by Philip A. Cooper, DMD, MBA
When selling a practice, there are many issues that have to be addressed. One of the more difficult ones is deciding when and how to tell patients and staff about the sale. There are several points of view as to what is the best approach. What is right for one practice may not work for another. Consider the following when addressing the issue.
As a general rule, patients are not notified of the sale until after settlement. This is usually communicated by means of a letter, written on the seller’s stationery, to every family of record. A nice touch is to include a photograph of the buyer. The letter should state that a “transfer” or “acquisition” (it is preferable not to use the word “sold”) of the practice has taken place. This should be followed by a brief paragraph about the buyer’s background, usually written by the buyer. Finally, the patient should be informed that his or her records will remain with the office, as will the staff. If the seller will be staying on for some time, that should be mentioned as well. The cost of the mailing can be split equally, or the seller can pay for the printing and the buyer can pay for the postage.
When should this letter be sent? It is my opinion that it’s best to send the letter immediately after settlement. Some experts feel patients should not be informed right away because they think the longer the buyer is there before making the announcement, the greater the chances that patients will stay with the practice. I believe it is best to avoid creating resentment on the part of the patients, which could result when they realize they were not informed in a timely manner. Also, it is necessary for legal purposes to let patients know that another dentist will be taking over their treatment and have custody of their records. In my many years of transitioning practices, I have never seen a mass exodus of patients, even in situations where the seller is deceased. Unless patients have moved a considerable distance from a practice, most will continue on with the new doctor.
When should the staff be informed? This varies from practice to practice. As a general rule, the staff can be informed once the agreement of sale has been signed and financing has been approved. A good suggestion for the seller is to let the staff know at the beginning of the week, and then have the buyer meet with them by the end of the week. A nice way to do this is to have the meeting in the office with lunch provided by the seller. Once this meeting has occurred, the buyer can then arrange to meet with each staff member individually.
There are times when the seller has a long-term trusted employee whom he or she feels should know about the transition sooner. This is fine as long as the person can keep it confidential. There are also instances when the entire staff knows that the practice is for sale. Although doctors are concerned about losing staff while the practice is being marketed, in most cases the staff will stay on. When the staff knows, it can make the sale a bit easier since the buyer can visit the office when the staff is there and gain an additional perspective. The staff can also give the seller insight regarding the buyer that the seller might not have noticed.
The timing of breaking the news of a transition and how it is done is a very important step in transitioning a practice. Sellers need to decide which approach will work best for them. The goal should be to ensure a smooth transition, which will result in the retention of both staff and patients, and having everyone feel reassured that this will all work out fine.