I hate dentists.
Ok, I don’t HATE them, but I don’t like being in their chairs. My fear of dentists originates from my pre-teen years, when as a young boy, I had a toothache which turned out to be a hole in the tooth and it had to be cleaned out and given a filling. The dentist was busy chatting away with his dental assistant and made the “mistake” of allowing me to see the long needle that he was going to use to inject me with anesthetic so that he could drill into my tooth. The needle was longer than the length of my mouth! (remember, this was in the 1980s and I did not actually measure the needle, but from my vantage point, sitting helplessly in the chair it looked like the needle could pierce right through my mouth and appear on the outside of my lip).
I started squirming with fear and trepidation as the dentist, who seemed to be having more fun than should be legally allowed in a dentist’s office, cheerily told me not to worry and to open wide. I screamed in pain as the needle pierced through my gum and it felt like my entire head was on fire. Minutes later a portion of my mouth was numb and the dentist started drilling.
For reasons unknown, halfway through the drilling I started feeling pain and I screamed again and the dentist gave me another injection with the long needle! After what felt like hours (even though it was probably 30 minutes or less) the dentist was done and I was mercifully allowed to get up from his chair. I did so groggily, promising myself internally that I would never return to this chair of suffering in any place at any time. And so started my lifelong journey of avoidance of dentists. Over the years I have received counseling and treatment from excellent dentists and they have attempted to manage my fear in many (and sometimes creative) ways.
One dentist’s office used a TV screen showing movies to try to distract me while I was in the chair; it did not really work very well because I could not hear the TV sound above the din of the drilling machine. Another dentist would spend time talking with me about mundane subjects before he asked me to sit in his chair.
Another dentist tried the “manly” method…attempting to shame me into not being scared by telling me “come on, you’re acting irrationally! This thing does not hurt. Look at you, big strong man, afraid of this little visit!” That DEFINITELY did not work. Another showed me his dental credentials on the wall to let me know that he knew what he was doing and I would be in safe hands so I could relax. That had only minimal positive effect.
However, one day I found a dentist (I will call him “Dr. Z” here) who, after realizing that I was afraid of the chair, told me something: “Modupe, I promise you that you will feel no pain while in this chair.” I did not really believe him, but I was willing to take a chance (after all, I was in pain from a toothache). So I sat, and indeed, I felt no pain. He used spray, then injection, and whatever he did, I felt no pain. I was amazed! I went there a few more times for my other teeth (that had overdue work to be done on them, including root canals) and each time he would promise me that I would feel no pain while in his chair and each time, he was as good as his word. I started to relax.
One day I was experiencing pain in a tooth and when I went there for treatment, Dr Z informed me that I probably had bacteria in the gums lodged deep under a tooth. I did not fully understand but braced myself for the inevitable anesthetic and drilling.
However, he just prescribed some strong antibiotics for me and told me to take them for five days. By the third day, the pain was gone and I was amazed! It was my best dentist visit ever! I have since been more wiling to visit this dentist, because in his chair I feel no pain and the pain that drove me to go see him is taken away as a result of the treatment I receive.
I reflected on the change that has happened to me with Dr Z. I kept wondering why this man was able to get me to agree to sit in his chair and even relax going to see him. Was he a more qualified dentist than the other dentists I had visited? I doubt that, because some of the dentists appeared to be older and have more dental credentials than Dr. Z. Was it that he had a better bedside manner than the dentist who tried to appeal to my masculinity? Perhaps…but I am not convinced that this is the reason.
The more I reflected, the more I realized that what Dr. Z did to win me over to him was to promise me the two things I wanted: no pain during treatment and no pain after treatment. My new dentist understood that what I was interested in were the outcomes that I desired, and I was less interested in how these outcomes were achieved as long as they were achieved.
I was not interested in which school my dentist went to, how highly he was rated in the Council of Dentistry (or whatever name is given to the Dental regulatory agency), how many TV screens were in his office, what machines he had, or how nice of a person he was outside of the dentist office.
None of those things that probably matter to dentists when they get together in their conferences/meetings meant anything to me. What I wanted were the outcomes of no pain during treatment and no pain after treatment. And once I found a dentist who promised me those outcomes I gravitated to him and as he delivered, little by little, on the outcomes promised, I became more and more his willing patient.
There are lessons to be learned from this for leaders in Africa, many of whom are challenged with selling and marketing their companies’ services or products in a competitive environment. Whether you are in the business of making products like soap, paper, or beer; or you are in the business of providing services like banking, insurance, consulting, coaching, accounting, or auditing, you are likely challenged with acquiring and retaining customers.
You operate in a competitive environment that is often replete with alternatives for your potential customers and you are continually challenged with finding ways to get them to choose your services rather than the alternatives available at their disposal (alternatives which include doing nothing).
