Alex Sudheim8 Jun 2023 7 min
In this ongoing series of articles, we profile some of South Africa’s most modern and progressive SMEs and reflect upon their secrets to success. The companies we feature are drawn from a diverse range of industries across the country. But they all have one thing in common: the use of technology in innovative and original ways to make for smarter business strategies.
TLDR: Today we speak with Francois van Heerden, manager of Centurion’s pioneering practice The Gentle Dentist. He discusses how careful curation of the brand has led to continuous and sustainable growth and how judicious balancing state-of-the-art tech and the timeless human touch is key to their formula for success.
One of the few safe assumptions one can make is that scarcely anyone is thrilled by an imminent visit to the dentist. Although remarkable evolutions in dental technology and practice have rendered such an “ordeal” practically pleasant in our day and age, many of us would rather run for the hills than open our mouths and say “aaah”.
Somehow, the prospect of any time spent supine and helpless while major roadworks take place in the centre of our craniums continues to fill us with primal dread. Or, as humorous American poet Ogden Nash put it: “Some tortures are physical and some are mental / But one is both and that is dental.”
Despite living in the 21st Century where dentistry is the polar opposite of the sadistic medieval procedure we imagine it to be, dentophobia is alive and well. Which is why naming your practice The Gentle Dentist is a stroke of genius. With five simple syllables, the mortal terror of dainty drills and tiny mirrors in our mouths vanishes like a puff of laughing gas.
This inspired branding allows the Centurion practice to literally put its money where its mouth is. In competitive professional fields such as dentistry, differentiation is the name of the game. By differentiating themselves according to their expertise in the highly specialised art of gentle dentistry, The Gentle Dentist has carved out a niche all of its own.
To illustrate the point, practice Manager Francois van Heerden relates the salutary story of a particular patient. “The lady lives in Durban and has a very real fear of the dentist due to past experiences. But, after doing her research and reading our reviews, she decided we were the place for her. Even though she required extensive treatment for a complete smile redesign, she flew up here to undergo six procedures over a six month period.”
“Gentle dentistry” is a certainly a message that resonates clearly with the practice’s growing roster of patients. “We have many patients that come from far away to see us, especially those with kids,” says Francois. “We have patients from Mozambique that make the trip every six months with their children.”
Although The Gentle Dentist didn’t deliberately go out of its way to appeal to children, the emphasis upon gentleness was sure to resonate with skittish kids and their equally apprehensive parents. If you have kids – or cast your mind back to your own childhood – you’ll surely agree that the words “We’re going to see the dentist!” were never quite as popular as “We’re going to get some ice cream!”
“A large part of our practice is specialised paediatric dentistry,” confirms Francois. “We are acutely aware that if we scar them now they’ll fear the dentist for life. That’s a large responsibility: many children who have a traumatic experience during their very first dentist appointment will fear the dentist for the rest of their lives. That’s how ‘taking the fear out of dentistry’ became the unofficial mantra of our practice,” he says.
Having acquired a well-deserved reputation in the niche of paediatric dentistry has created the additional benefit of many paediatric physicians referring their clients to the practice for their childrens’ dentistry needs. “We’re one of the few dentistry practices in the country that do paediatric crowns,” notes Francois. “This highly specialist skill, together with our gentle approach and warm, welcoming environment, has led to tremendous amounts of positive feedback and recognition. Word of mouth has been by far the biggest driver of brand awareness.”
According to Francois, “we’ve removed everything that screams ‘dental practice’ to create a reassuring atmosphere.” This is evident from the first impression which is disarmingly tranquil. The practice is a big neighbourhood house surrounded by trees and features a burbling fountain at the entrance. The friendly, hospitable aura that is created represents the antithesis of the stereotypical sterile cell in a faceless of office park.
Another crucial element of the experience here is the human factor. The practice houses three full-time dentists: founder Dr Wilmari Kruger, Dr Maureen van Eyk and Dr Nicolene Uys. “Wilmari takes a lot of time bringing new colleagues on board,” says Francois. “They have to be dentists that add to the brand by taking a gentle approach to people and their work. Take Dr Uys: she became a dentist with the goal of creating a fear-free generation that enjoys going to the dentist instead of dreading it.”
The Gentle Dentist reinforces this ethos of care and patience in their approach to scheduling appointments. “We’re not a sausage factory.” emphasises Francois. “We don’t do half-hour appointments so we can get through 15 patients a day. We have longer appointments and place a premium on our patients being comfortable and relaxed from beginning to end. We’re a calm, quiet practice unlike the hectic, helter-skelter scenes you might find at a typical dentist practice.”
While much of the appeal of The Gentle Dentist lies in its old-school charm and emphasis upon the human touch, the practice also wholeheartedly embraces the best of what modern technology has to offer.
For starters, The Gentle Dentist is what Francois calls “a paperless practice.” All bookings are done online where all patient administration also takes place. As a consequence, instead of the usual rigmarole when you arrive for your appointment involving hastily filling in a piece of paper with a malfunctioning pen is removed from the equation. As all the admin is done in the comfort of your home prior to the appointment: you simply arrive, see the dentist and leave.
In the practise of dentistry itself, The Gentle Dentist makes use of a hybrid system of cutting-edge and traditional tech. The practice recently invested in high-end digital scanners and a CBCT (cone-beam computed tomography system) X-ray but outsources physical manufacturing of dental appliances to our a lab. “We decided to stick with the artisanal experts who have tremendous expertise and experience,” says Francois. “We use the latest digital technology for X-rays and scans, but physical items such as crowns are made by hand in a lab as we believe that the experts in manufacturing the item should be the ones to do it.”
This measured approach to blending digital technology with the human touch extends to the practice’s customer communications. “The practice started with a cellphone number and no receptionist,” recalls Francois. “But we very quickly realised we needed something far more professional.”
“After struggling with connectivity issues using other providers – especially during loadshedding – I Googled ‘loadshedding resistant VoIP’ and that’s how we found Voys. That’s probably been our best decision ever. If we knew then what we know now we would have started with Voys,” says Francois.
“Voys has an awesome product, I can really say that,” he says. “We only use two lines – one for reception and the other for the practice manager for management and ops matters. The softphone is outstanding. And when we realised that we wouldn’t have to buy a whole bunch of hardphones because the Voys webphone does everything we need, that’s when I said ‘Voys is for us’”.
Check out more stories from the Snapshots of Success series here:
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