A Sales Career: How Dental Hygienists Should Evaluate Possible Career Option

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So many dental hygienists aspire to leave the operatory. The why doesn’t matter. It is just their time to transition out of clinical care. As it happens, the road isn’t necessarily quick and easy, and you do need to do a little planning.

I decided to interview my good friend Maria Smith who has done just that. She moved very successfully from clinical care to sales. I asked for her take on the ins and outs of the change from clinical to sales. We have had a couple of conversations about this in the past, and I found her thoughts enlightening, to say the least.

When I asked what she thought about an interview for Today’s RDH, she was incredibly gracious and forthcoming. She wrote much of the article herself in answering the questions, and I am grateful for the time she put in while working full-time, raising a family, and finishing her doctorate.

Maria Smith, RDH, MS, is a territory representative for Philips Healthcare Systems.

Marie’s Backstory

Maria Smith grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas (think of Selena and Lou Diamond Philips!) and attended Del Mar College for her dental hygiene education. Shortly after her graduation in 2001, she moved to Austin to start her career in dentistry. “It was a great time to be in dentistry. Facebook was not around, Google reviews didn’t exist, and fee-for-service was a real live thing!”

The digital integration movement started gaining steam, and along came Dentrix G1. “The next thing you know, technology was moving fast ─ intraoral cameras, digital radiographs, the DIAGNOdent, lasers, scanners, millers, CBCTs, and more.” She was fortunate to work in a few high-tech practices that embraced the movement, and it became the normal process of workflow.

By this time, she was married and planning to start a family. In 2015, she was pregnant with her second child, and she and her husband decided to move to Houston to be closer to his family. The help her extended family provided was immeasurable, and they felt it was time to build more of that family connection. “However, no one wanted to hire a pregnant person.”

She reached out to a friend of hers who was a dental assistant in Houston and thought maybe she could connect Maria to a few offices to get, at a minimum, temporary work. Little did she know that this decision would change the course of her career. Her friend was working for an equipment company and needed a clinical trainer for dental practices after it was acquired by the practice. It was an as-needed position which filled about two days a week, and Maria would temp during the other days.

This decision started the path to where she is today, and the rest, as they say, is history. You will notice that Maria didn’t immediately start in sales; she had to earn her stripes.

Sales: Is it for You?

Before someone enters sales, Maria suggests they should ask a few questions. “What is their style? Do you exhibit an educator or a sales personality? Educators do exactly that. Educate. In sales, that can be termed as product dumping or demonstrating the features and benefits. Sales are different, and knowing the cycle or process is key! If you don’t know the steps involved, you must become familiar before you even apply. Depending upon what you are selling, the steps may vary, but here are some basics.”

  • Prospecting
  • Preparation
  • Approach
  • Presentation
  • Handling Objections
  • Closing
  • Follow-up

Prospecting ─ This is the first step in the sales process, identifying potential customers. Will you need to cold-call, leverage social media, or do you have current connections that may help you find potential buyers? Are you comfortable asking for referrals? Creating prospecting scripts can be an effective way to help in the process.

Prospecting is all about researching and sourcing the right leads for the product. Then a database of information is accumulated to help communicate with the potential clients in a systematic way. Many companies use customer relationship management (CRM) to help stay connected to customers and streamline processes, ultimately improving profits. According to Microsoft 365, a CRM is a “category of integrated, data-driven software solutions that improve how you interact and do business with your customers.”

Preparation ─ For many years, the sales world has spoken about the 57% statistic. Buyers are about 57% of the way through their buying journey before proactively engaging vendors.

The 57% number is somewhat arbitrary, but the point is that clients or buyers identify their problem and research solutions before you get there. Salespeople have to meet the customers where they are, which is perhaps deep in the decision cycle already. You can be a provider of solutions with relevant insights that will impact a buyer’s final decision.

Prepare, prepare, and prepare. There is a research process or administration process that Maria speaks about to figure out her strategy. She spends many evenings getting not only logistics prepared but to decide the goal for the meeting. “You don’t go to an office just to check on the client. Are you there to sell something, support them in some way, or train them in an existing product or a new product?” You must give something of value to the customer.

Approach and presentation ─ Approach is the most important! This is where you find out your customer’s needs. Conversations are all about the customer. Maria points out, “You can’t present something if you don’t know what their needs are. You could be selling to a person who needs something that saves time, but without asking the right questions, you could be presenting the product in a manner that saves money.”

Handling objections ─ A sales deal isn’t easy. For myself, this is something that I think gets missed a lot coming out of clinical care and heading into the world of sales. We may have a few difficult patients, but overall, we are well-liked, respected, and listened to. Patients don’t have a choice; they are at our mercy for an hour at a time listening to us. Conflict is really limited overall, and I, for one, took for granted the positive accolades that were so often given.

Maria explains, “I get beat up a lot some days and, if conflict bothers you, sales may not be the place for you. Many people have objections to products for various reasons. I am told so many times about how someone doesn’t like my product. Managing those objections helps get to the reasons why someone does not want to buy my products. But the main point is a thick skin is necessary to be in sales.”

