Recent years have been extremely challenging for dentists as economic conditions left many patients with less money to spend.
But it’s not only the economy that’s been making life difficult for dentists as I discovered in a recent chat with a client. I’ve not included his full details here to allow him to be open about the mistakes he made and therefore help others avoid the same fate:
Graig: My guest today is a dentist with a very unique story. He used to be a bigtime do-it-yourselfer, he tried to tackle a lot of things on his own. He made some mistakes that many dentists can relate to because they’re pretty common, I hear them all the time. Tell us about your practice, John.
John: I opened up my own practice in 1997 and I’ve seen a lot of changes in how marketing goes on. When I first started in practice the Internet really did not exist, it was still mainly Yellow Pages and print advertising and obviously that’s evolved as time has gone on.
I’m in a very, very competitive area. We were part of the boom, we were part of the bust and our State lost about 230 or 240 dental practices during this recession. We had days when the economy really went sideways where we saw 15 to 18 cancellations and no shows. We’re now seeing at least stabilization and some areas of growth.
Getting Through the Tough Times
Graig: That’s good news. There was probably a point of despair where you probably were questioning what to do next to stop this bleeding. What did you do to get through those rough couple of years where outside factors affected your business that you really couldn’t control?
John: First and most important, I worked with my staff and opened up to them and said, “Guys, what’s most important is we take care of the patients that we have in front of us right here, right now. Listen carefully to what patients have to tell you, listen to what their concerns are. Customer service is more important now than it ever was.”
The second thing was to make sure we’re doing what we can on the marketing side, letting people know that we’re here to take care of you, we’re here to provide you with alternatives.
Graig: What did you do in terms of marketing because the thing that I find is that when the practice takes a little bit of a retraction, people tend to take marketing and throw it in the trash as the first line of defense against spending money.
My argument is you should not do that because if everyone around you is cutting their marketing budget, you’ve just joined the herd. If you kept doing marketing or even maybe bumped it up a little bit, media is cheaper, exposure is more because there’s less clutter out there. It’s one of the worst steps that you could take.
I don’t mean knocking off things that don’t provide a return on investment. I’m talking about just taking a hatchet to a problem that really deserves a scalpel.
John: What became even more important for us is knowing what the marketing metrics were and the most difficult thing I found is how do you really determine which marketing is effective and which marketing is not effective? We’d ask our patients how they heard about our office but it’s always difficult to know exactly where your patients are coming from or your referrals come from.
What’s most important is trying to determine the effectiveness of the various marketing strategies. We determined that the Yellow Page ads are really not effective any more but marketing’s become so fragmented. You don’t really know where people would find you on the Internet, so it also becomes very important for yourself and your staff to ask patients for referrals.
Make sure you have an effective and well set up and easy to use webpage and make sure that you’re found in the search results.
What’s also most difficult is try to get patients to talk about your practice online by leaving a review. That’s the challenges. To answer your question, you can’t give up marketing. You have to let people know that you’re still there, that you’re still open, and that you’re still providing plenty of services for folks.
You just have to find a way to reach out to those folks during the difficult times, so they can find you.
Graig: I think you went through a good transition period where the bad economy made you figure out that we’re not stopping what we’re doing, we’re just not wasting what we’re doing. We’re going to go ahead and we’re going to really drill down on the numbers. This is where this is something that I try to teach every client that I have is that you’re right, the majority, I think it’s something like 75% of customers, are not truthful or don’t remember how they found you.
Partly they don’t want you following them around but also people are just forgetful. They’re opening mail, they’re texting, they’re on Facebook, they’re on Google; they’re doing so many different things. They really don’t remember where they saw you. It’s no fault of their own.
That’s why I’m a big proponent of actual data where you’re tracking how many phone calls you’re getting from certain things, having individual tracking numbers on everything that you do whether it’s direct mail, internal campaigns, so everything’s measurable in a real live scenario.
The same thing goes for especially the Internet as you really can get some analytics from there. The old school mindset is thinking we can just have an intake form or have Mary at the front desk ask a question of how you found us.
That’s not really cutting it these days because we have the ability to track so detailed and there’s companies that specialize in that, but it forced you to change your mindset.
You then went into the Internet world so I want you to tell everyone listening the story about how you started doing Internet things on your own and you had a really bad thing happen to you.
