Dental CareHealthHealthy CEOI AM CEO PODCAST

IAM2146 – Founder and Author Shares the Importance of Understanding Customers’ Needs

Podcast Interview with Dr. Sulman Ahmed

IAM2146 – Founder and Author Shares the Importance of Understanding Customers’ NeedsIn this episode, we have Dr. Sulman Ahmed, founder, chairman, and CEO of DECA Dental Group.
The discussion delves into Dr. Ahmed's incredible journey from growing up in Zimbabwe to transforming the dental industry in the United States.
Dr. Ahmed shares his CEO story, detailing his path through education at Tufts, the inception of DECA Dental, and its expansion across nine states with 200 locations.
The podcast also explores key themes from his book ‘Make Them Smile,' covering customer satisfaction, emotional intelligence, and disciplined vision in leadership.
Dr. Ahmed emphasizes perseverance, understanding customer needs, and the importance of providing excellent retail healthcare services.
Listeners will gain insights into his philosophy of putting guests first and creating a welcoming, fear-free dental experience.

Check out our CEO Hack Buzz Newsletter–our premium newsletter with hacks and nuggets to level up your organization. Sign up HERE

I AM CEO Handbook Volume 3 is HERE and it's FREE. Get your copy here: Get the 100+ things that you can learn from 1600 business podcasts we recorded. Hear Gresh's story, learn the 16 business pillars from the podcast, find out about CBNation Architects and why you might be one and so much more. Did we mention it was FREE? Download it today!


The full transcription is only available to CBNation Library Members. Sign up today!

Dr. Sulman Ahmed Teaser 00:00

You got to be able to know why the customer is there. And there's some people that are like, Hey, I got nothing going on. And I've got, I know I need a lot of dental work. I want to knock out as much as possible, so it's just picking up on that, but it just, we as humans miss those cues, not just in our personal lives, business lives, like sometimes just all around and just being more aware.

Intro 00:20

Are you ready to hear business stories and learn effective ways to build relationships, generate sales, and level up your business from awesome CEOs, entrepreneurs, and founders without listening to a long, long, long interview?

If so, you've come to the right place. Gresh values your time and is ready to share with you the valuable info you're in search of. This is the I AM CEO podcast.

Gresham Harkless 00:47

Hello, hello, hello. This is Gresh from the I AM CEO podcast, and I have a very special guest on the show today. I have Dr. Sulman Ahmed. Dr. Sulman, excited to have you on the show.

Dr. Sulman Ahmed 00:58

Thanks, Gresh. Thanks for having me. I'm excited to be on.

Gresham Harkless 01:00

Yeah, super excited to have you on and talk about all the awesome things that you're doing.

And of course, before we do that, I want to read a little bit more about Dr. Sulman so we can hear about some of those awesome things. And Dr. Sulman as founder, chairman, and CEO of DECA Dental Group has led Ideal Dental's expansion across nine states, establishing approximately 200 locations and serving around 3, 000 guests daily.

His effective leadership has positioned DECA Dental as one of the fastest-growing and most esteemed organizations in the dental industry, earning him prestigious awards such as EY's Entrepreneur of the Year in 2017 and Glassdoor's Top CEOs in 2021. So Dr. Ahmed is also a published author sharing insights on customer satisfaction and rapid growth in his book, Make Them Smile.

Additionally, he holds a doctor of dental medicine degree from Tufts University School of Dental Medicine and actively contributes to professional organizations, including serving as the president of the Association of Dental Support Organizations.

And the intro that I read when I was leaving through his book, he started talking about growing up in Zimbabwe and how he had to get in the line to snag a piece of a chicken pie.

And if he didn't get in line, then you weren't able to eat ultimately at the end of the day. So I feel like that, I imagine that feels a lot of, all the awesome things that he's been able to do, but I love that he took. Everything that he was thinking about doing, he started what he calls the Starbucks of dental.

And chapter one, I think everything starts with a really great idea. So hearing about how he says it starts with that grand vision and have a grand vision, how important that is, is something that's super impactful.

So Dr. Sulman, excited to have you on the show. Are you ready to speak to the I AM CEO community?

Dr. Sulman Ahmed 02:34

I am excited. Thanks for having me on.

[restrict paid=”true”]

Gresham Harkless 02:36

Absolutely. Let's get it started then. So I know I touched on it a little bit but I wanted to rewind that clock and hear a little bit more on how you got started, what I call your CEO story.