As a student of organizational behavior and leadership, I have observed the vast majority of leaders make the mistake of marketing and selling their expertise and their credentials, or the inputs that go into their product or service, believing that it is those factors that will convince their customer to choose them over the alternatives.
I have heard comments like “We have the best experts in the field,” or “Our [name of product] is made from the finest ingredients” and these types of marketing statements miss a key perspective: the customer does not care (and often does not understand) how you make your product or service (the means) as much as the customer cares about what your product or service will do for him/her and how it will make her/him feel (the end).
Politicians are some of the best marketers. Whatever your personal feelings about them, it is hard to argue that they are not, because they convince hordes of large crowds to choose their product/service against the alternatives. How do they accomplish this? Do the politicians tout their degrees, their education, their affiliations, etc? If that were the winning formula, then most countries would be led by the most academically-accomplished people in the country.
The politicians successfully market their product / service by focusing on the outcomes that their “customers” want, and they promise them these outcomes.
So, why do many leaders shy away from marketing the outcomes that their customers want and thus lose out on opportunities to grow their customer base? I can suggest two reasons:
- We don’t know the OUTCOMES that our customers desire: It sounds incredulous to claim that a leader of a company may not know what his customers want, but this is sadly often the case. Take the case of a leadership coach. The Coach often believes that what the customer wants is a thought partner who will help him work through some thorny issues, or a guide that can help him navigate a challenging situation, or a resource that can help him make the right decisions. These are only partially true, because they are means to an end, and not the end in itself. What the customer wants is success.
The coaching client wants to be successful, and the definition of that success may be different for each client, but it is success that the client wants. In the case of Dr. Z, he learned that what I wanted was a pain-free experience. He learned that by observing and speaking to me.
Many leaders, as their businesses grow, become so occupied with the necessary tasks of running their business, that they spend less time with their customers and more with their colleagues; this creates an echo chamber of feedback that is less based on the customer’s needs and more based on the supplier’s priorities and perception of what is good for the customer.
- We are afraid to promise the OUTCOMES: When we do know the outcomes that our customers desire, many leaders are afraid to promise or assure customers of these outcomes. This is often because we believe that we are not in control of these outcomes. We can control the inputs into our products and service. We can control the output (the product or the service); but we cannot control the outcome (the result of the use of the service / product on the customer).
For example, the dentist can control the sanitary nature of the dental chair and office, the cleanliness of the equipment, the competence of the dental assistant, his/her own competence and steady hand. These are the inputs. The dentist can control the fact that my tooth cavity will be filled. That is an output. But the dentist may not be in full control or whether or not I feel any pain during the procedure. He can influence it, but he cannot totally control it. As a result, he may not be willing to promise me that I will not feel any pain, because he does not want to disappoint me or lose credibility with me. This is a marketing mistake.
Dear African leader, it is easy to play it safe when you are selling or marketing your product or service, and focus on the activities that you can deliver. However, if you want to grow your market share significantly, learn what outcomes your customer is really looking for and get over your reluctance to promise the achievement of that outcome.
The vast majority of decisions made by human beings (your customers) are based on emotion, and not logic. We make choices based on how we feel, and based on how we hope to feel after making the choice. Activities do not excite us or inspire us or make us want to change; results and outcomes are what truly influence us. The results don’t have to be in evidence before we will make a choice; we just have to believe that the results will come.
This is why politicians succeed in influencing millions of people to vote for them. They don’t say “Vote for me because I will work harder than any other President you have had” or “I will be the smartest President you ever had” or even “I will be the most honest President you ever had”. They say “Vote for me because when I am President, your children will get the best education ever” or “your health needs will be taken care of” or “you will have access to well-paying jobs”. These are outcomes that are promised. And these are the factors that influence people to “buy” their service.
Remember: people buy outcomes more willingly than they buy activities or inputs. The products or services that customers purchase are simply a means to an end. The end is the outcome. Sell the outcome, and your product/service will continually be in demand and your company will grow exponentially.
>>>the writer is a scholar and practitioner of organizational development and leadership and a leadership Coach and Facilitator. Over the past three decades, he has successfully coached and trained leaders in Africa, North America, and Europe. His passion for leadership enhancement was born out of his experiences as a cadet in the U.S. Military Academy (West Point) and as a military officer serving in combat in the Sierra Leone Civil War where he was shot twice. As the only Sierra Leonean with a Ph.D. in Leadership, Modupe was the founding Dean of the African Leadership University School of Business, an institution providing a Pan-African MBA degree to Africa’s mid-career professionals. He is the Founder and CEO of BCA Leadership (www.bcaleadership.com), an organization that has impacted over 3000 African leaders with coaching and knowledge-sharing services. He leads a team of thirty-two Coaches across Africa and he is the curator of The Made in Africa Leadership Conference. Contact Modupe through email at [email protected]
To register for The Made in Africa Leadership Conference scheduled for 12 & 13 June, 2024 in Nairobi in Kenya, visit www.bcaleadership.com