The deadly middle

A year had passed since Nancy and Peter Milton moved into Middletown. The married couple had not yet sought the services of a new dentist and both decided it was time for a check-up.

Nancy asked some of the women at her office who they thought she should see. Peter began his search on the internet. Coincidentally, both came up with the same dentist’s name – Dr Price, who was conveniently based just down the road from the Milton’s new home.

Peter looked through his personal health file and found copies of his old dental records. He remembered that he’d been told before the move that he was in need of some significant treatment. His previous dentist had recommended four crowns and an onlay. Peter used the internet to find the names and numbers of a few more dentists. He figured he’d make a few comparison calls before going to see Dr Price – if he was going to make this kind of investment, he might as well be armed with the facts.

Seven of the 12 offices he dialled gave him their crown fee over the phone. He was quite surprised with the results. It seemed crowns in Middletown ranged anywhere from $499.99 to well over $1,000. Peter liked what he’d seen on the net about Dr Price – it seemed as if his office understood the needs of the community, and was using up-to-date modern techniques and equipment.

He decided to visit Dr Price in person. If he liked the office, and as long as Dr Price fell somewhere near the most reasonable of the local area fees, he’d found himself a new dentist. The appointment day arrived. Peter enjoyed his experience with Dr Price and his staff. The doctor confirmed that his former dentist’s plan was indeed a good one, but after the consultation ended and the estimate was given, they parted ways and never met again.

Dr Price charges $750 for a crown. He’s nowhere near the highest guys in town, so he mustn’t offer quite the service or expertise that they do. However, for Peter’s needs, a crown is a crown. He’s not paying $250 extra per crown if there’s an office charging only $499 just a mile or so down the street. He knows (thinks he knows) a good value when he sees one, and so Dr Price is the wrong doctor.

Subsequently Peter made an appointment with Value Dental. Value was a chain of 20 dental centres with offices in four states. He was happy enough with the treatment, the service and the resulting after care. Although they were pretty business-like, and the office fairly simple, it was exactly what he wanted – the most reasonable deal in town.

And so to Peter’s wife, Nancy. She was a senior partner in a big accounting firm. She too knew value, but her views were light years apart from Peter’s.

Nancy’s teeth were perfectly healthy but she’d recently turned 50 and she wanted a cosmetic ‘lift’. She’d been reading in Vogue and Glamour about some famous Hollywood-style dentists in Manhattan who treated all the stars to incredible smiles. The article said many dentists were now qualified to perform these dramatic aesthetic treatments – no longer did you need to fly to Hollywood or Manhattan.

Through discussions with her friends who’d had some cosmetic work done, it sounded like porcelain veneers were the way to go. Peter wanted to be helpful and called his list again, specifically asking the fee for a porcelain veneer. Once again, Value Dental came in at rock bottom with $399 per veneer. At the opposite end of the spectrum was the Centre for Esthetic Dentistry, who charged well over $1,000 per veneer, while Dr Price’s fee was $699. Caught bang in the middle again!

Nancy made two calls to dental practices herself, choosing the most expensive ones around as she wanted the best. Nancy’s rationale is critical to understanding how patients perceive dental fees. She assumed that just because those two doctors charged more, they must be worth more.

Nancy chose one of the two most expensive dentists in Middletown. He placed ten porcelain laminate veneers for a fee of almost $11,000. She was delighted with the service and the result. They pampered her with hot, fresh bread baked right in the office, white wine, massage pads on the chairs, heated neck support pillows, a selection of movies to watch during the treatment on television screens perfectly positioned in the ceiling.

Nancy was given stereo headphones to wear to help her enjoy the movie. She was also treated to a hot lemon-scented face cloth afterwards. At the placement visit, the doctor gave her a gift of soaps and scents in a handmade wooden case. Of course she was delighted!

So what’s the moral of the Middletown story? In his book Selling the Invisible, Harry Beckwith describes the terror of the ‘deadly middle’. We all position ourselves in business, consciously or otherwise.

The Peters of this world look for what they see as the best value. What they really seek may not be the best value, rather the lowest fee. The Nancys of our world seek out those who apparently deliver the highest quality result, service and expertise. They can’t judge two out of those three factors, so price is often crucial in their decision. If it’s expensive, it must be great.

Either position (cheapest or most expensive) will draw in customers. Being the cheapest may cause a few problems of its own with margins or overheads, but it may be a viable position due to sheer volume.

But beware the deadly middle. Poor Dr Price was caught in that zone. Those who really want to seek out and take advantage of the best bargains around would never use his services because he is simply too expensive. Those who seek the finest health care available simply assume it won’t be Dr Price – if he doesn’t believe in his work sufficiently to charge a fee similar to some of the finer offices in town, then who are they to disagree with his self-assessment?

At first glance some people might assume that positioning your business somewhere in the middle is a good thing. But be wary when drawing up your price plans, it may cost you.

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