The Dental Directory sets out its stall

When The Dental Directory was bought by the same investors that own the IDH Group last year independent dentists questioned what it would mean for them. More than a year later and Julian English lifts the lid on what’s been going on inside the organisation and how it’s setting out its stall as a champion of the independents.

Successful companies that establish their reputation on the back of being a family-oriented business that clients feel both familiar and comfortable with will, if they wish to expand, face a dilemma.

This was the quandary faced by The Dental Directory, whose success was based on a 44-year old client-focused and family-oriented ethos before it was sold last year to become part of the largest corporate in UK dentistry.

Expansion means being able to offer a larger product line, better training for its business consultants, increased buying power and better service for independent dental surgeries – but it also means not forgetting its roots and valuing the business its gets from dentists every day.

It now boasts of being one of the largest purchasers of dental products in the UK supplying around 12,000 dental practices with everything from toothbrushes to specialist medical equipment.

It has a dedicated equipment department which supplies, installs and maintains everything from dental chairs and cabinetry through to the latest digital imaging systems and specialist product catalogues featuring orthodontic, oral hygiene and facial aesthetic product ranges.

It also employs more than 350 people across four UK sites, including a state-of-the-art automated warehouse at head office in Witham, Essex.

Despite already having a successful operation in place, the acquisition is beginning to bear fruit, says Sally Slater, sales team manager of The Dental Directory.

She explains: “Our buying power and wider product range means we can help dentists fulfil their potential in a world where expectations are higher than they have ever been.”

And she says early on a decision was made to keep the two sides of the business separate.  A move that would reassure existing clients as well as help smooth over any post-acquisition issues.

“This allows us to keep our independence and ethos, but at the same time we benefit from the larger buying power, a wider product range and a commitment to investment and sales development,” explains Slater.

For David LeGood, operations manager, customer service remains key.

“One of the things we are constantly focusing on is improving our delivery service. We pride ourselves, and our customers rely on us being able to fulfil 99 per cent of our next-day delivery commitments.”

“This is why we recently extended our next-day delivery cut-off time from 4pm to 6pm.”

It may be just two hours but LeGood says the extension is what its customers wanted and therefore what it needed to deliver so it can maintain its reputation of providing the best service in the industry.

“Most dentists, practice managers, nurses, may not be aware that they have a shortage until 5.30pm. Having a cut off of 4pm didn’t make so much sense. Now they can call us up right at the end of the day if they are short on anything.

“To fulfil the thousands of orders we receive each day and accommodate a later cut off we needed to change the working patterns of our warehouse staff. We’ve overhauled and adapted our shift patterns to fit in, extending one until 9pm.”

Next day delivery on orders over £25 is free and it charges £3.95 for orders under £25.

“Considering we have over 27,000 products and an on-site pharmacy, it is really good value,” says LeGood.

All orders are dispatched from The Dental Directory’s state-of-the-art depot in Witham which has also expanded its online pharmacy.

LeGood says: “I would say 60 per cent of the orders are made by phone, but we are trying to encourage our clients to make more use of the website.”

An area The Dental Directory says it has made headway in - during August a Pink Friday promotion for orders placed online increased its sales six-fold.

The promotion was an extension of a 1.5 per cent discount it normally applies to all online orders. Instead, it offered a 6 per cent one-off discount on 21 August. The offer was available to anyone ordering via the website and was in addition to existing promotions and any agreed loyalty discount.

Paul Clarke, head of IT, says the increase in traffic and orders allowed it to ramp-up and test its internal and external IT systems.

“Not only that we have increased the number of IT staff to make sure we’re at the forefront of IT developments and customer service in our sector.

“Our website is an area we’ve been focusing on, it’s undergoing a series of improvements and we will be unveiling more changes shortly that will make it even more user friendly. Of course this would not have been possible without the huge investment we have made.”

But John Doherty, director of marketing, explains there are other challenges ahead.

He says: “Many dental surgeries run their businesses the way they always have. But patients are changing their behaviour and demanding more from their dental experience. If they don’t get the service they feel entitled to they’ll find an alternative dentist who does make them feel valued.

“This change in dentistry will see those that embrace providing a different patient experience will prosper, while those who want to do things the way they always have will see their patient numbers reduce.”

He explains that The Dental Directory has refocused the role of its business consultants to building the businesses of the dentists they work with.

James Murray, commercial director, says the change moves The Dental Directory from being a facilitator of sales to a one-stop shop for dentists wanting to move their business into the 21st century.

“We are aiming for a more holistic approach. Making sure that our business consultants are not just sales driven but have the expertise to help practices that may need to embark or training or need advice on new products or services they can offer.”

“The consultants we now have are totally client-focused, and we would like to believe they are almost another member of staff in each of the practices they advise.”

“Making sure we have the best business consultants in the industry is now a core ethos to The Dental Directory.”

Supporting that ethos is Simon Ayllot, head of strategic buying, who joined The Dental Directory earlier this year from Sainsburys.

One of his challenges, he believes, is to bring cutting-edge technology, services and products to dentists; as well as incorporating the products of Med-fx, the specialist provider of facial aesthetics and skin rejuvenation products, which was acquired by The Dental Directory in the summer.

“In UK dentistry there is a huge choice of products and that choice can be overwhelming so you will find that often it is the tried and trusted composite, for example, which a dentist will choose, rather than something that has just come onto the market.”

“We are committed to helping dentists access innovative technology and product development which is why we are working with smaller suppliers who may be manufacturing breakthrough products to find ways of making sure those products get some prominence.”

Ayllot says The Dental Directory is also working with larger suppliers to help them with future product development.

“With larger suppliers we are also helping them meet the demands of dentists by feeding back our experience on the ground in a more intelligent way, to make sure they are spending money on developing the products dentists want.

“This means we are working with both dentists, our customers and our suppliers, in a way which can only improve the industry for everyone and deliver improved dental health for everyone.”

A lofty ambition for an organisation that can trace its roots to sending out catalogues in the 70’s and taking product orders by phone, but one which could well signal a sea change in the relationship between supplier and dentist with both partners ultimately being the winners.