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How to Tell the Team: Tips for a Successful Transition

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In a recent conversation with a dentist buying his first practice, he made a comment that inspired this blog.  His question was, “How do I tell the team? There’s so much uncertainty that I’m really not sure where to begin.”  I was impressed that this was coming from the buyer, not the seller, who had previously worked with these particular people for a brief period and would soon be their new boss.  He wasn’t even clear if the selling dentist had made the announcement to them yet.

I think we can all agree that change is difficult for most human beings and when you’re buying or selling a business that has people at the heart of its operation, you are navigating a minefield of potential outcomes. The actual sale part of the process may seem a whole lot easier than letting the team know that the transaction is taking place.  And with intentional steps, you can ensure an easier transitional period.

In dentistry, the team plays a critical role in the successful operation of the business.  The more solid the systems are in place with less dependency on the dentist owner, the more time the new owner has to become familiar with the intricacies of the business and of course, the less time is spent on a learning curve.

Buyers may be asking themselves:

  • Will the team’s personalities work well with mine?
  • Is the team so loyal to the previous owner that they don’t want to work for someone new? What happens if they all leave? Should the previous owner stay on to help with the transition?
  • Were they unhappy with their role and see this as a perfect opportunity to makes their own personal changes? How will I know?
  • How long will it take to determine if I want to keep everyone?
  • How do I tell the team so they’ll stick around during the transition?

Sellers may be asking themselves:

  • How involved do I want to be or need to be in the transition process?
  • When do I tell my patients? How should I tell my patients?
  • When should I tell the team? How should I tell the team?

Hopefully, the reasons for the sale are obvious – retirement, it makes good financial sense, etc. – though many times it may not be obvious.  Each situation is different and should be approached accordingly.

Although buyers may want to speak with team members early on in the due diligence stage – especially if the practice depends on a few key employees – keep in mind that until the sale closes and the signatures are on the paper, the seller remains responsible for its day to day operations. Make sure there is clear communication between the buyer and seller about this announcement timeline.

Gaining Commitments During the Transition

For any employee, a practice acquisition by a new owner will likely stir up a lot of questions and a lot of uncertainties. Buyers may have similar questions and uncertainties. So while it may seem like a great idea to guarantee key team members will stay for years to come, as the buyer, you (and they) may not feel the same way in 3-6 months.

So, what’s a new owner to do?  In my experience, savvy buyers will build in team member commitments that cover the initial transition period, much like the orientation period of a new employee.  Since employees will need to be terminated under the previous owner and hired under you, the new owner, it seems reasonable to establish a 30-60-90 day transition period.  This time frame will allow both you and the team an opportunity to learn about each other, understand everyone’s roles within the practice, determine whether each team member is still a good fit with your style of leadership, and decide if team members still want to continue with the practice under your new ownership.  If you’re in a position to offer it, you may even consider an added monetary incentive at the end of the transition period for those that remain.

You can always make new commitments after the transition for longer-term agreements, however, in the beginning, your primary concern should be getting to a point where you can confidently fill any position left vacant.

3 Ways for Successful Team Communication

1. Set Realistic Expectations About What’s Ahead

With any change in ownership, the #1 driver of negative employee reactions is a sense of uncertainty or fear.  You can reassure employees by setting expectations and giving them some level of certainty. Make time to ask employees about their concerns or questions. Ask them what is most important to them during the transition, and how they would like to see things play out.  Just remember, you don’t want to make promises you can’t keep.

2. Have Team Members Document Job Duties & Daily Procedures

This is especially important if the team doesn’t have written job descriptions or the seller didn’t have a set of standard operating procedures and established practice systems.  Many dentists I work with have no clue about what specific duties their front office team complete daily, so even if these systems did exist, ask the team to review them and update them as appropriate so you have a sense of true day-to-day operations once you take over the practice.  The team is in a very unique position to help you, so be sure to include them in the process.

Having these processes and duties documented offers you two things:

  1. You’ll receive much more information about the business on a very detailed level that you may not have known otherwise;
  2. If an employee does decide to leave before the transition is finished, you’ll be in a better position to fill their role more easily.

3. Make Time for One-on-One Employee Conversations 

We fear what we don’t know and this remains especially true in the transition process.  Many new owners use one-on-one conversations with team members to discover what goals individual employees have with the practice and where there may be opportunities for improvements. These conversations lessen the uncertainty and empower each employee to help make the transition period a success.  It could also signal your confidence in that person and his/her abilities, which in turn, makes him/her feel a valuable part of the process.

Purchasing a practice is an exciting and anxious time for dentists.  There are many talented professionals out there who excel in the buying/selling process of dental practices and can offer tremendous support throughout the transition period.  Take advantage of their expertise!  Seek out peers who have gone through the same process for guidance and support, as well.

I truly believe the heart of a dental practice is the team and they are a critical piece to a successful transition. Making time to listen to their goals, taking notes, and showing serious consideration can make a fantastic first impression as the new owner. Tapping into their collective skills and wisdom is a smart move toward not only ensuring the success of the transition, but also the future  of the practice under your ownership.

And the dentist who asked the question?  He received a warm reception from the team and he’s now the proud new owner of a practice that will continue to thrive because he’s confident he has the right people to help him through any challenges ahead.

Robyn Reis

Robyn Reis

Robyn began her dental career in 1998 as a marketing and communications director for a large group practice, and instantly fell in love with the world of dentistry. She has spent every waking moment since learning, growing and collaborating with dentists and their teams utilizing her expertise in all aspects of dental practice management, marketing, communications, HR, continuing education, and laboratory sales. When she's not talking dentistry, Robyn has two active teenagers, an amazing husband and a squirrel-fixated dog at home who keep her busy, along with an incredibly diverse and fascinating group of close friends who keep her sane. Robyn's personal goals are to make a difference in someone's life every single day and to give the best of herself to those around her. Robyn and her family live and play in Northeast Ohio.