How To Respond To Customers And Employees During A Pandemic

Benco Centerpoint Experience

Three of the operatories at Benco Dental’s Centerpoint Experience in Pittston, PA. Photo courtesy of Benco Dental.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected virtually every business in the world. Crisis plans and business continuity plans were ripped up by the end of March as companies struggled with keeping their employees on the payroll and their businesses from failing. How companies responded to customers and employees varied widely, and we can all learn from the ones who did it right.

Benco Dental is the largest independently owned dental distributor in the United States. Chuck Cohen is managing director.

Dan Gingiss:  Could you tell us a little bit about you and your background, and also about Benco Dental?

Chuck Cohen: Sure. At Benco Dental, we sell everything you see in a dentist’s office. We have about 1,500 employees across the United States. Our job is to drive dentistry forward, to help dentists grow their practices, acquire the equipment and supplies they need to run their practices on a daily basis. My own background is I’m a third-generation family business owner. My grandfather started the business in 1930. My father ran the business for about 30 years, and my brother and I run the business today. We took over in the early 90s, and we’ve been going strong for about 25 years.

Dan Gingiss: Let’s talk about Benco dental’s approach to customer experience. When I started meeting with you and the employees there, I immediately noticed that it is such a customer-centric organization. That really stood out to me. So tell me a little bit about Benco’s vision from that perspective.

Chuck Cohen: We tell everyone that our mission is to drive dentistry forward. I mentioned that before, but it’s so important. One of the things that makes our market a bit unique is we’re one of the last businesses where the business owner actually spends his or her own money. 

Our customers, by and large, about 80 percent of them are owner-operators of very small businesses across the United States. So customer experience is everything. We have to make sure that our customer experience is top-notch because our customers are the business owners. They’re private business owners, and we need to make sure that they have a great experience for the money they’re spending. 

Dan Gingiss: Yeah, as we’ve seen in lots of other industries, customer experience can be that differentiator, right? Frankly, you guys sell a lot of products and services that other people sell as well, so you have to stand out differently. Some of that comes from the interaction that they have with their sales reps, the people that they see every day. Some of it comes from the interactions they have when they call your customer service center. Still, your customers also get a lot of contact from management, including your father, quite often. Tell me about his role. 

Chuck Cohen: So my dad, Larry, is 84 years old. He is a legend in the business. And a few years ago, when we decided that it was time for us to transition, we identified Chief Customer Advocate as the perfect role for him. It makes a big difference for the customers when they can get a Cohen on the phone, someone who’s an owner, someone who can take their side and move mountains to get things done for customers, and it’s been great. He gets calls all the time. Sometimes he ends up yelling at people within the organization saying, “how can we not take care of this customer?” Boy, oh, boy, that really gets people’s attention. But having Larry as the Chief Customer Advocate has been a terrific move for the organization and our customers.

Dan Gingiss: Let’s talk about the Centerpoint Experience. It’s your showroom in Northeastern, Pennsylvania, which is the one that I have been to. What I love about the place is it has two dozen different dental operatories. These aren’t just pictures of operatories or pretend operatories. They’re actually fully functional operatories with all of the equipment and supplies needed to perform dentistry. 

So dentists come in and look at these different operatories, and they say, “Well, I really like this one because I’m left-handed, and this really fits me well,” or “I like this one because I like the wall design better,” or “This particular piece of equipment is one I’m more familiar with.” It really is immersive. It really allows them to immerse themselves and feel like they’re in their own dental office. So obviously that’s part of the plan. 

Chuck, tell us about how the Centerpoint Experience came about and what effect it had on your business? 

Chuck Cohen: In about the mid-2000s, I went to a program at Hershey, and we had a great time inside the boardroom with the president and CEO of Hershey Foods. For those of you who know, Hershey is one of the largest employers in Pennsylvania. Certainly one of the most famous brands we have anywhere. 

Now, as we were walking around, we were learning from him. One of the things that came out loud and clear is that people come from around the world to Hershey, Pennsylvania, to learn how Hershey chocolate is made. It’s interesting, because for those of you who have been on the tour, what you know is that you don’t really see the factory where Hershey makes the chocolate. You see a representation. You sort of get on a ride. It’s like Disney World. 