Dr. Sulman Ahmed 02:44

Yeah, for sure. So I grew up in a country back then that was called Rhodesia. And then it's in 1980 post the war, it was called Zimbabwe and I lived there until I was 19. And then I moved to the US for really pursuing my college education.

And, fell in love with America got my dental degree from Tufts in Boston and stuck around, started a business out here in Dallas and in 2008, right before the recession, because I was too unaware and thought the recessions don't affect dentists. I don't fix business people.

And so that was in 2008 and yeah, it's been a journey and I, I think you're right. The chicken pie story always I'm often asked, it's why do you keep doing what you're doing? And that's the closest analogy I had to try to get people to understand like the mindset.

And I think every entrepreneur, when you're building something, you've got to have that kind of hunger and you've got to be able to hustle. I think we see too many times today, people are just waiting for the perfect situation and present, and then they're going to start a business or they're going to take the next step.

See also  IAM916- Owner Specializes in Private Safaris Throughout Africa

The truth is it's very rare that the perfect situation ever occurs. And, for us, it was. It was about 40 pies and there was about 120 students. And so when that bell rang if you're at the back of the line, you just didn't get lunch that day and no one really cared. It was like you just shut the shutter down and that was the end of that.

And so, I think I use that analogy 'cause I think life's a lot life, that if you really want the pie and you gotta hustle and you got a, the bell rings at a certain time, and that's the same for everybody else. And then how you get there, if you know a shortcut. If you can run faster because you've been training and you can manipulate your way in the front of the line and secure that's really what it is.

And I think for me, moving here that journey, it was just so fascinating just because everyone talks about the land of opportunity and, the American dream. But it really is true in terms of the ability, I put myself to undergrad and dental school through federal aid and paid all of that off, after I finished and worked hard to do that only, to find out now a lot of that's getting forgiven.

But yeah, that was it. And that's when people talk about the land of opportunity. That's what it is. It's in America, you have the ability of access which a lot of 3rd world countries don't have. So if you're coming from there, you come with this mindset, that. Initially of just oh my God, I can do anything.

And then when you achieve those things, then I think I talk about in the book is, just, and you get to a place where you want to just give back because so much has been given to you. And it's a great place to be.

Yeah, I appreciate you so much and sharing that and expanding upon that. So I know you touched on it a little bit, but I wanted to hear, of course, a little bit more about the book and everything you're doing to make the impact with the clients that you work with as well.

Yeah. So, I think the book really started after COVID as a diary to my kids.

And, if you think about us living in a day, if anyone wants to ask about I don't know your grandmother, your grandfather, you probably knew who they were, where they live, where they work, what they did, but you don't really know what they felt like, the 1st time 1st day at their 1st job, you just don't or what they felt like what they did with the 1st dollar they earn.

And so my viewpoint was I'm going to put a diary. So my kids just remember the significant things that happened in my life and then it over time and progressed into, I had a lot of business people who had built a business and they're like, I'm at this point, how do I grow it? How do I get funding?

How do I bring in a professional team? Should I bring in a professional team? How much should I pay a CFO? How do I know if they're good or not? My client's needs are changing. How do I fix all that? And so I had all this material and I just, Was repeatedly answering the same questions at different conferences at different talking engagements.

And so, Make Them Smile was really, my way of giving back and saying, here in a nutshell, and obviously got picked up by a publisher, which was great and it was an unexpected kind of, but I think now it has ability to touch a lot more lives and a lot more people. And so it's a very broad business book where I think anyone who's trying to do self improvement or build a business or scale something, or even someone who's scaled it to a certain point is like, what's next, this book covers.

The different facets. And I've tried to make it very, very simple and a very disciplined kind of approach on the different phases of growth from how do you get started to. How do you ultimately maybe sell a piece of the business as long as your vision is intact. So that's what I encompass in the book and that's what I hope, readers find most helpful.

Gresham Harkless 07:07

Yeah, I appreciate you sharing that, so much. And what would you consider to be a little bit more of what I like to call your secret sauce? It could be for yourself, the business book or a combination of both, but what do you feel sets you apart in machine?

Dr. Sulman Ahmed 07:18

Yeah, I think not giving up think being so disciplined in that vision that you perfectly see and that vision keeps changing.

It's very different from 15 years ago when I started the business because my goals are a little bit different now. I'm like, all right, I've done this. What's next? And I think. When you dream big. You're usually the only one who's believing in you at that time. And I think looking back and having accomplished what my initial dream was, you learn a lot from that in terms of man, everybody doubted me, including most of the time I doubted myself too, but there's something inside, like what if all of them are right and I'm wrong.

