World series interview with Dr Jacky Lam, Auckland, New Zealand

By Loran Simon | Interviews

Join us as Loran Simon, Founder of Somnowell Marketing and the Somnowell device, interviews dentists around the world and shines a light on dentistry and dental marketing in different countries. This interview is with Dr Jacky Lam, CEO and Founder of Smile Dental, New Zealand's largest private dental group. www.smiledental.co.nz

Loran: So my first question, that is, is why did you become a dentist?

Dr Jacky Lam: Alright. Okay. I was born in Hong Kong and I came here when I was 17 because I... No chance of getting into university in Hong Kong, it's too competitive, so I managed to come to New Zealand, finished my high school here, and then my brother is a medical doctor, my mom's a nurse, so I always thought I will become a doctor as well. And there's only two university in New Zealand offers that, one is Auckland, one is Otago. And so Auckland and Otago can do your first year and usually from your first year to apply medical school. So this time I ended up in Otago and tried to get into med school but I think same old story, I would say, like the people who're trying to get to med school, they couldn't get in. And then I thought Pharmacy and Dentistry. And I say, well, pharmacists prescribe pills for the rest of their life, and dentists, well, you can call half a doctor. So I just signed that piece of paper and get into dentistry. I had no idea what I was going to do in dentistry, and that's how I started in dentistry. Yes.

And I think it actually suit my character and suit my personality as well. I think doctors get the better status, but I think dentists more feet on the ground and I like doing business 'cause my dad is a businessman as well, so I enjoy the business side of running a dental practice.

Loran: I think from what I can see, dentistry offers a real opportunity for clinical work, and also business. So if you're minded that way, you can take advantage of that and fulfil your potential in those two areas, if you enjoy the clinical side and the business side.

Dr Jacky Lam: Yeah, that's right. 'Cause I think, because Smile Dental where we are, it's fully owned by myself. We start back in '96, I graduated '95 actually, so start working January '96. And I actually start my first business in about 6 to 8 months after I graduated. And I can't remember now, it's so long ago. So I bought an old run-down practice in Otahuhu, which some old guys retiring, and I just talked to myself, "Alright, okay, if I'm gonna fall, I'd rather fall early, so I can stand up again when I was young." So I picked a lower socioeconomic area, probably one of the lowest in Auckland, and then just start from there. I mean, learn my lessons, learn how to run the business, how to manage that, and... But fortunately, I've got a lot of good people around me and then so it slowly grow from one practice to about like 14, 15 now.

Loran: So my next question is, what are the biggest marketing challenges that you face and how do you deal with them?

Dr Jacky Lam: I think from our era, there was... I just got email when I was in university and internet wasn't out there, so I guess most of the marketing back in the early days will be more word of mouth, Yellow Pages, newspaper ads and radio ads, and things like that. And then certainly with the shift of the medias, like mobile devices, cell phone, a lot of people would do the marketing online and on internet as well. So I think we do see a little bit a change of wind directions on that and it's how to engage the people in that market. And as I say, I'll say most of the people got cell phone now, most of the people go online. So how you can market your practice different from other people and... Yeah. That's how I see.

Loran: Marketing has changed considerably in recent years. So what does that mean for dentists? Is it easier now or harder?

Dr Jacky Lam: If you know what you're doing, it's easier, if not, then certainly, it's harder. I will say some of the more mature or well-running practice, they got their, really sort of patient base, so that they may sort of neglect or not putting enough resources. And then it might be they have reached their maximum capacity already or nearly max capacity, so they don't need so much marketing. I guess marketing, it depends what phase of your company growth as well. Like for us, because we keep expanding, having new practices, so therefore we need to keep pushing and to fit like 30 dentists so we need a lot of people walking through the door, so I think... Yeah.

Dr Jacky Lam: And I think you can be really specific now, like you can, like Google AdWords, you can just target certain things, you target certain age group, certain area, then you can be really specific with what your marketing do. And if you like doing Orthodontics and Invisalign, you can purely market your practice right there and then you get a lot of patients that come in and ask for the service that you like to do, so I think it's good for marketing nowadays.

Loran: So my next question is, what role does cosmetic dentistry play in your practice today, and what do you think the future holds?

Dr Jacky Lam: Cosmetic, I think... I don't know about globally but New Zealand is a private base, so most of the people don't have insurance. So I guess it will be quite fragmented sectors, the people that are looking for like high-end cosmetic industry, the demand is always there, and I guess it depends on the disposable income and the financial... I mean I'm sure, everyone try to drive to have a better-looking teeth and face, and things like that, but in New Zealand, cosmetic dentistry will be, as I say, like most people can afford basic due to the average dentistry, make sure there's no pain and that's okay. But I would certainly see the change now like people would, instead of having a denture, they will go for an implant if they can afford it. Patients certainly will...

