‘Don’t lose the DNA’

It’s often said that running a successful business is like walking a tightrope – you need to take risks to reap the rewards but you also need to hang on to the values that are the very foundation of your company. This fine balance lies at the very core of the future of Dental Directory (DD), the largest full service dental dealer in the UK.

Mike Volk (pictured right in the photo) has been at the helm of the family-run business, as its sales and marketing director, for almost 20 years, coming from outside the industry. His colleague, Brent Sercombe (left), is a relative ‘new boy’ but also from outside the dental trade, previously working for Cable & Wireless and running his own business ventures until he was drafted in as interim head of sales at Dental Directory in January this year to strategise the company’s plans for the future.

He liked it so much, he ‘bought into’ the company – and took up the role as head of sales six months later when an opportunity appeared. Both men are dedicated to preparing the company for the ‘next big step’. They are determined that Dental Directory will lead the way in a world of dentistry that, they predict, is about to undergo massive change over the next five years.

Changing market
So, what are the challenges facing dentistry? Mike Volk is pragmatic: ‘The reality is that there are more people going NHS practices generally but fewer treatments. The private market, in my view, has been decimated in certain geographical areas but, if you are a great private dentist, you hold up.

‘This recession was different from the previous recessions; it hit the middle classes and this had a knock-on effect on the profession. The market has changed so, at the beginning of the year, I decided to review our sales structure.’

In a world of big corporates, Mike is rightly proud of Dental Directory’s USP – a family-owned business with no outside shareholders, a hugely successful and recognised brand and, possibly most importantly, a hugely loyal team with some staff chalking up 25, 26 and 30 years with the Witham, Essex-based company.

It has a reputation of looking after its staff and, even though there has been a small exodus of sales staff that coincided with the appointment of Brent, the pair realise this can only prove positive in their efforts to evolve the company.

Brent recognises that managing change within such a successful family firm is challenging, but draws parallels with evolution in sport and how great teams evolve over time, whilst maintaining high performance. Integrating new talent and technology into the successful blueprint that is DD is, he believes, the key to sustained success.

According to Brent, keeping focused on the ‘coffee machine chat’ business model of sharing and pooling ideas when a company grows is tricky but it is another of Dental Directory’s strengths and is a culture he embraces. Without the many layers of a corporate set-up, it means the team can get to market quickly and, with its ‘flat structure’, the management team remains energised – as do the whole of the staff – avoiding the pitfalls of becoming a ‘corporate monolith’. For Brent, it’s the reason he stayed – ‘it works for me because it’s a strong brand, great family values and a big-hitting organisation’.

Daily, Dental Directory’s sales office takes around 2,000 calls, resulting in around 5,800 orders and, over a typical 22 working day month, this amounts to about 670.000 product movements.

It caters for all dental buyers – from the practice manager who prefers to phone in orders to the electronic-savvy practice principal to those who come somewhere in between. Interestingly, however, the variations in expectations and needs are less to do with age and status of dental teams, and much more of a regional difference.

Brent says: ‘We are a national brand but with a local reach. We are more interested in educating the dentist in our products that just selling and are introducing regional initiatives to enhance our strong traditional commercial propositions. We want to add value to the customer’s experience with a tailor made service, honed specifically to different regions. We want to pool knowledge and resources between those in our team with clinical knowledge and the sales staff so that we can provide a comprehensive support package to our customers – and that’s the differential.’

Changes afoot
Changes afoot include the recent launch of a new website at Dental Showcase that will make ordering from Dental Directory a seamless experience. Having established the original site many years ago – and long before other companies were looking at online ordering – Mike suddenly woke up to the need for a new one by simply listening to feedback from dentists.

As he acknowledges: ‘Progress means an element of risk and you need to have confidence in these challenging times. We regularly hold focus group evenings and we have learnt that the trigger for dentists is less about price and more about having the confidence that they are not being ripped off.’

That said, dentists are ‘more price sensitive’. He says: ‘Practice principals have an end game these days and our field-based people need knowledge to react to this changing market with them all struggling to get patients.’

With 26 field-based Business Consultants the Dental Directory will continue to  offer a national coverage. Mike says: ‘All of our sales staff receives regular training from the manufacturers on products so they can offer truly impartial advice to their customers and unlike all other dental dealers, our dental consumables Business Consultants are not paid any form of sales commission. Therefore, the advice that they offer on product purchases and quantities is not governed by any personal financial gain.’

The changing market is also seeing a shift towards key clients rather than the high street dentist with the NSH market worth an estimated £2 billion a year. However, the duo is not prepared to cut corners to cut prices.

Mike explains: ‘A dentist told me recently he can get a box of disposable latex gloves far cheaper than we sell them. I asked the dentist if these cheaper latex gloves were of medical grade latex and quality – when I investigated I found out they were not so, they offered little or no barrier protection for either the dentist or patient and would most certainly be picked up by any CQC inspection.’

Breaking the mould
Dental Directory’s delivery service is second to none. Fully automated, the company has eliminated error in orders. It can deliver any of its 26,000 dental products to practices in a turnaround time of 24 hours. The warehouse in Witham, Essex, is fully stocked so that it can provide dentists with equipment as soon as it’s needed.

Brent says: ‘Dental Directory broke the mould in distribution and we have always led change. We are now planning to break the mould in the way we service the dentist in the future. Change at Dental Directory will be managed within – but it will not be top down. We will maintain the national brand but be region specific in our plans to meet the needs of the dentists.
He adds: ‘We relish our ability to be creative and entrepreneurial in adapting to changing market conditions. Harnessing the right technology and the right people is key – dentistry may be a unique industry but right now it is a rapidly changing one.’

Keen to adhere to the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ principle, Brent has confidence that evolution – small tweaks and changes over a long period of time – is the way forward in this changing world. As he says: ‘We will not be complacent so we are preparing it for the next step – but one thing I will ensure, as a successful family-run business in this industry, we don’t lose the DNA.’

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