Just after he was hired by DENTSPLY GAC, new Director of Marketing John Kringel was performing the due diligence required as a new employee. After acquainting himself with the members of his own team, he ventured out to meet the people who use GAC products. It was then that he realized his new customers were different from the surgeons and operating room nurses that he was accustomed to working with in the past.
Orthodontists don’t just want great products …they want to help GAC make them.
“I discovered that orthodontists have really strong opinions about what it is that we do,” said Kringel. “It was almost like an affiliation with a sports team. When they spoke of GAC and the products we make, they’d use the term we. ‘We need to do this. We should tweak this.’ They weren’t just picking a supplier. They were picking a partner.”
Coming from a medical device background, the 46-year-old Kringel understood the significance of the orthodontist’s mindset. Relative to internet startups that create overnight billionaires, medical and dental product innovation moves at a conservative pace. Having a customer base so invested in the process could be invaluable.
“Typically orthodontic products have an exceptionally long product lifecycle. Just look at the basic twin bracket, many of those designs were created 25 years ago. With lifecycles this long, you wind up having patents run out or companies finding ways to circumvent the intellectual property. This can really amplify the value of your existing relationships. Fortunately GAC has always placed a high value on honesty and integrity in all of our relationships. Treat people with respect and they’ll do the same with you.”
Relationship-based marketing isn’t new. Lately, however, it’s gained a new following driven by increasing sources of competition and the decreasing product differentiation. With the orthodontists Kringel observed that the ‘what can you do for me’ mantra has evolved into ‘what can we do together?’ Interestingly, it’s this shared sense of mission that helped Kringel and his team members overcome a genuine black swan event in the marketplace.
Orthodontics was recovering from the economic downturn when Kringel joined GAC in 2009. It was a challenging time in the profession, but with their In-Ovation product line leading the growing market adoption of self-ligation, things were going well for GAC. Then in spring of 2011, their supply chain was severely disrupted by the Tsunami in Asia. Instantly, everyone with GAC was in entirely uncharted territory.
The Power of Perseverance
John Kringel is a graduate of Colgate University, having achieved scholastic honors en route to a BA in Mathematical Economics. He briefly entered the professional world after graduation, but decided to see what sort of doors graduating Cum Laude from Colgate could open. He aimed high, applying to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and was accepted. He graduated with an MBA in Strategic Management and Marketing two years later.
Like most members of the GAC team, Kringel chooses to not focus on the time surrounding the tsunami. He calls himself an optimist, and points to all of the positive momentum GAC has built up since then. Suffice it to say, GAC and its customers managed through the aftermath of the tsunami, with the company’s relationships in the orthodontic community playing a huge part in the recovery. Today their market share continues to grow.
In the three years since 2011 the company has reinvented itself in many respects with the marketing approach being no exception. For one thing the company has doubled down on innovation. They’ve not only made a significant investment to hire top R&D talent, but they’re now applying Design for Six Sigma (DFSS) processes to the development of new orthodontic products.
Just as relationship marketing has come full circle, Kringel knows that many of these leading edge processes aren’t purely new. “Look, it’s been going on for years. Half of our marketing team is dedicated to product management which has always been about figuring out what the customer wants. What’s the problem; what’s the solution; let’s get it done. But results of the old school approach varied greatly with the skill and experience of the individual product manager. What’s new is that disciplines like Voice of the Customer and DFSS eliminate the hit or miss.”
“The market has seen what we’ve done in building our R&D team and is about to see the fruits of GAC bringing processes like the Voice of the Customer to orthodontics. It’s still commonplace for other orthodontic companies to launch new products, only to have to revise them shortly after release. This essentially amounts to having the orthodontist and their patients debug the design. GAC’s new disciplined approach is built to get it right the first time.”
Even with all of the formalized processes and innovative feedback channels, Kringel points out that there are some practical limits to how fast you can develop new products within the medical device arena. “A major product like a new self-ligating bracket system is typically going to take two to three years from start to finish. We’re serving multiple masters of proving clinical efficacy and satisfying the regulatory pathway. These steps are non-negotiable and take time.”
“As a result, we’ve got to be committed to staying connected with our customers and continue to bring them innovative solutions. It doesn’t always have to be a device.”
The Relationship Beyond Products
Where the company formerly leaned on a few flagship products to lead the way, today GAC marketing views its opportunity to create value much more broadly. “We’ve really increased our focus on finding or creating new practice growth solutions and services for our customers. You don’t face the natural constraints that are typical in designing new products, let alone everything that goes into medical device development. Think about the UOBG Preferred Partner Program or CCO. We can add partners and expand those platforms much more quickly. The only real limit is creativity.”
Still, it all starts with relationships, and Kringel finds that orthodontists are a lot more fun and a lot less intense than the surgeons and hospital administrators.
“Anyone who knows orthodontists also knows that they are dynamic high achievers with a wide range of interests. To their credit, they aren’t interested in leaving things how they found them. It’s a personality trait that extends well beyond the bending of wires and the moving of teeth. I also find it interesting that many orthodontists are also small business owners. I can’t share the same level of insight when it comes to the clinical side of the profession, but I really enjoy picking their brains and commiserating on the business side of things.”
“A major company focus for 2014 and a real personal mission for me is making sure that our customers have a great experience whenever they interact with GAC. We can innovate on that front too. Social media, an area we plan to expand this year, will give us the opportunity to have a broad, two-way dialog to listen to what our customers have to say every day. We want to hear it all, the good, and the not so good so we can zero in on opportunities to improve the GAC customer experience. It really all comes back to building and strengthening those all-important relationships.”
John and his wife Sheila reside in Connecticut where they have three children, Kelsey, Jackson and Dana and two Bernese Mountain Dogs named Wilson and Abbey.
This article published in 2014 OrthoWorld.