Especially younger people, I think that cosmetic dentistry is driven from the newer generation. "Oh, my teeth are not aligned." Probably even just slightly out, they'll say, "I want to have Invisalign" and something to make themself look good. I think the self-image is different from... The '50 or '60 people back in the days, they're more like gumboot, grass root people so they don't really care about how their teeth looks. So I think certainly with the influence with medias and film stars and Hollywood and things like that, certainly I think in New Zealand that trend will pick up in cosmetic dentistry.

And I think, like Instagram, YouTube, like KOL, they all sort of... Or you can say the generation nowadays, they don't really think, they just follows what's online and what people say, so I think it's easier from a marketing point of view if you can find the right tune, find the right key, and then you can target those young people and steer them into treatments or trends that we do here.

Loran: So how do you manage the dual roles of being a respected dentist and a business owner? And what tips do you have for other dentists that are starting out?

Dr Jacky Lam: Alright. So I think first of all, you have to be a good dentist. I think that's the rock bottomline is like you have to do good dentistry and you have to be ethical as well. So, we've seen some dentists that do really good marketing campaign, do a lot of crowns and veneers, but sometimes we'll just wonder, is that based for the patient or is it providing the correct treatment options, or even give them a fully informed consent, 'cause... So I think the basis why is, one, become an ethical dentist because at the end of the day, when you go home, you want to be mind-free. You know you did the right thing.

And okay, and talk about business owner and running a... I mean a dentist, and running a business, I think when you first started, you should use external sources like some marketing company or people that know Google campaigns and Google AdWords, some kind of specialist to help you. I think it will give you a kick start. Once you have a more established patient base, then you can more focus on internal marketings... Yeah, internal marketing. And because word of mouth probably still the most important sort of referrals for new patients.

And I'll say like Google reviews, what people said about your practice is very important. So I think if you get the right people to help you with your business that you can take that off your mind and you can focus on doing quality dentistry and let the professional do their best like marketing. Yeah.

Loran: What do you think about the future of dentistry in New Zealand?

Dr Jacky Lam: Whoa, that's the big question. The future... Alright. One, I think, New Zealand only got one dental school, so we always have sort of slightly less supply of dentists that... Coming on demand. So I think the demand for dentists will be still there, compared to Australia where you're going next week, I think they have like, I don't know, seven or 13 dental school, plus every year 200 overseas dentists registered in the country. So I think that New Zealand is in a way blessed but I think eventually some of the Australian dentists will come to New Zealand. So competition will go up especially in Metro, in big city like Auckland, Christchurch, Wellington. Rural, probably wouldn't change much I think, not a lot of people would like to go rural. So, as far as I know, rural business are quite steady, but I think in Auckland or in big cities, that the competition will keep increasing.

And I think people will be more... As I said, more cosmetic-driven or the awareness of dental health is increasing. So certainly, I think there'll be increase on that part. But on the other hand, in New Zealand, this recent... The average income is not as high as another state or maybe in Australia, and we don't have insurance scheme. So I think it's quite segmented: One end will be the richer people can afford very good dentistry and while the other end, kids that... And some of the lower socioeconomic will still have full mouth of decays, gum disease, and things like that. So I think the challenge for New Zealand and the government is how we can protect the weaker group and provide some sort of a basic or elementary services, so we can get them through. And then, on the same time, it might be bad for us, but bringing more dentists probably would drive the price down for dentistry in New Zealand.

In New Zealand, we've got an adolescent, sort of a government contract 'til 17, but it's only cover basic things like fillings, root canals. And you have to prepare a lot of paperwork, and the fee they're paying the dentist is so low, so a lot of dentists may not even choose it. So we only have a limited supplier for that as well. And once after 18, that's it, you're on your own. Some dental insurance may cover like $400 a year, maybe $700 a year, and that's the max, and I'll say most of the people in New Zealand wouldn't have dental insurance cover. So they'll be on their own. And for the working income, sort of like the Social Welfare Department, they give out $300 free treatments for... If you have like a community service cap that sort of, but at 300, you'd probably like get a filling, maybe get an extraction or an x-ray and that's it. And then the rest then they have to borrow, or they find their own finance for that. Yeah.

Yes, there's a big need in there but it's a matter of whether you can find people willing to do that sectors and do more volume than a higher rate cap.

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About the Author

After generating more than 85,000 patients for our own dental lab, and for the clients of our digital marketing agency for dental practices, I cracked the code for running successful online marketing campaigns.