It occurred to me then, that, if people would come from around the world to see how Hershey Foods really doesn’t even make their chocolate, maybe we could get dentists to go to northeastern Pennsylvania, before spending a lot of money, to determine how they can equip and design their new facility. 

So at the same time, we were considering building a new headquarters for our own business. Then in 2010, those two ideas came together, and we opened our first Centerpoint Experience showroom in northeastern Pennsylvania. We had, at the time, the largest dental equipment showroom in the world. A lot of square feet. Twenty-five operatories, a huge array of X-ray equipment. And in fact, the risk was would dentists come and visit northeastern Pennsylvania before they bought equipment. We had a backup plan in case they didn’t. But it turns out they did. It created an unbelievably strong stickiness with the customers. And the customers left very excitedly about what they had learned. They were much more enthusiastic about the project they were going to start doing. So it has worked out great.

Dan Gingiss: Can you give us a ballpark of the people who aren’t your customers that come and see what the experience is all about, how many of them then decide to be your customer?

Chuck Cohen: Dentists are pretty busy. To get a dentist to come all the way to northeastern Pennsylvania or Dallas or southern California and take two days out of their practice, they have to be fairly committed. We figure over the year or two after their visit, we close about 75 percent of the deals with doctors who come, and some of them who don’t, still end up doing a project later on. 

We pay for their visit and for their salesperson as well. We’ve decided that it’s a great investment. Not just because we want to lock up the deal; of course, you almost always want to make a sale. This is not a volunteer endeavor. But we also want to make them excited about the project. 

The one thing about dentists is that sometimes, as with everybody, they’re visual people. They need to be able to see the project, see the various kinds of equipment, feel them, touch them, and understand what’s involved. Often, they end up leaving, thinking bigger and more expansive and more substantial than when they got there. They were thinking small. They come, and they see, and they get excited. Then they think bigger, and they’re always happy that they’ve invested the time and energy and the money. 

Dan Gingiss: It’s important to note that this is a big investment when you’re redoing your dental office. Perhaps not only is it a design project in terms of walls and floors and ceilings, but it’s also potentially new equipment. 

So this is a very large investment. I think what makes so much sense about the investment you have made into this experience, is that when people get to touch and feel it, they’re going to have confidence in this big purchase. Because let’s face it, anytime we make a big purchase, the first thing any consumer feels is buyer’s remorse. Because you wonder, “Oh, did I spend too much? Have I overpaid? Should I have not done this? Should I have saved the money?”

I think what you’re doing is you are heading off that buyer’s remorse by almost leading them into it and gaining their confidence as they go along. So they think, “This is what I need to do to grow my business. And sure, it’s going to cost me a lot of money. But this is well worth it for me.” 

Chuck Cohen: Oh, yeah. And I go one step farther. One of the interesting things is when we built the showroom initially (we opened in 2010), we thought that the real “aha,” the “wow” factor would be dentists who could come and see 25 different arrays of equipment and figure out which one they liked better. Do they want Brand A or Brand B? It turns out that wasn’t the sizzle, and nobody, including me, anticipated it at the time. The real sizzle was in the design. And that’s something that we really didn’t understand. But, it would start bringing dentists in.

I’ll give you a tangible example of that. Dentistry is a very physical profession. It’s very hands-on, literally. You can’’t do it away from the patient. Then, think about the kind of dentist. Some dentists are female and five feet tall, and some are male and six-foot-six, and they have broad wingspans, and they have long arms. Hence, the geometry of practicing dentistry for a five-foot-tall person and a six-foot-six person is very different. 

One of the most popular features that we have at Centerpoint is what we call the Sandbox. Basically, what it allows a dentist to do is sit in a room next to a dental chair and arrange all the other elements of the operatory in different places to find out where they want to place it. How do they work most comfortably to turn from left to right all day long?

Once the dentist understands how to arrange the individual operatory, everything gets easier. But lots of times, dentists don’t do that investigation before they build it. They create an office, never having thought of that. Then for the rest of their career, they’re bending more to one side or reaching too far to the other side. So the actual positioning, the design, and the positioning of the dental chair have been an unexpected benefit of the entire Centerpoint Experience.

