Episode 435: Make Them Smile: Why Customer Satisfaction is the Key to Sustainable Growth with Dr. Sulman Ahmed

Episode Summary

In this episode, we learn from Dr. Sulman Ahmed about the difference adjusting a company’s culture to customer satisfaction can make, how to face life challenges with resilience and perspective, and why having a clear vision is crucial to succeed. You’ll also hear Dr. Ahmed’s thoughts on effective leadership, building a legacy, the benefits of shaping a culture focused on customer satisfaction, and much more.

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our “Becoming Your Best” podcast listeners, wherever you may be in the world today. This is Steve Shallenberger, your host. I’m so excited about the guest that we have today. In his career, he has achieved many honors and awards, including being named Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2017 and making Glassdoor’s Top CEOs list in 2021 with a 98% approval rating. He’s also an in-demand speaker at national leadership conferences and entrepreneurial motivational conferences. Another one of his notable achievements is being appointed as one of the Most Admired CEOs in the Dallas Business Journal’s 2023 list. Welcome, Dr. Sulman Ahmed.

Dr. Sulman Ahmed: Thanks for having me on your show.

Steve Shallenberger: I’ve been looking forward to this. You have such a wonderful perspective and what a journey you’ve taken. Before we get started today, I’ll tell you just a bit more about Dr. Ahmed. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Make Them Smile: Why Customer Satisfaction Is the Key to Rapid and Sustainable Growth.” It’ll be fun talking about his journey and doing that. He’s the founder, chairman, and CEO of DECA Dental, and the influential leader shaping and motivating DECA Dental’s growth strategy and culture, which we’re going to talk about. So, let’s start off, if you don’t mind, Sulman, by telling us a little bit about yourself, your background, and any turning points in your life that have had a significant impact on you.

Dr. Sulman Ahmed: I would love to. Again, thanks for having me on the show. So, I was born and grew up in a country called Rhodesia, which is now Zimbabwe, and I lived there until I was 19. Then, I came to the US to pursue my college-level education and, really, I guess, pursuing the American dream without realizing it at that young age. So, I moved here, ended up finishing college, and going to dental school. It was just a series of events that led from one thing to another and ultimately became part of my overall journey and decision-making. One of the life-shaping events, as I always talk about, was when I first moved here. I was so homesick as an 18-year-old. I ended up in Jacksonville, Florida, and that’s a whole separate story that I share a lot about in the book. It’s actually a pretty funny story about how carelessly I chose a college just because you don’t really know or understand the different rankings and all of those things. But, long story short, there was a point about a week into being in Jacksonville when I called my dad back. To do that, I had to get to a pay phone, get a calling card, scratch off the unique PIN; those of us who were around at that time would remember. It wasn’t as easy as today. I was so homesick. I didn’t have a car. Jacksonville was an area with no public transportation, so you had to just eat what was on campus. I got tired of eating Subway and Pizza Hut for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I told him I just wanted to come back. At that time, it must have been hard for him too, 18-19 hours flying away. He just told me, “Look, you’re already out there. Think of it as a vacation for the next three weeks. If you still don’t like it, just come back. Don’t worry about it.” That took so much pressure off me because I was trying to create all these things in my head about how I was going to live, how I was going to survive, and is this the life I want. I missed my siblings and all my friends. I didn’t know anybody here, and so many things were culturally different.

Dr. Sulman Ahmed: As I look back at that one example, I think I’ve applied that to a lot of things in life. At times, we feel like we can’t make it or we’re in a situation we’ll never get out of. Just slowing down or having a different perspective and saying, “I just need to get through the next week, then the next week, or the next day.” There have been multiple times that’s happened. When I first started my dental office, I decided to do things differently. A lot of the dental industry is merger or acquisition-based, a roll-up strategy. I wanted to build offices from scratch, where we identified a site. It was a retail healthcare concept. I looked at Starbucks, Walgreens, and CVS and thought, “I want to create the Starbucks of dentistry. I want great retail locations in great neighborhoods that people drive by.” I wanted it to be branded. Ideal Dental became that brand. I wanted people to identify that brand with standardization, consistency, and quality. I wanted to be open six days a week, which was unheard of in the dental space at that time because I felt like patients had dental needs seven days a week, so how could we be a four-day-a-week model, which is what a lot of dentistry was and probably still is to this day. I wanted people to get all services, not just general dentistry. I wanted people to come in on a Saturday with their daughters to get their cleaning done while their daughters got their braces adjusted. Those basic things kicked off the company. There have been tons of trials and tribulations along the way. Fast forward, we’re almost at 200 locations in nine states. It’s been a lot of fun, a lot of growth, a lot of people, a lot of learning, a lot of humbling experiences, and a lot of achievements.

