Inside Dentistry
October 2016
Volume 12, Issue 10

How Safe is Your Reputation?

Risk & Reward in the Digital Age

The last thing Walter Palmer was probably thinking as he jetted off to Africa was that his upcoming vacation would change his social network profile. The general dentist from Bloomington, Minnesota had developed a passion for big-game hunting, and in the summer of 2015 he was returning to Zimbabwe. There he engaged the services of a guide he believed to be trustworthy. Out on the savanna, he killed a mature adult lion that he thought was a legal, permitted target. But that particular animal, it turned out, was part of an Oxford University conservation project. It had a name (Cecil) and a legion of adoring fans.

A British tabloid broke the news of Cecil’s death. Once upon a time, the story might never have reached anyone living within 1,000 miles of Palmer’s practice, but amplified on the Internet, the news triggered a shocking eruption of fury. At least one Facebook page exclusively devoted to shaming Palmer appeared. On his practice website, hundreds of self-styled animal-rights defenders posted reviews reviling everything from his dental skills to his penchant for the safari life. Protesters marched outside his practice and taped vicious comments to the front door. Faced with death threats, Palmer eventually closed the office for more than a month.

Digital Presence

It’s hard to imagine more vivid proof of how swiftly and mercilessly globally diffuse events can shatter a dental reputation. It also can be hard to remember just how recently that fearsome power has developed. In 1985, when he started his Levin Group dental consulting firm, practice-management consultant Roger Levin, DDS, says, “Reputation-management for dentists was patient word of mouth. That was pretty much it. And if you’d been around a long time, people just assumed you had a good reputation.” Keeping patients happy was important. “There was an old saying that a happy patient told five people and an unhappy patient told 20.” But Levin says now “a happy patient tells five people, and an unhappy one can tell 20,000—by going online.”

Lee Ann Brady, DMD, who owns a restorative practice in Glendale, Arizona, says when she graduated from dental school in 1988, “Dentists who did anything beyond having their names in the Yellow Pages were considered unprofessional and not reputable. Today it’s like a total reversal. Not only is advertising mainstream, but probably one of the most prolific conversations in all of dentistry is ‘how are you marketing your practice? How are you letting potential patients know about your philosophy? Are you using social media?’ We probably talk about that more than we talk about any other non-clinical topic.”

Levin argues that part of what has driven this change is decreased demand for dental services. In decades past, “dentists had just about as many patients as they wanted, but today you don’t have as many new patients coming in. They’re not expecting to have quite as much treatment as they once did.” In response, reputation management has developed as a way to attract and retain patients. At the same time, the evolution of computers, the Internet, and the myriad uses to which both can be put have transformed the ways in which reputations can be influenced. Slowly but inexorably, the dental profession has embraced those tools.

Marketing consultant Naomi Cooper says when she left her position as vice president of marketing for 1-800-DENTIST to form her Minoa Marketing firm, she would ask her lecture audiences how many participants had a practice website. That was in 2009, and “it would be like 60%. There were still a lot of people saying they really needed one—but they didn’t have one yet.”

Today Cooper says at least 90% of American dentists have websites. Many also have plunged into the world of social media, according to Diana Friedman. Before becoming vice president of market intelligence for Henry Schein Dental, Friedman was president and CEO of Sesame Communications. There she conducted a study to determine how many dentists were using social media at that time (about 2 years ago). Social media was defined as including anything beyond the basics of a website (and tools to optimize the likelihood of it appearing high in Internet searches). More than 600 dentists responded, Friedman says, with more than 70% of them professing to use channels such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to promote their practices.

“My dad was a dentist,” says Las Vegas cosmetic and restorative dentist Joe Willardsen. “He practiced for more than 30 years. But even the patients who had been with him for 25 years didn’t know that much about him.” Willardsen contrasts that with his own patients today. “They can go online and learn about how many kids I have and what activities I do. In 15 minutes, they learn more about me as a person and what I do in the dental field than they did about my dad in 25 years. So when they’re making a decision on where they’re going to go, the more positive things you put out there, the better to help them make their decision.”

Like many practice-marketing authorities, Willardsen stresses that non-digital factors still constitute the foundation of a good reputation. “One of the most important is your staff. That’s the first thing patients interact with, and it’s something that speaks volumes about you and what kind of company you’ve created.” Brady echoes that conviction. “You could be the most phenomenal practitioner. You could have the newest technology, the most gorgeous office, and if you have an employee who’s not nice on the telephone or whatever, it becomes part of your reputation.”

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