Dan Gingiss: Let’s pivot a little bit, because obviously the dental industry, along with every other, has gone through a huge change recently. I have long admired how you guys run Benco Dental in the first place as a very family-oriented business. I think all of the employees really feel like they’re part of a family. So let’s start from just the business perspective before we get into dentistry itself. 

What do you do when you wake up one day and realize that the whole world is about to close in terms of sales? I mean, I can tell you certainly from being a public speaker, sales went from a lot to zero in one day. You have to immediately react, and, let’s face it, they didn’t teach us this in business school. They didn’t teach us this at Penn. There is no guidebook for that. So talk about how you reacted to the new reality in real-time. 

Chuck Cohen: So what happened to us was in the early days of March, we were actually doing very well and even better because, with the spread of COVID-19, we were selling a lot of masks and gloves and asepsis (bacteria- and virus-blocking) products. So we actually were having pretty good numbers. 

Then on March 16th, the American Dental Association decreed that every dental office should close in the United States except for emergency care. That’s because all healthcare that was not essential got turned off so that all the emphasis for the United States could go toward frontline healthcare workers fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. I would say I don’t disagree with that. I mean, I think that was the right decision by the ADA and the right decision for the United States. 

However, what it did to our business was fascinating. We went from 100 percent to 75 percent in three days. By the end of the week, our business had cratered. It was like every dentist in America had gone on a cruise at the same time. They were all on vacation. Their offices were closed, and it was quite stressful. 

So the question is, how do you deal with it? The first thing, and I think you mentioned it before, is how much credibility do you have with your people? I really think at that moment in time, we found out how much credibility we had with our own people. Because we had to put a plan in place very quickly to drastically cut the expenses and reduce the cash burn. I had no plan in a drawer for the business going down [that fast]. I don’t think anyone does. 

We communicated very forthrightly, and we said, “Look, this is the problem we have. Our customers are closed. We need to make some difficult decisions. And we hope you’re going to be there with us at the end.” What we found out was that people really were. It was one of the most inspiring moments of my professional career. Finding out how much confidence our people had in us, and how much they really want the business to succeed. Even though, right now, several hundred of them are on furlough collecting unemployment checks, they still feel a part of the organization. [Most of those employees have now returned to full-time work.] And I think it goes back to the culture and it goes back to communication.

Benco Dental lettering

Dan Gingiss: Absolutely, and as most people know, when somebody is on furlough, they’re really not allowed to work. That is the law. But the people at Benco, the part that frustrates them, is, “OK, fine, I’ll stay at home. But I really want to help. Is there a way that I can help?” Again, I think that’s the culture built at your organization over a long period. 

So to me, three constituencies really stand out that we all have to pay attention to as businesspeople at a time like this. That’s the employees, the customers, and then our suppliers or vendors or partners. So you talked a little bit about the employees. What are you doing for your customers? How are you communicating with them? And how are you prepping them to get through this challenging time? 

Chuck Cohen: So, one of the things we did is we definitely ramped up our communication pattern and our frequency with our customers. They’re scared, we’re all scared about COVID-19, especially health care professionals. Because they’re looking at a world in which safety is becoming much more critical. Many of our practitioners, dentists, hygienists, and dental assistants, are literally nervous that when they go back to practice, they are at risk of catching COVID-19. 

So what we’ve done is we’ve ramped up our communication. We’ve been very honest and up front. We said, “Look, here’s what we’re working on, here’s what we’re doing, here are the changes that we anticipate.” 

Recently, we rolled out a plan for our salespeople to implement with their customers to help dental practices in the “new normal.” We’re all going to have to change what we do. Our job as a key supplier and a trusted advisor to all of our customers is to help them understand those changes as best we can and help them make the right decisions for their businesses going forward and their patients. 

Dan Gingiss: Yeah, it’s an interesting time because once we get through this, dentists will face the opposite problem, which is that there will be this massive backlog of people that have these little things like chipped teeth or that have missed appointments or six-month checkups. All of a sudden, they’re gonna be faced with going from zero demand to going to vast amounts of demand. Can you talk about how you are recommending that they prepare for that? 