Building Up Google Reviews
John: In Fall of 2011 we became aware of something called Google Reviews. I know it sounds silly now a few years out but, back at that time, I really wasn’t aware that Google had a Review page and that people could leave reviews for you. I had engaged a company that would allow me to send emails or texts to patients that would allow them to leave reviews for me.
I don’t know about any other practitioner, but for myself I find it’s very, very difficult. You really, really have to get patients motivated in order for them to leave a review. Other than that the only people that leave you reviews online are people that have an ax to grind with you or are unhappy about something.
Happy people come in, get taken care of, go home and have dinner with their family and don’t think twice about it. Someone who has an ax to grind has all the time and all the presence in the world to sit around on every web blog or whatever they want to do to trash you online.
What I was attempting to do is to build a good online reputation and we had done a number of things with patients in order to get them motivated to leave online reviews for Google and Yahoo. We had a couple of contests, we spoke to patients extensively, we followed up with emails. My staff and I practically lost our minds getting patients to leave reviews.
On Yahoo we got I think 55 reviews altogether. On Google we had 115 reviews… a 29 out of 30 score, outstanding reviews.
We got people to talk about “I went there, I had a good experience, they took good care of me, they were straightforward with me.” All the things you want to say about your practice we were getting online.
Then Google in 2012 changed some of the rules and they went from having just a regular Google account to bringing in their social network. They went to Google Places to Google Plus Local.
I don’t know if I had done something on my Google page or whatever, but I log in one day just take a look at what our reviews were like and what our review count was up to and, on Friday, I had 115 reviews online, everything was there.
Then I log in on Monday and they’re all gone, all 115. All those hours, all the time we had spent talking to people, all the money we had spent on reaching out to folks, all the time we had spent for contests and everything else, all that went goodbye. I felt physically ill.
I felt sick from losing 115 great reviews that we had worked so hard to acquire and there’s no getting them back.
Google essentially doesn’t care. We’ve contacted Google numerous times. Their answer is essentially, “Yeah, they may reappear, give it time.”
Graig: Right. A year later you’re still waiting. You know that we’ve told you a few times that we probably should just forget about them because they’re gone.
John: They’re gone. Yeah, I’ve gone to the fifth stage of death – acceptance – and my acceptance is they’re gone forever. And it’s much more difficult now to get patients to leave Google reviews because now they have to have a Google account which means they have to go sign in and do a bunch of other things.
We are once again getting back to the point where patients go, “Look, I had a good experience, I don’t have to talk about how great the ice cream cone was every time I go to the ice cream store. I just really want to go on with my life.” Every business is now bombarding people, “Can you leave us a review, can you leave us a review, can you leave us a review.”
Once again we’re getting back to that point where the only people that’ll say anything about you online are people that are unhappy.
Graig: I think you hit a bulls-eye right there. Everything’s so pressurized to just get them to do something online that people are just, “Screw this, I’m going home. If my buddy asks me where to go I’ll do that.” You’re at a point now where, like you said, the bad people are the only ones going out there.
Here’s the bad news of that. That leaves you very vulnerable because that means more bad people are out there reviewing you than good people – even though you have really awesome patients who are more than happy with you. Perception’s reality. But you need to still have unique ways to get your patients to talk about you.
That’s where we have a proprietary review system that we work with practices and how we script the language of talking to patients and so on and so forth. We have some other things that are privy to our clients, so I’m not going to get into details here. That’s why you can’t have just one approach to it.
What Went Wrong
You have to have a multifaceted approach to the reviews because one of the things that hurt you back a year ago is I believe you set up one review station or we’re letting patients review from inside the practice. Is that right?
John: No, we did not have that because we knew you couldn’t do that. I think the problem roots back to Google sent me an email saying, “Hey, you have a Google Places account. Click here and you’ll be in our new Google Plus account. I think that the transition from Google Places to Google Plus is where all the reviews went into the world of digital nowhere land.
It was about that time when I had heard one of your first podcasts and you’re saying, “Be really careful, don’t mess with your Google Places account because you may lose your reviews. I remember thinking at the time, “I just clicked on something on Google three days before. I hope this is not going to destroy my reviews.”
A week later is when all my reviews went “goodbye,” so in my opinion I think it was my ineffective or not proper way of transitioning from Google Places over to Google Plus or whatever it is now.
