With an unprecedented number of laboratory owners and managers online, the internet is having an explosive impact on the way laboratories operate.
In the past decade, the number of laboratories with internet access has almost doubled, with nearly 100% of labs now having online capability. From communicating with clients to researching products to marketing, lab owners are using the internet to reach out, save time, reduce costs and increase efficiency. LMT's 2010 Internet Usage Report hits on the top web-based trends in the industry.
Communication Goes Digital The ability to transmit digital data is significantly impacting the way laboratories work and communicate. The digital world is opening doors to new business models--such as laboratory and manufacturer milling centers--elevating subcontracting to unprecedented levels and leading to more global competition.
When it comes to client interaction, technicians and dentists have long used photos to communicate shade, characterization and morphology. However, the ability to e-mail digital images back and forth is streamlining the process. "Thanks to e-mail, communication with dentists is so much more efficient. When we have impression or preparation issues or need to get approval on contour, we simply take a digital photo and send it to the doctor," says Suzanna Saurs, owner, Today's Dental Lab, Naperville, Illinois.
A handful of our participants use some form of web conferencing for case planning, allowing real-time communication between the lab and its clients. For instance, Stan Bookstaber, owner, Dentprod, LLC, Marlton, New Jersey, web conferences with his clients up to six times a week using a Logitec 3000 webcam with a built-in microphone and speakers. He either arranges a time in advance or, if he comes across an issue and needs an answer right away, he sends an instant message to his account to see if he's available to conference.
Online Buying Habits Sixty two percent of LMT's internet survey participants purchase laboratory products online. Of that group, 56% purchase equipment and nearly all buy consumables. The most commonly purchased products include implant parts and components, attachments and office supplies. In addition, the larger the lab, the more likely it is to buy online. For instance, just 36% of one-person labs shop online versus 90% of labs with 21-50 employees.
What do our respondents like most about the online shopping experience? In a word: convenience. Our participants appreciate the 24/7 access, ability to comparison shop and access their order history for quick reordering, lack of sales pressure and paperless process.
Despite these advantages, some respondents still prefer the human factor. "I like talking to sales reps because they're very helpful. If I'm purchasing something new or looking for something special, they can make suggestions and can steer me in the right direction. They give me the support I need," says Galina Phister, owner, Custom Dental Arts, Concord, California.
Popularity of Online Education Grows While over-the-shoulder training remains top dog in the laboratory, 36% of participants have taken a manufacturer's webinar and the majority of them say they'd take one again, citing them as a quick, easy and convenient way to earn CE credits without the time or expense of traveling to an off-site course. Another 10% say they plan to take an online course in the near future.
"I live in a remote area and the accessibility and savings offered by webinars are great. Nothing beats hands-on courses, but webinars allow me to grow as a technician and go back to work the same day," says Brit Schiner, owner, Two Ocean Dental Lab, Dubois, Wyoming.
Larger labs appreciate that multiple technicians can participate simultaneously without having to pay multiple tuition fees, so it's no surprise that technicians in more than half of labs with 11 or more people have taken an online course.
Among the criticisms? Webinars that are too promotional or basic in nature. Many respondents also expressed a preference for more flexible viewing times, preferably after hours to minimize downtime during the workday.
Lab Websites Triple Since 2000 More than two-thirds of respondents feel it's essential to have a presence on the internet and, since 2000, the number of laboratory websites has more than tripled from 12% to 37%; another 28% plan to implement one soon.
"In the digital age, clients and potential clients expect you to have a website. While we may not always get new customers directly from our site, it's an effective tool to spark interest and give general information about our lab before they make initial phone contact," says Jim Thacker, vice president, Utah Valley Dental Lab, Provo, Utah.
Of those who have websites:
- 68% feel their "digital calling card" is just another tool in their overall marketing efforts. It helps promote their brand and provides another avenue for disseminating key information to clients like prep guides and before-and-after photos that highlight the lab's work.
- 47% say it's a valuable way to attract younger, internet-savvy dentist-clients
- 29% say they've gotten new clients as a direct result of their site. Since Jesse & Frichtel Dental Labs redesigned its website and worked with an outside company to maximize search engine optimization (SEO), the site now gets 6,000 hits a week and the lab gains about one to three new clients per month. "Doctors are searching using keywords we have indicated in our SEO so our website shows up high on their list of results," says Mark Frichtel, president of the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania laboratory. "They e-mail me for additional information and then we follow our normal sales processes until we get a case."
However, like many other businesses without a web-dedicated staff member, keeping website content fresh and updated is a challenge for survey participants. "Maintenance is the hardest part of our website," says the manager of a large lab in the southeast region. "Ideally it should be used to post up-to-the-minute information but we have failed to maintain ours that much."
Social Networking Three quarters of our participants are not taking advantage of social networking for their business--many say they're not sure how to use it to their lab's advantage or simply don't have the time. Of those who are getting involved, the most common strategy is having a page on a networking site like Facebook, LinkedIn or MySpace.
Similar to how respondents feel about their laboratory websites, these pages are seen as yet another way to connect with clients, establish their brand and distribute information at no cost. "Social networking is a valuable means of establishing context for the work that we do. In a time when most labs are going down the road of commoditized, price-point restorations, social media has provided us a way of reaching out and sharing our message with others," says Matthew Cook, director of information technology, Arrowhead Dental Laboratory, Sandy, Utah, who posts to his Facebook and Twitter accounts about three times a month.
Other respondents find the informal nature of social networking makes it ideal for the "soft sell." For instance, James Jarrett, owner, Pride Dental Studio, Conway, Arkansas, friends his clients on Facebook and then frequently posts laboratory-related information for those clients--and hopefully those clients' dentist friends. "Dentists generally have online cliques or groups and ideally others in the group will notice you and eventually show some interest in your services," says Jarrett.