Strategy and tactics – often confused!

14 October, 2019 / management
 Richard Pearce  

Time spent on developing a clear strategy which management
and staff can focus on delivering, would be time well spent

[ words: Richard Pearce ]

At any one time there must be multiple conversations happening in practices, which confuse/misuse the words ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics’. ‘Strategy’ is sexy, so that’s what people want to talk about. However, to give an example of the difference, sending a recall text rather than an email is NOT a strategy, it’s a tactic! The strategy might be ‘to increase the 12-month recall rate to 80% plus, by development of patient engagement, utilising text, email, newsletters, patient education events and involvement in at least one community event every three months’.

Being able to fundamentally understand the difference between the two ‘concepts’ and then developing strategies you can clearly articulate to your managers and your whole team, can give you a big advantage. Having clear strategies makes running and growing practices or groups much easier, because decision-making becomes easier. 

A clear strategy makes selecting the tactics so much simpler that sometimes
they are blindingly obvious. Examples will come later. First of all, let’s define the two words:

  • Strategy – an overall campaign plan/long-term vision, i.e. it’s ‘what’ will we do.
  • Tactics – short-term actions/the actual means to achieve an objective, i.e. ‘how’ we will do it.

Strategies for success in dentistry

We live in interesting times as the large group practices continue to ‘experiment’ with finding a highly profitable strategy. One of them continues to divest practices and develop its private offering while its mainstay is the NHS. Another continues to see whether it can grow its ‘connection’ with patients through a significantly expanded (by acquisition) chain of practices i.e. is dentistry a route to sell the full range of private healthcare?

Although, as an independent or small group of practices, it is worthwhile to keep an eye on the ‘big’ groups (their quarterly results briefings are online to peruse), you should be clear on your own strategy. Providing ‘caring and compassionate dentistry, in friendly and pleasant surroundings’ is not a useful strategy, as that is what every single dental practice thinks they do! Hundreds of practices actually say this on their website.

Strategy guru Michael Porter said: “Competitive strategy is about being different. It means deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique mix of value.” As every business has limited resources, if you do more of one thing, you will have to do less of another. 

Most practices still style themselves on the amount of publicly funded care they offer and this in effect provides the ‘floor’ in terms of charges. After that, we have a very few child-focused practices, specialist/referral practices, then the vast hinterland of mixed, general practices who are adding as many ‘specialist’ services as they can find clinicians to deliver them. Most practices suffer from not having a clear strategy, one which differentiates them and makes it easier for potential patients to choose them.

A strategy is normally created to achieve market growth and this can come from one or more of the following:

  1. Market penetration (sell more of what we currently sell to the same market, i.e. grow market share).
  2. Market development (find new groups to sell our existing services to, i.e. expand into untapped markets).
  3. Product or service development (develop current services to sell into the current market).
  4. Diversification (sell new services into current and new markets)

Hence, a general practice might bring in a visiting implantologist, orthodontist and aesthetics specialist two days a month each and so they are using growth strategy 3, above. After the initial set-up costs to provide these ‘developed’ services they can retain 50 per cent of the fees that would otherwise have ‘gone’ elsewhere. This is a market growth strategy that we see commonly now.

Some corporates are trying to get brand awareness and go after that middle ground between NHS prices and fully private, with a so-called ‘independent’ price list. This is a difficult position to occupy and relies on significant cost focus but, due to lack of NHS availability, the market size is significant.

Linked to that is the rise of market development by positioning practices in or near supermarkets and in shopping centres. This will increase as the supermarkets have to cut space but also provide a range of services which can be accessed in one visit to attract customers. A likely future development is practices within medical centres, alongside multiple medical services.


Strategy is different to tactics; this article has focused on strategy whereas most practices spend most of their time on tactics. Time spent on developing a clear strategy which management and staff can focus on delivering would be time well spent. It can be difficult and you might need to seek outside help which can provide a wider perspective of what is currently happening in the dental market. 

The provision of dentistry is undergoing huge changes in the UK and Ireland and now more than ever it is crucial to have a strategy which you truly believe in, to guide you through the next five years.

About the author

Richard Pearce lives in Northern Ireland. Following a business career in various sectors and an MBA, he joined his dentist wife in dentistry. Richard combines his wide commercial experience with being attuned to what it is like for an associate dentist, a practice owner and a practice manager. His unique perspective ensures he can assist a practice owner with every area of the practice to create a more profitable practice and to achieve their smart objectives.

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