The Problems People Face
Graig: Yeah, I think there are a couple of problems there. The real reason a lot of the time is because there was a transitioning period where people’s accounts needed to be transitioned to the new stuff. This a good lesson for everyone. As a do-it-yourselfer practice when it comes to Internet – whether you have your marketing person doing it in-house or you are doing it yourself – there’s no way you will be able to keep up with the upcoming changes, whether it’s the merger to Google Plus or they’re making a shift in how you need to place reviews online. There’s just no way you can keep up with the changes.
The funny thing about this conversation is that I knew about the Google Plus merger seven months before it actually happened just because of the people that I know. All of my clients before we met, we prepared them ahead of time, so we knew what needed to be done.
Obviously, now you had to feel the pain of losing all those reviews, but others don’t really have to because you just can’t do it all in-house anymore, it’s just way too tricky, would you not agree?
John: I would absolutely agree. The digital world is not like the print world. It’s an evolution just like back in the day where you might work with a consultant on your Yellow Page ad. You have to find someone who understands how the digital world works and how to market yourself online, that’s the way I view it.
I think trying to just do it on your own is going to potentially lead to the same complications and problems that I’ve experienced with my lost reviews. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Graig: By the way, you’re not the first person to come to us or even for me to hear about losing 30 to 45 reviews. I’ve never heard of a 100; you definitely have the award for the most lost reviews which I’m sure is an award you don’t want.
It can be a myriad of problems. People using review stations is a problem because I guess Google came out with a memo that said you could put a computer in your office and you could do review stations. My answer was, “Please do not fall for that.”
Because here’s the thing. Someone at a local marketing department of Google said, “That’s okay, we’ll allow that,” but we forget how big of a company Google is and how many mathematical algorithms they run like the Matrix.
There’s no way all of the pieces are speaking to each other. They do have pieces in place that will not allow that to happen and that will get your reviews removed. If it’s coming from one particular place and there’s too many reviews coming from one particular address you will get red flagged.
It may not be instant, it might take six to seven months, but it will happen even though Google said it was okay.
You still need to get traditional, good reviews by people. You can’t just set up a Mac in your lobby and have people just typing away. That is not going to really work out well for anyone. That’s part of it and then the change to Google Plus Local, that was part of it.
It’s been tricky, there’s been a lot of changes over the last year and part of this discussion is really to allow people to understand that you really have to change your thinking now because the economy still is stagnant, even though it’s not as bad as it was.
You still need to push forward with the marketing and people are still cutting their marketing budgets. I hear about it every day and it’s unfortunate that they think like that, but that’s just the world that they live in.
You need to actually increase your marketing. I know we did it for our company. Once the economy started really getting bad we bumped up our marketing because I knew there would be less people out there.
John: You cannot stop marketing. The only time you’re going to stop marketing is if you don’t want to make any money, you don’t want to have any business. Other than that you have to tell people that you exist out there. I agree with you, during the tough times it may look like smart place to cut your budgets, but I think it’s a time where you need to at least keep your budget where it is if not increase it because the competition for the consumer dollar only gets bigger and more competitive.
I can’t give up, I don’t have a plan B, Graig. This is it. I have to succeed, I have to make my office work. Marketing is an essential part of any business and it’s certainly an essential part of my business.
Graig: I think those are very good words to live by and I think part of the lesson too is, when you’re marketing, it can’t just be the cheapest option. It can’t be just you’ve got a logo or you’ve got a website.
You actually have to have something that is going to push the phone calls and that goes for anything.
I think a lot of times people get caught up in the image-based marketing stuff. That just doesn’t work because people don’t respond to image especially when times are tight. They respond to certain messages and certain problems that you’re going to fix.
Right now, especially in dentistry, how many different things do you get bombarded with every single day where you feel as if you need to be on Facebook and you need to be on Twitter or you feel as if you need to be doing something with Yelp?
It’s not about saying yes to everything, but figuring out what those crucial features are that you need in your marketing because that’s where the money’s going to be made. Not doing everything, doing only the crucial things.
There’s a lot of messaging out there and you can dig into those things, look into the future, but pick the critical ones, pick the things that matter.
We only offer three different programs with our company because we feel as if three is all that you need to be successful on the web. There’s really not much more, we like to streamline it.
That brings us to the end of our session today, John. I appreciate your coming on to tell your story today. It’s an eye opener for people for sure.
John: I appreciate you having me on. I hope other people will learn from my mistakes and errors. I hope they won’t have it happen to them like it happened to me.