Cooper is among those who urge dentists to solicit reviews constantly. “If something is a habit, it’s much more likely you’re going to do it,” she asserts. “If you say you’re going to do something once a month, it ends up being every two months and it’s a numbers game. Just because you ask them, everyone won’t do it. They might think about it or even want to do it, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually going to get around to it.” A practice might have to ask 10 or 20 people to net one actual review. “So what I usually tell doctors is in your morning huddle, everyone should pick one patient a day that they’re going to ask for a referral. My upgrade to that is to add one target for an online review.”
To select those targets, “Think about whether the person has their smartphone glued to the palm of their hand. They’re the ones who literally are sitting there playing Candy Crush or reading email or texting all the way through every single appointment,” Cooper says. Assuming that the appointment goes well, “fish for a compliment,” Cooper instructs. “There are so many ways to do that. You ask, ‘How was your visit?’ ‘How did things go today?’” Cooper has created a free video tutorial spelling out what to do with the response.3 She insists that this routine gets easier with practice. “When you say something once, it feels awkward, but by the time you’ve said it 80 or 100 times, it feels completely natural. The hard part is just getting over the embarrassment of not being perfect at first. That drives dentists crazy because they like to be perfect at everything.”
Plenty of good online reviews is the best prophylactic measure against the occasional negative one, practice-management experts say. “I personally get skeptical when something is 100% 5-star,” states Ed Zuckerberg. “It’s either too good to be true, or it’s amazing. While occasionally something pleases everybody all the time, as dentists I think it’s pretty much impossible, and I think people understand that. If you see one negative review out of 10 or 15, but 90% are extremely positive, I think most people will discount the negative reviews.”
At least one dentist has rejected that view and reacted by suing patients who’ve written negative Google and Yelp reviews,4 but that approach may have backfired. When New York endodontist Nima Dayani recently filed a lawsuit claiming he was defamed by a patient’s negative Yelp review, Yelp retaliated in late July of 2016 by slapping a “Consumer Alert” on Dayani’s Yelp page. “This business may be trying to abuse the legal system in an effort to stifle free speech, including issuing questionable legal threats against reviewers,” the warning reads. Yelp also grayed out all of Dayani’s reviews, which quickly had acquired more negative commentary about his lawsuit.
Suing writers of negative reviews also may soon become more difficult; two bills intended to protect consumers from such lawsuits are currently making their way through Congress. The states of Maryland and California already prohibit the inclusion of so-called “gag clauses” in contracts between consumers and businesses.
Rather than turning litigious, Zuckerberg advises an almost polar opposite response to any negative review. Don’t fly off the handle, he suggests, but “think about whether the criticism or negative comment has any validity and might actually reflect a problem in your office.” Talk to staff members or family or colleagues, “and when you finally do address a complaint in social media, address it with sincerity, with tones of apology, with maybe a reasonable argument, a promise for improvement in the future. Address it like a mensch.”
“Negative reviews are not always the end of the world,” adds Lindsay Albanese, a senior digital marketing manager for Officite. Indeed, even the unfortunate lion-hunting Minnesota dentist reopened his practice after 6 weeks and is working today. He may never placate all his angry lion-loving review writers, but Albanese says dentists who address more mundane complaints in a positive light can wind up with a result that’s just as powerful as a positive review. “It seems that when potential patients see a response to a negative review, they know the business is attentive to what people are saying, that they’re willing to make the practice better and move forward,” she says.
Although reviews both negative and positive continue to be highly influential, some observers speculate that their power may be waning. “People know every business on the planet is doing campaigns to get people to review them,” says Brady. “As soon as reviewing became powerful, people came up with strategies to get people to review us. It went from something organic to marketing. Whenever that happens, people begin to discount it. They don’t discount it completely, but the wave is shifting.” Brady notes the success of nextdoor.com, the private social network that over the past 6 years has organized neighbors in more than 100,000 communities to share everything from local crime news to recommendations for a good veterinarian—or dentist. A passionate recommendation on such a site hearkens back to the time of real-time word of mouth. “If someone [on nextdoor.com] says, ‘Oh my God! I love my dentist!’ that has vastly more positive impact on the growth of my practice and continues to build my reputation.”
The need for constant change seems certain to continue. Although more than 90% of dentists in the United States may now have websites, Cooper says many of those websites haven’t been upgraded in years. “They look completely out of date. Immediately, it tells you, ‘Oh, this person is not tech-savvy,’ which is the last thing a dentist wants patients to think.” At the very least, any website design should be responsive to the size of the screen on which it’s being viewed (phone, tablet, or computer.)