Closing ─ It is all about meeting the customers’ needs but asking for the business must happen too. Maria shared a few key things to remember, such as asking questions like “What are your thoughts in moving forward?” Or, “What can we do to get contracts over to you?” Or, “If we are able to add these features, can you commit to purchase?”

These are all good questions that may help with the closing of the deal. Another point Maria made (that I, for one, need to heed) is that once a buyer has committed to the purchase or you have a “buy-in,” it is time to stop discussing the product. Press ahead and don’t ramble on, which many salespeople do (actually killing the deal). You can answer small questions, of course, but at this point, less is more.

Follow-up ─ According to the Harvard Business Review, selling to a new client cost five to 25 times more than to an existing client. Your attitude after a sale can make or break your future with the customer. Ideas to keep in mind:

  • Send a thank-you note. Include a message that says, “We are here for you.”
  • Check in, but don’t overdo it. Perhaps just ask if they have any questions or if they are happy with your purchase.
  • Keep the lines of communication open. Ask for permission to send them high-value content like guides, articles, or educational webinars.
  • Think about a second sale. Perhaps offer a complementary product while still working on trust and always respecting the customer’s time.
  • Ask for referrals. When a recommendation comes from someone who has actually used your service or product, it has an extra layer of credibility and trust.

So, Sales is for You

Maria urges, “Tailor your resume for a sales position. You must speak their language, and they don’t always speak yours. Quite frankly, if you put responsibilities include SRPs and sealants, that will not get you the job. Doing sealants and SRPs does not tell a hiring manager you know how to sell. However, if you say your production quota is $800, but you doubled your quota, that is more relatable. Increased office revenue by 20% year over year is their language. Know the difference between B2B and B2C sales.”

B2B is business-to-business sales, and typically sales are dealing with professional buyers or high-level executives. B2C sales are business-to-customer sales that can include e-commerce, brick and mortar stores, or dentistry and should be put on your resume.

“Closed 120k in comprehensive plans” sounds much better on a sales resume than “oral health education.” Maria said it is not uncommon to have several different types of resumes as “they should reflect the type of job you want to pursue.”

She added, “Be familiar with sales terminology. RFP, YOY, FY20, KPI are just a few terms someone should know when applying for sales roles.”

A request for proposal (RFP) is defined as a formal document that outlines an organization’s intent to purchase a good or service. Year over year (YOY) is a method of evaluating two or more measured events to compare the results at one period with those of a comparable period on an annualized basis. FY20 means fiscal year ending 2020, and key performance indicator (KPI) refers to a set of quantifiable measurements used to gauge a company’s overall long-term performance.

Maria said, “If possible, self-teach yourself sales strategies. Sales training is available in classes or, at minimum, books to better understand the process.”

You Got the First Interview!

Maria has noted some very common questions during sales interviews, including:

  • What motivates you?
  • What’s your proudest moment? (In sales, not personally)
  • How do you manage a pipeline or prospect?
  • Write down your sales process. Which one is most important?
  • How do you know you are speaking to the key decision-maker?

She was once asked, “What the most important part of the sales process is.” At that time, she didn’t know, which is never good during an interview. Do the work and prepare for what the sales world entails before heading into the meeting. Also, remember that rarely will there be only one interview. I remember Maria telling me that five to six interviews at her company are the norm but can go up to eight.

“Lastly, don’t be afraid to take a step back,” she said. “We aren’t always lucky to get our dream job on the first try. It is hard to expect someone to give a high-paying job to someone who has had little experience. This is a tough pill to swallow because we all know we present a significant amount of value and less pay is not ideal—however, very few walk before they crawl.

“We often gravitate to dental sales positions, but many sales reps have sold various products over their career. It’s not about the product but more about the process. Don’t be afraid to look outside of dental to enter into sales. Skills are skills. They are transferrable.”

In closing, Maria always stays positive. “If sales are for you, then I hope you find this helpful. If it is not, there are many positions outside of sales which could provide a good match.” I think that we all need to remember to have realistic goals when we want to make a change but also look forward to the potential of the future.

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Anne O. Rice, RDH, BS
Anne O. Rice, RDH, BS, has been a clinical dental hygienist for over 30 years and received her degree from Wichita State University. Her oral-systemic passion led her to found Oral Systemic Seminars in 2017, in which she now devotes her time, focus, and study primarily to dementia prevention and sleep hygiene. She completed the Bale Doneen Preceptorship for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention for Healthcare Practitioners. In 2020 Anne became certified as a Longevity Specialist with the Alzheimer’s Research and Dementia Foundation, a Fellow with The American Academy of Oral Systemic Health, and in 2021 published her manuscript Alzheimer’s Disease and Oral-Systemic Health: Bidirectional Care Integration Improving Outcomes. The perspective article was part of a research topic: Integrating Oral and Systemic Health: Innovations in Transdisciplinary Science, Health Care and Policy. Anne is a consultant with Weill Cornell Medical Center’s Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic and is a consultant with Florida Atlantic College of Medicine under the direction of Dr. Richard Isaacson.