Business Lessons from a Root Canal

“Oh yeah, we can fix that right up,” my dentist said as he poked my throbbing tooth.

Phew, I thought, that’s a relief.

“You just need a root canal. Give me just a sec and we’ll get started.”

WAIT, WHAT? A ROOT CANAL? LIKE, RIGHT NOW??? Now, I’ve never been a bad dental patient. I’ve almost fallen asleep in cleanings. The sound of a drill doesn’t bother me. But this? Everyone knows a root canal is awful. It’s one of those things people use to reassure you that whatever’s happening to you, it could be worse. It could be a root canal.

So that’s how my first root canal started. And an hour later, with the first phase of tunneling complete, I thought to myself, that wasn’t so bad. I guess the bad part comes next week. I even asked my dentist at the end of the procedure, “So when is the part that hurts so much?” He just chuckled and patted me on the shoulder as he walked out. He thought I was kidding.

Fast forward: a week later, I’m back in the chair to get phase two done. More drilling, then poking, then digging around. A little blood, a few uncomfortable nervy twinges, but still not the white-knuckled anguish I’d been led to expect. Heck, I even snuck a selfie (a toothie?).

Business lessons learned from a root canal
As I sat in the chair, listening to the drilling and scraping, I thought about my experience. I’d been apprehensive because I knew nothing about root canals except how awful they were supposed to be. In the absence of personal experience, my assumptions fed my expectations. Reflecting on that, I realized I’d witnessed a case study in onboarding first-time customers, one in which my dentist had disregarded several important rules:

  1. No surprises. Going from getting my tooth poked at, to the words “root canal”, to starting the procedure, took less than a minute. Way too fast. A better approach would have been to tell me I needed a root canal, ask if I had questions, and tell me that he could either start right away or we could schedule a later appointment. I would have opted to start right away, but I would have felt more comfortable if I’d been given a chance to think about it.
  2. Always take your customers’ concerns seriously. My dentist thought I was kidding about “when is it going to hurt?” so he didn’t bother to answer the question. I wasn’t kidding. I was nervous because I assumed the worst was still ahead of me. That’s not how you want your customers feeling.
  3. Educate your customers. On my first visit, I had no idea what was happening, why it was happening, or how long it would take. Once I was done, I asked enough questions that I was finally handed a brochure that explained the overall procedure, but still left with plenty of unanswered questions. On my second visit, I knew enough to start asking about the procedure early on, and my dentist realized that I wanted to be better informed throughout. So he did a better job of talking through each step of the process, and I felt better as a result. I just wish he’d been that descriptive during the first visit.
  4. Know your reputation. So what triggered all of this? The words “root canal.” For my dentist, that meant “routine procedure that will immediately alleviate the problem.” Like many people who haven’t had a root canal, I had a very different take on it. Of all people, he should know that root canals don’t have the best reputation. But it wasn’t top of mind for him, because he was approaching it from his own perspective instead of mine.

In another week, I go back for my third and final trip to wrap up my root canal. I’m not nervous at all any more, and the only thing hurting is my wallet. If I ever have to have another root canal, I’ll probably shrug it off and not even bat an eye. But that’s only because I have my own experience to draw from.

There’s a saying that you only have one chance to make a first impression. Take a minute to think about how you treat your new customers, and what you do to make them comfortable and familiar with you. Do you know what assumptions they bring into the relationship, and whether those assumptions are accurate? Do you do enough to understand their perspective and address their needs and concerns? Do you follow up with your first-time customers after the fact to see how you’ve done?

If not, take the time to listen and understand. There’s no better way to turn a first-time customer into a long-time customer.


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