Chuck Cohen: So it’s really an interesting challenge because there will be, as with most businesses, a pent-up demand in the beginning. What we’ve talked to our customers about is how to schedule differently, and at the same time, how they are going to get access to all the new products they’re going to need to practice in a post-COVID-19 world. 

So the first thing is you’ve got to get the right equipment so you can practice safely going forward. The second thing is you’ve got to get your team members to understand that dentistry is a safe place to be. There are many staff members out there in dental practices who are nervous, as I mentioned before, about going back. 

Then finally, dentists are, by nature, entrepreneurial. So what can they do to get their patients into the chair? The fact is there will be patients in pain. They’re going to come right away, and there will be patients who are not in pain. They’re the ones who are going to have to be convinced to go back to the chair. 

So yeah, some of them will come back right away. But others, it’s going to be a marketing game. It’s going to be how do we convince the patients that a dental office is safe? When we live in a world where many people are scared to leave their own houses, they’re afraid to get a table at a restaurant, they’re scared to go to a movie, how do we make sure that patients feel safe when they make their appointment and then show up at the dental practice? And there’s a lot of techniques that we’re teaching to dentists.

Dan Gingiss: That’s fascinating. So before we get into the third leg of the stool, which is the suppliers, is there any advice about ways to make people feel like someone in leadership is listening or cares without actually having somebody who can directly engage? 

Chuck Cohen: That’s an excellent question, and it’s a real challenge. I can only tell you what we’ve got in our organization, and that is, I personally have been one hundred percent involved in our communication of late. I’m under the belief that leaders have to be front and center and communicate, especially in times of crisis. 

From my perspective, there isn’t a perfect answer to that question. However, if you’re not going to spend the time during a crisis to communicate directly with your constituents about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, and why you’re doing it is the right decision, then honestly, what are you spending your time on is my question back.

I spend the weekend putting together an update for our people. I directly supervise or work very closely with the person who puts together the weekly update for the customers. I want to make sure we’re communicating with the right tone and the right message to our customers during a time and our employees during a time of crisis. And I think that’s one of the things that’s won the day because, in the absence of communication, people make up their own stories. And I believe that our communication cadence and quality have helped us bridge this gap in a significant way. 

And a word I would throw in there also is “authentic.” St a time like this, when there’s a crisis, people need to understand that the communication is authentic. And I think that’s something that we’ve done reasonably well. We’ve made mistakes along the way, and we own them, and we make a change, and we do something different. But authentic communication at a time of crisis is absolutely the primary job. 

Dan Gingiss: All right. So let’s look at that third leg of the stool, which is your suppliers, your vendors, different partners, associations that you work with. How are you keeping in contact with all of them? Obviously, you are knocking on the doors to some of them, trying to get some supplies. Then others may be, “we’re not purchasing as much as we were before or we’re not purchasing anything right now.” So how do you keep those relationships from going sour after this is all over? 

Chuck Cohen: Like everybody in America, we’re also asking for better payment terms from our suppliers. Part of the challenge is to call them up and say, “Hey, we can’t afford to pay you for an extra 30 days or 60 days. Can you help us out with some terms?” Again, it comes back to communication and how many and how good these relationships have been over the years. I do think in times of crisis, people do lean on the relationships a lot. And we’ve done that as much as anybody has. 

I don’t want to say that we’re too big to fail because that’s not really what I mean. But what I do mean is our suppliers, our customers, recognize that our people are people really providing important value in the market. There would be a hole in the market that we serve if we were not available. And I do think that through the years, we’ve proven that over and over again. And I think now’s the time to lean on that and say, “Hey, we need help too.” 

Everyone needs help, we need help just like everybody else does. How can we work this out together? So it’s communication. It’s authentic. It’s putting favors in the favor bank so that you can later draw on that and say, “Look, we need some help.” 

And really treating everybody with respect. We’ve got a couple of competitors in our market that I would say do not treat vendors with as much respect as we do. For example, in our world, we’ve got manufacturer partners, and they actually make stuff. Then we’re a distributor, and we sell it. One of our requirements, at least up until this crisis hit, was that our salespeople get in the car and ride with the manufacturer’s reps to introduce new products to dentists. That’s something that we require. 