Steve Shallenberger: Well, that’s quite a journey! Way to go, Sulman! Tell us a little bit about your book that’s coming out soon. Give us a feel for the journey and what’s in it. I’m glad you mentioned the number of locations you have. How many locations do you have?

Dr. Sulman Ahmed: Just under 200.

Steve Shallenberger: That’s fabulous. Is that your vision? Let’s get into it.

Dr. Sulman Ahmed: I think I’ll kick it off with where you started. The book itself, I started writing as a diary to my kids so they would understand how my life got to where it is. I began that after COVID. It wasn’t supposed to be published. I started and stopped, started and stopped. Over the last 10 years, I’ve had a lot of business people reach out for advice and being like, “Hey, I’ve seen you grow to 20, 30, 40, 50 locations.” A lot of them weren’t even in the dental business. They were entrepreneurs who either felt inspired or felt like they could reach out, and I could relate to them. So, they are like, “How do I fund from here to here? How do I know it’s time to grow? How do I hire a CFO?” So, I had all these playbooks or details on how to build a business and a business plan. I had all this informations in different spots. I went through many dark points in my journey where you either don’t have any money or feel like you’re not going to make it. In today’s world, everyone’s looking for instant gratification, be it social media, where we all just see the best. In the book, I share that it takes 10 years of being good every day to become great eventually. It’s not about saying, “I’ve been doing this for a month, why am I not seeing change?”

Dr. Sulman Ahmed: The book is a how-to. It shares my personal journey, which was hard because I felt that to be able to relate and help people, I had to be transparent and vulnerable. I share a lot of details about numbers and finances in the hope that it inspires people who may not be in the same situation, or who may be in a better situation, to think, “If he’s done it, I should absolutely go for it.” I figured if I could change one life, I would have achieved the goal of the book. It became a business book on what to expect at each step of the business, how to take the next step, and what are some of the roadblocks and obstacles and how to overcome those. It also discusses reaching the point where you feel like you’ve achieved everything you set out to achieve, the top of the mountain, and how your life changes. For me, building the business was all about the customer and the guest and how do we make sure our patients are really happy. As I grew into a leader and our company got bigger with employees, dentists, and specialists, it became about how to take care of my people. It went from providing for customers to giving back. I share a little bit about that in my journey.

Steve Shallenberger: Oh, thanks for the overview. Sometimes, we hear people say, “Oh, man, look at that company, look at that organization, they’re just an overnight success.” But usually, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Because behind that, as you said, is a decade or more of just scratching it out and struggling, wondering if you would ever make it. Then, all of a sudden, you turn it around, and you’re at a better place and people start recognizing that. What’s one of the early challenges, or maybe an early challenge you had, that would be an example of how you overcame a tough situation? You weren’t even sure if you might make it, but then you turned it around. Do you have an example like that?

Dr. Sulman Ahmed: Lots of examples. I think there are a couple of chapters in the book. My first chapter is about having a grand vision. Instead of focusing on the day-to-day, you’ve got to have a goal or vision that you keep reminding yourself of when you’re going through the struggles. Another chapter is about mastering your craft. The point of all of that is no matter what your business is, to take it to the next level, there are certain requirements. You’ve got to be really good as a dentist and understand the ins and outs of how the business runs, not just from a clinical standpoint but also dealing with insurance companies, reimbursements, training, and all of that. One of the early struggles was that dentistry had been around for a very long time, but dentists did not want to work on Fridays and Saturdays. That was probably the first struggle as we were trying to scale. In the first two or three offices, we were working six days a week. It required a cultural mind shift in the dentists to understand that this was better for patients, not just what’s best for the dentist. It was about helping people, and that required a cultural change in why we were doing it versus just asking, “What’s in it for me?” Another common challenge is funding your growth. You can have a great idea and take it from one to two to three to four, but if your vision is to take it to 25 or 30 locations, how do you fund that? How do you get past personally paying for everything and go beyond that point?

Steve Shallenberger: At some point, are you still practicing dentistry occasionally?

Dr. Sulman Ahmed: Every now and then, but honestly, in the last 10 or so years, I’ve just been managing and helping grow the vision and trying to impact more lives.

