By Danny Chan
The recent sale of Dr Guthrie’s practice presented an opportunity to gather the Brisbane dentist’s thoughts and reflections on what it takes to maintain a decades-spanning dental career and practice. Speaking to the personable Practice Co Principal, you immediately realise that customer service ranks high on his topical agenda.
“It’s amazing to see how much we spend on marketing to bring a patient through the door and yet we often do not treat the patient that is already there in front of us as the top priority,” Dr Guthrie bemoans.
Over the last 25 years – out of 33 years spent in total as general dentist – Dr Guthrie has been serving as one of the partners and Practice Principals at Toowong Dental Group, a thriving 50-year-old practice operating in Brisbane’s inner suburbs. Together with fellow TDG stalwart Brendan Nasser, the partners recently sold the family-focused surgery to Ekera Dental while choosing to remain as practice principals.
Apart from the financial aspects, the three main reasons Dr Guthrie and his partner picked Ekera Dental over half a dozen other contenders were: (1) Autonomy to run the practice as practice principals; (2) TDG’s branding to remain largely unchanged after transition; and (3) Ekera’s unassuming style of leadership.
Not surprisingly, all three points converge on a subject matter close to Dr Guthrie’s heart: Customer service. Indeed, as the dentist ruminates over his dental career and business, the thing that keeps coming up is his clarion call to “put the customer (patient) first.”
What may sound passé on a practice webpage is proof in the pudding for someone like Dr Guthrie. Not only can he point to a loyal patient following at TDG, some of his most ardent supporters have been following him since his first practice location in Annerley some 30 years ago.
More tellingly, the beloved dentist currently treats the teenage offspring of several long-time patients, who themselves were only kids when he first attended to them. How many dentists can say that?
That’s probably why Dr Guthrie proffers that private dentists have much to gain from cultivating kiddy clientele early on in their careers. The most organic way to expand your patient base, he avers, is to look after the little ones well. Over time, parents tend to follow the clinic that takes good care of their children, typically out of sheer convenience but also because their confidence in your skills and professionalism is pegged to the impression that you leave on their children.
Dr Guthrie believes his enduring career has something to do with his graduate posting in the Cairns countryside as a fledgling dentist back in the 1980s, where he and 5 dental auxiliaries attended to over 4,000 primary school going children, including those from State and Aboriginal mission schools.
Although he had grudgingly accepted the posting – the prospect of working with kids was an unwelcome challenge at the time – Dr Guthrie believes that’s where he found his feet as a child-friendly dentist, and from there, went on to build an enviable career as a trusted family dentist
Once again, pulling the frame of reference back to customer service, he continues:
“You simply cannot afford to neglect any segment of your customer base. If you value and invest time in your patients – including the youngest and smallest of them – they will give you the support in return.”
“Conversely, if you don’t value your customers enough, you are not only selling them short but also devaluing your own business in the long-run.”
Interestingly, Dr Guthrie’s warning against taking customers for granted actually played out in real life, except with the roles reversed.
When TDG was put on the radar of several acquisition suitors, including big-name corporate entities, Dr Guthrie and his business partner had rightly expected the level of attentiveness that they were accustomed to giving their own customers. As it turned out, only one of them – Ekera Dental – was up to the mark.
Revealing that they were initially on course to sell their practice to a larger corporate, Dr Guthrie says they had a change of heart in the eleventh hour due to the company’s slowness in responding to their inquiries.
“If this company isn’t giving us the due attention before the sale, imagine the kind of treatment we would get if we were to continue working under their management?” he recalls asking Dr Nasser, before the duo decided to revisit Ekera’s offer.
Ekera’s congenial management team clearly stood out in stark contrast to the rest. In other words, their demeanour and working style closely aligned with the partners’ positive vision of a reliable acquisition firm – and future colleagues.
“Not only was Tony Coulepis (Ekera’s CEO) and his team highly responsive and attentive to assist all our enquiries, their “business as usual” model gave us the assurance that we could carry on as practice principals without unnecessary top-down interference when running the clinic’s day-to-day affairs.”
The “business as usual” model further extended to TDG’s image branding following the handover: As far as patients are concerned, nothing has changed. This way, the practice principals stay on as “the face” of the practice, thus ensuring minimal disruption to the painstakingly cultivated dentist-patient relationships – something the partners take earnest pride in.
Having the right attitude to customer service, Dr Guthrie presses on, is critical not only to the longevity of the business. He believes it has also impacted the culture of Toowong Dental Group as a whole.
“There have been a total of 8 partners throughout the 50 years TDG has been in existence. To my knowledge and it’s certainly true from my own 25-year experience here, the partners and their entire staff team have always enjoyed a good working relationship with minimal fuss.
“Due to our culture of ‘putting the patient first’, we have found it easier to set aside our own petty idiosyncrasies, perhaps in service to a higher calling.”
Having relinquished his former role as TDG’s co-owner, Dr Guthrie now has more time to spend with Kerri, wife of 33 years, and four adult sons. Outside the family, the keen offshore fisherman can usually be found stealing moments with his “second wife” – a boat that he has owned for nearly 15 years – or occasionally firing up the BBQ pit for buddies from his close-knit neighbourhood that has remained together for over 20 years.
For the sentimental dentist, perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the post-sale experience is to know that his beloved patients remain in good hands.
“Thankfully, Dr Nasser and myself have found a like-minded partner in Ekera Dental, who shares our commitment to strive for the patient’s well-being. For as long as the ‘patient-first’ ethos remains, we know that TDG will continue to do well long after our own departure.”