Dental News

  • September 4, 2018

Is your practice judged by Lake Wobegon effect?

Lake Wobegon – “Where all the women are strong, the men are good-looking and the children are above-average.”

Like many, I listened to Garrison Keillor weave hilarious, delightful and poignant stories from the fictional Minnesota hamlet of Lake Wobegon. He painted vivid pictures of the small town where people were honest and sincere, went to church, and pitched in to help their neighbors and build up their community.

So when I stumbled across a reference to the Lake Wobegon effect, I was puzzled.

Harry Beckwith is the author of Selling the Invisible, who dissects the concepts of consumerism and what drives people to spend their money in his book.

Mr. Beckwith explains that spending is split between the physical things we accumulate and the services we purchase. You can hold a new iPhone in your hand, drive a new car, put on a new pair of shoes. These physical objects serve to reinforce the purchaser’s happiness with the product and reinforcement of the buyer’s good taste and intelligent choice, he says.

But selling service, Mr. Beckwith says, is “fundamentally” different from selling products. Services are “invisible” and don’t serve the consumer in the same way. You can’t try out a haircut. Most of us can’t evaluate whether a tax return was done properly. Mr. Beckwith makes the point that many purchasers of services aren't even sure what it is that they are buying.

Customers, he says, typically cannot evaluate expertise – whether that’s the know-how of a financial adviser, a marketing planner, or a dentist – since consumers lack the technical skills to evaluate the service. And, Mr. Beckwith emphasizes, very often the customer may be motivated by avoiding risk or seeking relief (a toothache) rather than trying to get the very best service available. What Mr. Beckwith does underscore is a point dentists realize and have embraced: that what they really sell is a relationship with their patients. He rightly points out that essential relationship “needs constant attention and nurturing” for the patient to stay.

But some service providers suffer from the Lake Wobegon effect, he argues. In essence, providers see themselves in a better, more noble light, like Garrison Keillor’s fictional characters, than a consumer actually does. “You think you are better than you are – and that your service is better than it is,” he puts it bluntly.

And with that over-inflated view, service providers often don’t carefully examine what and how they sell their services, which may be just average.

The author urges providers to assume their service is poor, and then take steps to improve. The starting point is an unvarnished evaluation of the patient experience, beginning with the dentist’s interaction and radiating outward to include the office staff, the waiting room, the practice’s marketing plan and more.

Fast and flashy gimmicks won’t develop the relationship or sell patients on the value and expertise your practice brings to them. It starts with building a relationship and creating trust, one patient at a time.

Photo by Emholk/

The views expressed in this column are those of the writer and not necessarily the opinions of the Chicago Dental Society.

CDS presents Front Desk, a column addressing issues facing dentists and staff members experience in the office.

Front Desk is prepared by Stephanie Sisk, a freelance journalist.


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