So no sales rep at Benco goes through a few months without getting in the car with the manufacturer’s rep. We just think that’s part of the way we do business. Our competitors don’t do that. I think that has built up a lot of goodwill and a lot of partnering feelings over the last few years and decades. Now, when we come in, we ask for a favor, we are more likely to get it, whereas some of our competitors that treat the vendors with a little less respect may not get the same answer that we would get.

Dan Gingiss Yeah, that’s fascinating. So I want to pivot again to a different part of your life, which probably is also affected. That is that you are a philanthropist. You are on several boards, including the board that we’re on together [The Daily Pennsylvanian]. And I know that there’s a Benco Family Foundation. So tell me about how all of this is affecting that world? 

Chuck Cohen: It has, in such a big way. I think everyone is going through it. Every nonprofit in America is going to have challenges going forward. At the same time, the question is really, what do nonprofits need to get through this crisis? The obvious answer is they need money. But honestly, the nonprofits are going to get money from the federal government, from the PPP program and other places. 

I think going forward where we as executives can be the most helpful is by offering our time and expertise. That’s where I’ve really spent a bunch of time lately. We, as executives, should not just write a check, because writing a check is basic. Instead, how do we get involved on the board level, on the leadership level, to ensure these organizations get the wisdom and knowledge they need to get through this crisis? I found that to be very satisfying, and I found the nonprofits that I work with to be very appreciative. 

I would encourage everyone to get involved. Beyond just if you have the capacity to write a check. That’s great, but if you can share your time, your knowledge, your wisdom, your experience, I have found that that’s much more important. 

Dan Gingiss: It’s fascinating that a crisis can really bring out innovation because you’re almost forced into it, right? No matter what industry you’re in, this is a time to really take a step back and think about what you do and what should change right now so that you can be prepared in this post-COVID-19 world, which is going to be a world that is really changed forever. 

Chuck Cohen: Yeah. Whenever there’s a crisis, nothing is precisely the same. There’s no question, and I agree with you. We all have to rethink what we’re doing. I think to go back to where we started, the one thing I’ve observed is whether you’re a nonprofit organization or a for-profit organization, you have to provide value to somebody. Those organizations that truly understand the value that they provide, and do more of the things that give value to some constituency while doing less of the things that don’t add value, they’re the ones who are going to win. 

One thing that comes out of a crisis like this one is you have to get really granular about the value you provide. Who is your group of constituents? Why do they value what you do? What can you do to make sure that we do less of the things that don’t add value and more of the things that add value? 

Dan Gingiss: Absolutely. I always talk about eliminating customer pain points because that’s one thing that makes people leave. We’ve all seen the statistics that customers will leave after even one bad experience. That’s how fragile the relationship is. So, any time you’ve got barriers or pain points that you can remove, this is a great time to go find those while you might not be working on other things. 

Anyway, breaking away from that discussion, what new technologies in the industry do you think will emerge as a result of this crisis? How will it affect customers? 

Chuck Cohen: In general, I think what’s going to come out of this specific crisis is more of an emphasis on safety. Feeling healthy and making sure that you feel like wherever you are as a consumer, as an employee, as a user, as a driver, or wherever you are, you feel safe. Take a look at Maslow’s pyramid, the famous hierarchy of needs. Right at the bottom of the list, the base of the pyramid is physiological needs like, “Do I have enough sleep, have enough food, have enough shelter?” So that’s the basic, and above that is safety. 

Honestly, in the United States of America, for most of us, it’s been a long time since we had any reason to question this idea of safety. There are people around the world who question their safety every day. They’re living in a war zone. I don’t think most of us have thought much about safety in the United States of America in a long time. Whether it’s in the dental chair or whether it’s at a store or wherever you are, I think there’s going to be a bigger emphasis in the short term and maybe even the long term over individual safety. 

And I think that’s a game-changer. That’s something, honestly, that every organization has to think about going forward, “What do I need to do to make my employees, my vendors, my customers feel safe when they do a transaction with us?”

Dan Gingiss: Thanks, Chuck, for your time and for sharing your expertise during this difficult time!

 

Disclosure: Benco Dental is a consulting client.

The interview, which originally appeared on The Experience Maker Show, was edited for length and clarity. The full video interview can be seen on the Podcasts page (Episode #12).