The feedback culture of the internet has made critics of us all, but how best to handle one too many poor reviews? Shaz Memon considers the current landscape.

The internet is seemingly an unstoppable force, a giant mountain of information that is forever growing with its proliferation of 24/7 communication opportunities. Indeed, its instant gratification is something most of us now consider necessary and desirable in varying degrees.

No wifi? Kicked out of a website? Forgotten a password? However much we may self chastise, any lack of instant access, much maligned as a first world problem, is infuriating in a society that increasingly depends on digital communication.

It is widely accepted that people only voice opinion on a service or business when they have a negative or poor experience – any online review opportunity is therefore a lethal weapon in the hands of a disgruntled consumer.

Ruby Newell-Legner in Understanding Customers stated it takes 12 positive experiences to make up for one unresolved negative one, which means any bad press for a small business, such as a dental practice, can impact hugely.

Indeed, the Dental Law Partnership profits from representing unhappy patients who have experienced less than perfect dental outcomes. Their ‘no win no fee’ high publicity approach recently came in for some heavy criticism from Dental Protection’s dental director Raj Rattan. He suggests its publicity machine that feeds the media also fuels a public opinion that often verges on vilification of a profession already beset by a unique set of challenges.

Legal action

Earlier this year, a Yougov survey showed 23% of the public would be likely to take legal action if their dental treatment led to problems or complications. This was in light of the fact that we have seen an increase in public awareness of such ‘no win no fee’ marketing campaigns.

Raj Rattan comments: ‘We know all too well the impact that a claim can have on a dentist and how the associated media reporting we sometimes see, once a claim is settled, risks impacting on the reputation of the practice and the wider profession.’

With public expectations of dental treatment higher than they were a decade ago, it remains in the interests of the profession to minimise risks with open and honest communication – whatever the mode of its delivery.

Online reviews

But, what if the patient’s first port of call is with a bad online review?

In general, we now buy by consensus with our purchasing decisions shaped by others – and the immense power of online reviews should therefore not be underestimated.

Let’s consider Amazon as an example. In essence, it is the digital equivalent to Woolworth’s, the British high street staple that, before shutting down and being consigned to the history books forever, once met a wide variety of our purchasing needs. However, there is one huge difference – Amazon offers us the opportunity to tap into the product experiences of others. Its raft of reviews (mostly) add value to our ‘shopping trip’, enabling us to make speedy purchasing choices without having to risk getting it wrong or relying on insight from our nearest and dearest.

In the digital world therefore, independent voices have been superseded by this online review culture – a useful yet arguably unfair monolith, which is hard to resist as a consumer and annoyingly restrictive if you’re a small business reliant on consistent five-star reviews.

Steve Dennis runs a small car hire company in Norwich, which he has nurtured into a thriving business since it was founded in 2009.

In an article on Linkedin recently (www.enjoycarhire.com/en/Car-Hire/Magazine?are-we-really-using-review-sites-correctly), he bemoaned the fact that, as consumers, we only ever write a review when the service fails our expectations, leaving the better experiences unreported and, therefore, skewing the overall performance profile of any business.

He comments: ‘We got a one-star review today. The customer states, after five years of fantastic service, they had a terrible experience this time. Funny thing is, the reviewer had only left one review in those five years and it was the negative one. Where is the balance? Are we using review sites correctly?’

He goes on to make a valid point – that, whatever the service, as consumers we should all offer credit where credit is due – an online ‘pat on the back’ is reassurance both to business and users (existing as well as potential).

Handling complaints

So, how does your dental practice fare in this ‘game of moans’? Dental marketing is as much to do with handling the negatives as it is promoting the positives and practice owners need not despair when the practice receives more than its fair share of bad reviews.

Unfortunately, people do not always complain face to face and the dental profession’s ability to effectively handle complaints has been made difficult in a digital age where people very often take to the internet to vent their fury in order to reach the widest audience possible.

In the first instance, it may be prudent to speak with the disgruntled patient if this is the first indication that they were less than happy with their treatment.

It is, of course, useful if the website where their poor feedback is posted has a right to reply – that way you can respond quickly and publicly.

It is also important to pre-empt poor reviews so do invite feedback. Adopt a pro-active approach by offering patients the opportunity to comment freely about their experience with your dental team and try to do this before they leave the practice – that way, it is still fresh in their memory and far harder to refuse face to face than ignore a follow-up email.

Make it easy for them to fill out your practice feedback form by providing an iPad at the front desk.

Google is often the first point of contact between a customer and a business so Google reviews are important, but these will have to be posted from patients’ own IP addresses to avoid being removed by Google.

For rich content, invite some patients to review your dental practice in a short ‘to camera’ video – that way you can show off your treatment results, too.

You can also challenge unfounded negative reviews in the future by using the data collected on the practice feedback forms. Just be sure to get their explicit consent before using it in any marketing campaign.

By asking for reviews, you also limit the potential damage should a patient be about to walk out of the door unhappy. By immediately identifying a disgruntled patient, you may reduce the risk of the matter developing online and beyond.

Target specific patients, too, so that you get a spectrum of demographics and treatments they receive. And do ask closed questions such as: ‘Did XXX do anything today to make your experience special?’ or ‘What do you think we could do better at our practice?’ so that patients support their five-star ratings with evidence of how your team cares as well as shape your service delivery in the future.

And remember, a follow-up phone call the day after their appointment to check they were happy with their treatment goes a long way in building trust and cementing relationships.

Remember too that empathy, a listening ear, a name remembered and a smile goes a long way. Be accessible and respond to any posts on your Facebook page quickly. There’s nothing worse than being ignored if, as a consumer, you have posted something that requires an answer. If confidentiality is at stake, take the conversation offline.

Inviting feedback

Unfortunately, bad reviews online are an inevitable facet for today’s businesses – and dental practices are no exception. The reality is that few of us get it right every time and feedback is essential in shaping future outcomes – your biggest critic may turn out to be your business’s ‘best friend’.

By marketing your open and honest approach and inviting patient feedback, you can eke out common problems and quickly and positively react to negative responses and address key issues.

Not everybody will give positive feedback and our inherent propensity to complain rather than congratulate isn’t about to go away anytime soon.

Aim to actively resolve any complaints you do receive to demonstrate that you take feedback very seriously. By swiftly reflecting on – and professionally handling – any valid negative feedback and by supporting your business with positive reviews on your dental practice website design, you can counter the effects of any poor testimonials that appear elsewhere.