And then when you get to the other side and we were like, oh they were all wrong. And I stuck with what I believe it gives you this. Almost a superpower. And so, I would say, you gotta be able to persevere. You got to stick with your original vision and you got to remind, keep reminding yourself on why you did that.

See also  IAM113- Founder and Author Helps People Navigate the Online Dating World

Cause if you don't trust me, everyone's going to tell you why it's not going to work. And then the biggest one's just been disciplined, and I think being disciplined in the times when things are not working out, for us, it was taken an old industry like dentistry, it was a Monday through Thursday model.

And. We all know toothaches can happen at any time. And so it was very strange to me. If you called a dental office on Friday, they're like, and you said I had toothache and I got, I'm willing to come in and pay you. And they'll be like, ah, we're closed call 911 to go to the ER. And, it would be, the analogy would be like, you go into a department store and you say, I want to buy this white button-down shirt and tie.

Here's a shirt and here's the money and they're like, no, I can't sell it to you today. Come back next week. It just doesn't happen, but it happens in healthcare a lot and it happens in a lot of business. You'd be surprised. So the first thing was like, can we make this a guest-centric, we call our patients guests.

Make it a 6-day-a-week model where we're open Fridays and Saturdays. The 2nd thing was like, let's take the as much fear as we can. Patients aren't excited about coming to the dental office. Can we make the locations less intimidating? Can we make them retail bright locations with a nice brand? Our brand is ideal to dental.

Can we make it where there's a lot of parking and they can drive by and see how beautiful the offices can we make it smell a certain way? Can we have the color palette that soothes patients when they walk in? Can we answer our phones by saying ideal dental? How can I make you smile today? Which is very different than your generic doctor's office.

And so when our staff says that they're naturally smiling, because that's what they're saying, and you're smiling, everything you say usually comes out in a positive way. So there's lots of those little things we built into the model that very little to do with dentistry and everything to do with putting the guests first.

And I think that's where, when we talk about customer satisfaction, that's what my book really hits on is. It doesn't matter what industry you're in. We, I think if I don't even think of myself as in the dental business, I just think of myself as in the retail healthcare business. And that's what Starbucks of dentistry.

That analogy comes from, because, you don't necessarily go to Starbucks because your coffee is the best ever and you can get, you go there because it's consistent, standardized, the locations are convenient. And you can pop in and pick up a few things too. So same thing, we're open 6 days a week.

Okay. We don't just do general dentistry. We do all services under one roof. So if you came in and say you had a daughter and you wanted to get your cleaning done on a Saturday and she wanted to get her braces adjusted, we can make that happen. And that's built around, trust me, it's not built around the dentist.

Convenience is the last thing they want to do is work on Saturdays, we've created this culture where we are here to serve people. And by doing that, it's taken care of a lot of things in our staff really, believes in putting the patient first.

Gresham Harkless 10:55

Yeah, I absolutely love that. So I wanted to switch gears a little bit and I wanted to ask you for what I call a CEO hack. So this could be like an Apple book or even a habit that you have, but what's something that makes you more effective and efficient?

Dr. Sulman Ahmed 11:06

I think for me, it is the ability to connect to people in my book. I talk a lot about emotional IQ. There's all these different things you can do. You can do one on one. You can have your executive meetings, which at which we do every Monday and you can go through metrics and measures and KPI and score cards.

But I think you've got to be able to really peel the layers off and understand what you're Why and what someone's motivation is. And you've got to then find a way to make that align with the company's goal. And sometimes that does, and sometimes that doesn't, but you've got to figure that out pretty quickly.

So I think it's stability in the book. I think I use like, where you walk into a room and you can, you should be able to read the room or the energy of the room, because. You've got to, you've got to kind of act according to that. So you can't come in to room, being a hundred when the room's like a 60, you got to play at the 60 and then figure out, you want to be at a 55 or 65.

So I think that's a gift. And I think that comes from. Being around a lot of people for me, I think it was exposure to different cultures, different religions, different races, very early on growing up in Zimbabwe.

I always tell our staff, if a patient comes in to the dental office. If they're there, they didn't come just to walk around and be like, Oh, today it looks like a good day.

I'm just going to go check out a dental office. They have some kind of need, right? So you're either going to address that need or you're not. And there's a few things that are going to dictate that. And so in our business, we, I would say there's been in the prime boss business. Three things most people care about are time, money, and fear, right?

See also  IAM594- Founder Makes a Difference in the Creative Space

So they're already in your business. So there's a need, the question is, all right, I have a need. How long will it take? How quickly can you take care of me? So that's time, money. How much is it going to cost? All right. I can afford it or I can't afford it. Will insurance cover some of it?