Steve Shallenberger: At what time, Sulman, did you realize it was necessary to transition from working in the business to focusing on the business as a CEO and a key leader so that you can develop consistent, sustainable growth and success?

Dr. Sulman Ahmed: I think it’s funny for us specialized professionals. We think a lot of our value is when we’re with a patient, and no one else can do that. I had the same concept, thinking that if I’m not practicing, we’re losing out on the vision and the goal, and patients aren’t going to be happy. But it was probably the furthest from the truth because my business started taking off the less I was practicing. It went from practicing six days to five days to four days to three days, while the other days, I was looking at new sites, building the business, and putting the tools together to manage it and the training. So, it was probably around December 2008, right before the recession, when I started my first location. By 2012 or 2013, I was almost completely out of practicing and focusing on building the business. As a dentist, that was about an eight-year run since I graduated in 2005, doing a lot of dentistry in that time.

Steve Shallenberger: Leadership is so crucial to have a successful team and organization. It’s one of those extraordinary skills that can lift everything. What are some of the most important leadership skills you’ve identified that contribute to a successful life, a successful team, and an organization?

Dr. Sulman Ahmed: Leadership evolves with time. As you’re put into a leadership position, you learn how to be a leader. Over time, your ability grows with experience. There’s no real substitute for that and no shortcuts. Early on, it was about leading by example: showing up early, staying late, and putting in the work so staff could see it. Over time, transparency and vulnerability, just being able to share, “Hey, I don’t know,” or “We’re really not doing well,” or “I don’t know how to get from here to here, so I’m seeking help.” These traits have helped a lot because they break down barriers and make people in the company feel like I’m also human. It builds the ability to connect.

Steve Shallenberger: What are some of the most important leadership lessons you’ve learned?

Dr. Sulman Ahmed: Just because you’re successful at a certain time, I think over a period of time, there are a lot of ups and downs. Learning when you’re in the downs and being humble when you’re going up—that’s probably the most important lesson I’ve learned. Nothing, good or bad, lasts forever.

Steve Shallenberger: Good one. Stay steady and work the problem. When it’s going great, appreciate it, have gratitude, and ask, “How do we sustain it?”

Dr. Sulman Ahmed: I think also the measure of success matters. You can measure it by customer satisfaction, revenue, or profit. But as a visionary and leader, your goal should be, “Are you making the company better every day and improving people’s lives, whether it’s your patients or your own staff?” That’s the ultimate goal. Sometimes all of that translates into a great quarter, and sometimes it doesn’t. But as long as you’re moving in the right direction, as a leader, you’ve got to be able to step back and look at the bigger impact.

Steve Shallenberger: I like that approach. That’s really excellent, that thought and mindset. One of the ways we describe it, a long-time theme, decade over decade, is this thought: to maintain real growth year after year. Thinking that way helps unleash all the possibilities you have. Just maintain real growth—that’s it. A lot of good things have to happen. Like you say, you have to take care of your associates and employees; they want to be there and growing. But also having a vision—how do we do this sustainably? Great job. How important is it to take this whole thing in terms of taking it personally in business? Personal responsibility—what does that mean to you?

Dr. Sulman Ahmed: I write in my book that if it matters enough to you, it becomes personal. Everything is personal, especially if you’re the founder of a legacy business. Every negative review, every employee who left because we dropped the ball—it’s all personal. Every single day, you want to get in and fix it, whereas some are hired positions, and it’s a temporary thing. For someone who’s built a business, this is their life. Taking things personally is key. That becomes a struggle as the company grows bigger and bigger because not everyone takes it personally. So, how do you evoke and inspire what’s important to you as a company and as a leader, where everybody feels excited about it too and make it personal for each person?

Steve Shallenberger: Building a legacy while achieving business success is a balance. You don’t want to lose sight of having a successful business, which enables a long-term legacy. How do you envision your legacy within the dental industry, the community you serve, and with your family?

