The power of the phone in the digital age

small foneDr Larry Emmott highlights the importance of telephones and personal interaction in an increasingly faceless technology-led environment

How is technology expanding and making marketing a dental practice more complex? Well, it’s going to be no surprise to anyone when I say, ‘the internet’. Let’s talk about what the internet is and what it has done. The internet and digital technology has allowed us to communicate in a far more effective way to a lot of people. Back in the olden days, BC (before computers) I had to hire someone from the Yellow Pages or a marketing company to print things on paper and then distribute them, which was very expensive.

Now with the internet, you can literally reach the entire universe of people, but online, for no money whatsoever and it can be done instantaneously. So the ability to reach many people very quickly and very inexpensively has expanded exponentially.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that everyone else can do it too. So despite the fact that I can quickly and cheaply reach a lot of people, there is excessive information on the world wide web. So, as a consumer, if I am looking to find a dentist or find information on dentists, it is information overload. The good news is, I can do it faster and cheaper. The bad news is that there is a need to do something different. It’s changing constantly, and so that complexity makes it actually harder to deal with.

Where to invest time, energy and resources?

Part of that is that you don’t know and nobody knows. The experts will try to tell you this or that, or guarantee you the first page of Google – well, they can’t. There is a need to be somewhat cautious.  At the same time you need to be somewhat aggressive about what the next thing is going to be. I mean, 10 years ago, who would have predicted Facebook? With hindsight it seems stupid – just people talking about what they had for breakfast. But it has become a huge phenomenon and you need to be aware of those things. And by the way, I am in awe of Facebook. I’m not sure if it’s a great place to market. It is a great place to tell what you had for breakfast, but these things evolve and we learn what works and what doesn’t work, and sadly there is no magic bullet.

Opportunities for dental marketing

There are a couple things to keep in mind. The ubiquitousness of the internet and keyword search on Google as it dominates everything. And I mentioned Facebook once before – a billion and a half users and people think statistics show people spend more time on Facebook than Google. Well that’s just timeline sight. The number of people using it has dwarfed, something like 12 billion Google searches a month. So the fact is that search and the internet has changed so many things, and we know that. But what I want people to keep in mind is that as a dentist, it’s still a very personal choice.

All the research that I’ve been able to find indicates a good majority – 60-70% – choose a dentist based on a referral. They are still looking for that personal connection which means even with all that amazing technology, Google, and all the access to data, people still want somebody that they trust and who has been recommended to them.

Online reviews

The other thing that’s evolving is online reviews. People read those and they are incredibly powerful. It can be frustrating sometimes, but if I type in Ryan Pitz as my dentist, reviews are the first things a potential customer sees. Therefore name search and online reviews are really critical and SEO and marketing to dentists do not always lead to that. People look at online reviews with almost the same belief as referrals from friends and family, and they trust advertisements less. If you’re talking about really communicating, it is one human to another.

Reduced patient flow

Research from the ADA shows there are fewer people going to the dentist – have you/your client experienced this and what impact has it had? There’s definitely been a challenge to a lot of dental practices in the last decade because of reduced patient flow.
There are a couple of reasons for that – the baby boomers versus the upcoming generations. I’m a baby boomer and so when I was growing up, everybody had cavities and fillings – it was just expected. But the dental profession has done a great job at prevention, and now when the kids and teenagers come through my practice they often have no cavity, which means they need less dentistry.

Another thing is the economy as a whole. People are just more reluctant to spend money. Therefore what I have witnessed is more than just a reduction in total patient flow. It is the reduction in quality of care. Patients choose the cheaper alternative rather than an expensive smile makeover. They will just do nothing or have some whitening done. Patient flow is one aspect, but the other is being able to help people use good quality.

How critical is the phone?

It is huge and is everything really. If you think about all the things we have discussed – web pages, social media, great referrals and SEO, and all the things that might get someone to pick up the phone and call you…and, they will call you.

There have been new developments in online appointment-making where the patient doesn’t even call, but it is still in the early stages and I still think there’s that personal relationship. When I book a flight, I don’t have to know the pilot personally. But when I am at the dental practice, I need that personal relationship and I think people are still looking for that one-on-one connection.

lady foneResearch shows so far that patients are still calling. Now, what happens when the phone gets picked up? I cannot tell you the number of horrible answers, or no answers, that I’ve received. You call and the phone doesn’t get picked up, or it goes to a complex voicemail system. Alternatively, you get put on a terminal hold – and then the person who answers seems rushed, doesn’t pay attention to me, doesn’t answer questions or actually convert me from a shopper to a patient. So I think that’s a huge chink in the armour.

You can do a great job at converting patients, but if the person who answers the phone does not do it in a timely, professional manner, or know how to answer questions or invite them into the practice, you are losing a huge chunk of business. Answering the phone in the correct manner is hugely critical and one of the most important things to teach staff.

New technology

What advice would I give to dentists who may be tentative about implementing new technology? There’s a dichotomy that comes out fairly frequently, and I’ll talk to a dentist and they’ll say, ‘Oh my goodness, I bought this new technology, it paid for itself in less than a year, a couple of months. I don’t know how I ever ran my practice without it.’

And then I’ll talk to another practice that says, ‘I can’t believe what a money pit this technology is, I just keep spending money and I don’t see any benefit.’ On the one hand they say technology costs too much, on the other they say it pays for itself quickly.
So what is the difference? Is it the technology? No, it’s how it is implemented. So the fact is that it is not the technology that matters so much, it’s how we use it.

When you use technology, what you’re actually looking for is a solution. How can I do something better and different? A hang up that I find in many practices and businesses in general is, this is our system and it works fine, and I’m not going change it. It works fine because you’ve got all these slips of paper and you are spending time on the telephone, double checking and running around and filing. The difference is you could do it differently and more effectively with digital technology, but you have not gone to that next level of conception.

So what I find with people who use technology that does not pay for itself is they do not implement it properly. They keep that old system of a paper system and have the technology on top of it. They are therefore doing two things instead of one which takes up more time. Everyone is frustrated and they’re not really getting the full benefit of the product. Long rant – what it comes down to is that it is not the technology – it is the implementation and training.

Even more than training and guidance, it is getting the team and the staff working toward it so they are accomplishing a goal. I call it directed training. It is not just ‘how do I push it?’ it is ‘why do I push it?’ When I do push the icon, what goal am I achieving for my practice? I think one of the biggest mistakes that dentists make is that they do not have any vision for their practice and using random technology may or may not work for them.

Final words of advice

I’ve got two. One of the services you can offer is that you can monitor the phone calls and see how many were answered. I would predict that people who call a dental practice would assume that their call would be answered, but not necessarily. This is because most don’t have a system.

One of the things that is so powerful about digital technology is that you can obtain real data about what is going on. Again, the powerful thought is that data is not information. It only becomes useful if you go through a cycle. You have to have a couple of data points to put together. I know that I have some actionable information so I can take action – I can look at my data again and see if I can make a change. What does that tell me? What ends the cycle? Rinse and repeat. It is not only having the technology but being able to use it.
Ask questions, and then re-answer those questions again. Remember the future is approaching and it will be incredible.


You can read Dr Emmott’s blog at



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