If not, do you have any kind of financing, and then fear is this something that's going to hurt me? Is this something, is it a risk? I'm going to go buy this car and then I can't afford it. So you're solving for those three things at a very human level at any given time. But yeah, I think you've got to be able to understand that.

You got to be able to know why the customer is there. And there's some people that are like, Hey, I got nothing going on. And I've got, I know I need a lot of dental work. I want to knock out as much as possible, so it's just picking up on that, but it just, we as humans miss those cues, not just in our personal lives, business lives, like sometimes just all around and just being more aware.

Gresham Harkless 13:30

Yeah, I appreciate you sharing that. So what would you consider to be a little bit more of what I'd like to call CEO nugget? This could be a word of wisdom or a piece of advice you might give to your favorite client, or if you happen to do a time machine, you might tell your younger business self.

Dr. Sulman Ahmed 13:41

Yeah, I think I say it in the book. One of the things I've always said is leaders do what others cannot or will not do, and so. Sometimes people know what they need to do to lead, but they just can't do it. And sometimes they don't want to do it. And I think leaders at times you do things that others cannot or will not do.

And sometimes those are fun and sometimes they're not, so many times I'll get a young business person sitting across, starting out their journey. And they're like, yeah, I'm going to do what you do, exactly what you did. You don't know what I did. No, it's not just the podcast and the, the Book launches, there's someone's going to want to read that book.

So you have a reason to get to that point. Anyone can write a book. It won't get picked up by a publisher if it's not going to appeal to the masses. But yeah, what is so appealing about your story or your book? And so, I think that's my favorite nugget. Yeah. Leaders, do what others can not, will not do.

Gresham Harkless 14:35

Yeah, that ends up being such a huge thing. So now I want to ask you my absolute favorite question, which is the definition of what it means to be a CEO.

And our goal is to have different quote-unquote CEOs on the show. So Dr. Sulu, what does being a CEO mean to you?

Dr. Sulman Ahmed 14:47

I always joke, CEO is like chief employee officer, you're part psychiatrist, part therapist, part Motivator, but yeah, it's not a chief executive officer, the chief employee officer, which means you're just making sure your teams, your people can do what they need to do, arming them to go out and do what you need to do for the business and our customers.

So that's what it means to me. I'm really here for our teams at this point and supporting them become the best version of themselves. And a lot of times that's personal growth and professional growth is that they always go hand in hand. When someone's struggling personally. Comes into their professional life and also the other way around.

Gresham Harkless 15:23

Yeah, absolutely. Dr. Suman truly appreciate that. Of course. I appreciate your time even more. So what I want to do now is pass you the mic, so to speak, just to see if there's anything additional that you can let our readers and listeners know. And of course, how best people can get ahold of you and the team, get a copy of your book, find about all the awesome things that you're working.

Dr. Sulman Ahmed 15:38

Yeah, look, I hope you guys enjoy the book. I've, poured my heart into it. I've been very vulnerable and transparent and shared things that I did. Normally wouldn't, or just didn't feel comfortable in the hope that, if it changes one person's life, it'll be able to achieve the goal. The book has been a guideline for me personally, and, I hope you enjoy it comes out May 7th, everywhere it's on Audible make them smile.

I'd love to hear from you. You can find me on LinkedIn. Just shoot me an email at I hope you find it helpful. And good luck on your journey.

Gresham Harkless 16:12

Awesome. Awesome. Awesome. And of course, to make it even easier, we'll have the links and information that shown us as well, too, so that I can connect with you, get a copy of the book, find out about all the awesome things that you're doing and I hope you have a phenomenal rest of the day.

Dr. Sulman Ahmed 16:22

Thank you so much and thanks Gresh I enjoyed this.

Outro 16:24

Thank you for listening to the I AM CEO podcast, powered by CB Nation in Blue 16 media. Tune in next time and visit us at I AM CEO is not just a phrase, it's a community.

Check out the latest and greatest apps, books, and habits to level up your business at This has been the I AM CEO podcast with Gresham Harkless, Jr. Thank you for listening.


Dave Bonachita - CBNation Writer

This is a post from a CBNation team member. CBNation is a Business to Business (B2B) Brand. We are focused on increasing the success rate. We create content and information focusing on increasing the visibility of and providing resources for CEOs, entrepreneurs and business owners. CBNation consists of blogs(, podcasts, ( and videos ( CBNation is proudly powered by Blue16 Media.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button