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There’s no playbook for a pandemic. Every single dental practice and DSO had to figure out what to do fast when the coronavirus struck and all non-urgent dental care shut down.

 

 

At Smile Brands, they likened it to falling into a canyon. Everyone felt like they had fallen off a cliff, and now they had to figure out how to climb back out.  They quickly realized they couldn’t return to the same place they had started, so they focused on a new point to reach, put together a plan, and started executing it one step at a time.

In this insightful interview with Smile Brands Chief Marketing Office Jody Martin, she describes how the team faced each challenge for its more than 400 affiliated practices.

 

Priority #1: Creating & Communicating Safety Protocols to Team Members

At the height of the COVID shutdown, more than half of Smile Brands employees were furloughed. There were a lot of emotions swirling around, and people were getting their information from a wide range of sources.  Some people were scared to come back.

The executive team sent out daily emails and hosted videos multiple times a week to share with active and furloughed team members what the company was doing to ensure their personal safety, their patients’ safety, and the health of the business. They also started an internal Facebook group.

Many Smile Brands practices had stayed open for urgent care, so they had developed protocols for COVID screening, temperature checks, parking lot check-ins, PPE changes, and enhanced disinfection. Now the management team had to communicate those changes to all of the furloughed team members to let them know it was safe to return. Smile Brands created videos, signage, and SOPs that could be accessed by everyone on their team.

“It’s a very difficult and stressful time for our teams, both in terms of the physical discomfort with all those layers of PPE and the heightened concerns of the patients,” said Jody. “We’ve spent a lot of time and effort around the mental health of our employees to coach them on things they can do to avoid burnout. This week, we’ve been focused on the resurgence (in COVID cases) and it’s sad because many people had the mindset that this was behind them and it’s clearly not.”

Safety has evolved to mean more than just physical safety from COVID infection. It also means a safe place to come to work and know you’ll be treated with dignity and respect.

 

Priority #2: Reassure Patients it was Safe to Return

“We created a number of different communication tools to communicate our safety measures in social media, text messages, and email messages to current patients,” said Jody Martin.

“We did a lot of outreach to patients to let them know we were back open, things as basic as giant vinyl banners outside of our locations as well as phone calls, texts and emails.”

Jody’s challenge was creating messages that would reassure  patients that it was safe to return, and important to not put off needed care.

 

Priority #3: Changing Mindset and Operations

The canyon metaphor is an effective way to describe how you can get back to the top – but not to the exact same place you had been.

The pandemic forced Smile Brands and many dental groups to re-examine how they perform patient care. As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention.

In order to accommodate social distancing, Smile Brands looked at ways to expand its hours of operation and to create patient workflows that limited the opportunities for patients to be exposed to other patients.

Patients don’t want to have to return for multiple visits, and team members don’t want to have to change PPE non-stop. Those two concerns led to a shift in mindset to focus more on same-day dentistry.

“A lot of this happened organically during the crisis,” said Jody. “Every patient they saw was in pain, and the goal was to get those patients out of pain and to do as much dentistry as possible to address the cause so they could limit their exposure of coming back.”

Another shift has been the patients’ mindsets. During a health crisis, it’s more important than ever to have a healthy immune system. The mouth is the gateway to the body, and periodontal disease has been linked to a number of other diseases including heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Patients are realizing that taking care of their oral health can help them take care of their overall health.

 

Priority #4: Restarting Dental Marketing

During the height of the crisis, Smile Brands turned off all paid marketing. When practices started reopening, the marketing team evaluated their capacity to see new patients and then started digital marketing, social media marketing, and postcard campaigns.

“With digital media, you can decide really quickly if it’s working or not. We were surprised to see that our ads were working even better than pre-COVID,” said Jody. “Some of that was because other practices were still closed, but there are other factors at play. Right now, more people are still working at home so they can adjust their schedules more easily than if they were working in an office. I also think the relief money from the federal government has certainly helped.”

 

Priority #5: Doctor & Staff Retention and Recruiting

Communication is key to creating a culture of resiliency and strength, even during difficult times. Smile Brands stayed committed to communicating with its team members throughout the crisis, and the messaging continues to evolve as new challenges emerge.

Smile Brands actually has made a lot of resources available for private practice dentists to use, too. The coronavirus isn’t going away anytime soon, and the economy could feel its effects for years. That has some solo practitioners evaluating the benefits of joining a dental support organization. 

“Many of our providers told us ‘I have no idea what I would have done if I had still been in my private practice during this crisis’,” said Jody. “We’ve learned that we’re more resilient than we thought, and we’ve come together as a team in ways that we never had before. We were always a close-knit team, but this took it to another level.”

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