Dr. Sulman Ahmed: The last point you hit on is really important. Family is also part of our legacy. Personal and professional interrelate at some point. In the book, I talk a little about this concept of work-life balance. In order to achieve greatness, sometimes that balance is skewed one way or another, and that’s okay. Leaving a legacy, whether in dental or within the company, means setting forth values and putting the company on a trajectory where the DNA, core, and foundation are laid out so heavily. You bring in key people who have worked alongside you for a long time that you can then trust with carrying out that vision over time. It’s inevitable that at some point, there will be better people, or you’ll have taken the company as far as you want to or can. As long as the fundamentals and core stay stable, you can find a different role. Maybe you’re not the CEO anymore, but you’re on the board or chairing it and still involved in a different capacity. What ends up happening is your ability to impact grows, and more opportunities come around. Whether that’s working with charities to provide free dental care and your passion starts growing—for me, it’s helping more dentists have fun and be great clinicians but also have a wealth creation opportunity like how do I show them that—that’s something I’m passionate about. Other things that happen in dentistry, when you think about oral care, solutions, and products, that’s another area that’s fascinating to me. Your core competency grows, you get other people to carry on your legacy because they love and believe in it, and then you find other things that inspire the creative part of your brain. This ultimately gives back to everyone associated with what you originally built.

Steve Shallenberger: Thank you so much for that perspective. It’s inspirational, really, and it’s right at the heart of maintaining real growth year after year and creating a legacy; it’s when others engage with you who share the passion and people who are great leaders engage with you. Someday, you and I are going to be gone, but to be able to see that, continue to serve others and create value for years to come, making the world a better place and helping people have better lives—that’s pretty exciting, and that’s a key part of it. A key part of leadership is creating that vision and identifying the core values that make you great. What’s your vision, and what are some of the values you work by?

Dr. Sulman Ahmed: I think the vision for me is to make this a national dental household name. In other words, wherever you live in the country, if you or someone you know has a toothache on a Saturday, I want them to naturally think, “Oh, go to Ideal Dental. I know they’re open and they do great work.” That’s the vision. As for my core values, integrity is probably number one. Anyone I work with their heart has got to be in the right place. We think of that in terms of dentists doing work in a patient’s mouth. You have to make sure you’re doing good work because the patient doesn’t always know. In “Ideal,” each letter is one of the core values. The “I” is for integrity, and the “L” is for loyalty. Over time, loyalty has become a very important core value. I’m very loyal to my key people who have demonstrated their trust and time with me, perhaps to a fault, but I also expect loyalty back from people I care about, and it’s earned over time. Integrity and loyalty are very important to me.

Steve Shallenberger: And the “D,” “E,” and “A”?

Dr. Sulman Ahmed: Each one is separate, so you’d have to read the book to learn that. “D” is for discipline. I spell out and talk about each one in detail in the book.

Steve Shallenberger: Well, that’s fun. It’s been a great visit. You’re inspirational. You’ve done great. “Make Them Smile,” is a fun new book. It’ll be fun. I can see it now sitting on the counters in your waiting rooms in all of your shops. You’re changing a lot of the approach in your field. Congratulations on that. Well done.

Dr. Sulman Ahmed: Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed this and look forward to getting the book out and seeing what people think.

Steve Shallenberger: Any final tips you’d like to leave with our listeners today?

Dr. Sulman Ahmed: I think the biggest one is that we all have a good gut sense, as a leader, on what you should be doing or shouldn’t be doing; one, trust that; two, just be patient and let things happen. If you’re putting in the work every single day, and you’re showing up, and you’re executing, and you’re disciplined, just give it time. People just want things to happen too quickly, and it just doesn’t work that way. Just be patient. You’re going to go through your trials and tribulations, but stick with your gut feeling and be patient enough to ride it out, and success will come your way.

Steve Shallenberger: Well, that’s good advice. So, how can people find out about what you’re doing?

Dr. Sulman Ahmed: You can follow me on LinkedIn. I’ve got a large number of followers there, and then the book will be available everywhere—Barnes & Noble, Apple, wherever books are sold, including the audio versions on Audible. Read about that, and please reach out to me through LinkedIn. I’d love to hear from you.

Steve Shallenberger: Thank you so much for being a guest, and we wish you the best.

Dr. Sulman Ahmed: Thank you so much for having me. Appreciate it.

Steve Shallenberger: To all of our listeners, we’ve loved having you tune in today to join us. It always makes such a difference. We wish you the best as you’re gaining new ideas, thinking about how to become your best. I love a lot of the messages that we’ve heard today. They’ve been encouraging and hopeful. We wish you a great day. This is Steve Shallenberger, your host, signing off. 

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best

CEO, Executive, Corporate Trainer, Entrepreneur, and Community Leader

Dr. Sulman Ahmed

CEO and Founder of DECA Dental

Founder, Chairman, and CEO of DECA Dental, Author, Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year

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