying for years…it’s about the *TOTAL* experience.

    Patients don’t know how good your margins are, but they know how good you make them feel.

    And they know how rude or careless your office and team can be…and they will walk right out of your office and find an office that truly does care.

    Your words are exactly my MANTRA….Dentists need to be providing World Class Customer Service to their clients…from start to finish!!

    Great blog!!

  2. Fred,
    I am going to completely agree with everything you said here! David Moffet is right on when he stated this is our MANTRA. The front office is a vital if not key part of the patient experience. Social media brings them to through the door, but GREAT customer service keeps them conning back. And THAT is the key to marketing success!

  3. All sounds great and it works beautifully in theory on equal grounds. I am pro everything you say and patients in our practice truly get the five star Ritz-Carlton Service. What is different now than ever is that our profit margins are declining fast. A dentist office is just what it is, a small business, to stand above the crowd and let the world know that you are a different practice than Dr X down the street, requires aggressive marketing, because we all know that word of mouth referral is to slow to grow and sustain a practice. There is only so much you can push your fees up in a competitive economy and not every patient walks through the door is willing to sign up for comprehensive care. Also, not to mention, with aggressive marketing every jealous, stinky dentist who is not willing to risk their money on marketing becomes your enemy and you become a target to every hungry vicious lawyer who want to sue you for anything and everything, and I am just not talking about malpractice cases. Kodak was a huge company and their fault was not to see beyond what they could do but the funding was there to change things around. When you are talking about sharing photos that is different that people sharing about their teeth. Yes they could say, I went to the most beautiful office in town but how many patients with full mouth of veneers actually post their experience on social media telling the world that they had worked on their teeth. So it sounds all great in theory but not practice. What the profession needs to do is to get up one morning, all united; stop compromising their fees for quality of care and ban all dental plans from their practices and take the control back of their practices, as one large group and fight like hell to protect dentist’s rights. Dentists are constantly abused by non dentists who want to share the profit of their hard earned dollars Dentistry either through management contracts, low insurance reimbursement fees and/or selling their products and services on their fear that they would not do well without them. Dentistry and Medicine are on a decline because of low profit margins, the associated liabilities. The clinical and administrative stress of owning an office is not worth it, even if you were netting a million dollar and 99% of dentists are fraction of that amount and are more in the middle class category.

    • Allen, I doubt that you can get all dentists to agree to do anything (they can only get 65% to join the ADA, and then they still don’t agree on anything.) The point of my post is that you are responsible for your own economy, your business, and that you have to evolve to what the marketplace is looking for. It may mean more work, different fee schedules, even moving to a new city. It sounds like you’re burned out on the whole profession, and I hate to see that, because I know you’re not alone.

  4. Very well said Fred! It’s so unfortunate that it takes a “Kodak Moment” before some will comprehend exactly what will make or break a business. There can be no weak link in the customer service department…….including the Dentist. 🙂

    • You’ve got it right, Cindy. A dental practice is too small a business to have a weak link. That wasn’t always true, but the times they are a-changing, and evolving and adapting are the keys to a productive and satisfying future.

  5. As a pediatric specialist, I always try to focus on referrals from trusted referral sources such as pediatricians and general practitioners who do not see children. I feel that the same ‘5 star service’ can apply to not only the patients you see, but the referral sources you receive! Even something as simple as a personalized letter or a call saying thank you, how did it go with your family/our mutual patient? Social media certainly is important for younger families but do not discount those ‘personal relationships’!

  6. I agree about the “total experience,” however disagree on Kodak, as a model. Kodak failed for a number of reasons.

    First, it got away from what the business originally was: Chemicals.

    Second, although Kodak did go into the digital camera arena, for consumer use, in the mid-to-late 90’s, other firms had already been involved in R&D earlier in the game and was creating higher definition products, as Kodak got it’s sales off, in digital photography.

    Finally, the business model has been screwed-up since the early 80’s, when Kodak bailed out of the sponsorship of the 1984 Olympics and gave Fuji Film the opening they needed, to establish an American beach head. Since then, Fuji Film has grown, not only in film, but in digital photography. Management also was stuck on an emphasis on film, while digital photography eventually became King of the Hill, not to mention that DoD contracts were calling out for digital recorders and not film, for air recon missions.

    So, one’s business needs to either evolve, adapt and overcome, or just fold.

    • Steven, you’re right. It’s always a number of reasons, usually involving ignoring the competition and thinking you will always dominate because you’re on top now. Bailing on the Olympics is a classic example of thinking your brand is so powerful it doesn’t need continual reinforcement. Staying top of mind in people’s awareness is basic marketing, and even big brands can screw that up.

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