ConveyIQ Spotlight: How Aspen Dental Recruits in a Cutthroat Industry

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If you think recruiting sometimes feels a bit like pulling teeth, meet John Murphy. Murphy, the Director of Talent Acquisition at Aspen Dental, has one of the toughest jobs in TA today. Murphy, better known as “Murph” to his candidates, colleagues and clients, runs recruiting at one of the fastest growing private healthcare organizations in the country and is the market leader in one of the most competitive and cutthroat industries out there.

First off, consider the fact that there are a scant 65 dental schools in the US, accepting around 5,000 first time enrollees each year, with only around 12,000 dental students enrolled in total at any one time, according to the American Dental Association (ADA.)

The ADA estimates only about 3,500 students graduate with the requisite credentials to enter dentistry every year. That means that an exclusive liberal arts college like Weslyan or Vassar actually has more graduates entering the workforce every year than all dental schools combined.

The Background Story

While much of Murphy’s focus is on campus recruiting and relationship building with prospective dental students, he’s also tasked with representing an employer whose business model is relatively new – and doesn’t always enjoy the best reputation with the best and the brightest.

Aspen Dental is what’s called a “dental services organization,” which operates a national network of independent dentists. It’s what can best be described as a franchise approach, as affiliated dentists practicing under the “Aspen Dental” banner are, in fact, owned and operated by a licensed dentist.

A Race for Talent

With close to 600 offices across 34 states and growing, the company’s business and bottom line depends on the talent acquisition team to aggressively recruit and retain enough qualified dentists to support the more than 3.5 million patient visits Aspen Dental branded practices annually. Aspen Dental welcomed around 750,000 new patients last year – around the population of Columbus or Jacksonville, to put things into perspective.

Yeah. Most recruiters would probably rather have a root canal, too. But nothing worth doing ever came easy. And when it comes to meeting the oral health needs of so many patients living in underserved markets each and every year, Murph and Aspen Dental are helping hundreds of thousands of Americans smile just a little bit brighter.

Murphy’s Law

Murph and his team continue to have to find new ways to invent, innovate and iterate their recruitment process.

Even though they’re the industry’s proverbial “leader of the plaque,” Murph explains that at Aspen, there’s really only one way to deal with the continuous challenges associated with continuous growth: continuous improvement.

It’s this philosophy that continues to drive Murph – and Aspen Dental’s recruiting best practices – to this day. This, Murphy explains, comes from his constant desire to improve their talent acquisition process – and move the business forward. A rolling stone gathers no moss, and that’s why Murph can’t get no satisfaction by sticking to the status quo.

“Nothing is safe. Question everything,”

“Nothing is safe. Question everything,” Murph says of his approach to talent acquisition, one that’s also a motto – and a mission – implicit in the very fabric of Aspen Dental’s recruiting process, policies and people. This unflinching belief that there’s always something that can be done better, some iteration to improve upon or idea to try is what seems to drive him.

Building A Sustainable Workforce

The daunting task of building a scaleable, sustainable workforce for Aspen’s business needs of today (and tomorrow) are a significant challenge, and yet, Murphy has successfully helped build Aspen Dental into the business it is today, having spent close to a decade more or less running point on the people side of Aspen Dental’s hockey stick style growth trajectory.

“But I think that’s kind of the point of continuous improvement – you’re never there. There’s always work to be done.”

Even with all this experience and expertise, though, Murph admits that he’s “not there yet,” at least when it comes to optimizing recruiting and hiring. “We’re not even close to where I want to be,” Murph says. “But I think that’s kind of the point of continuous improvement – you’re never there. There’s always work to be done.”

Every recruiter knows Murphy’s Law is pretty much the de facto rule governing our world of work – anything that can go wrong in recruiting will, and has, at least if you’ve been at it for long enough. That mistakes will be made, lessons learned, that’s pretty much a given. But maybe, just maybe, it’s time to look at adopting a new “Murphy’s Law,” a simple, profound definition to solve some of recruiting’s biggest challenges: Always Be Improving.

That’s about all that anyone can really ask of any recruiter these days. And whether or not you’re hiring dentists, there’s a good chance that (John) Murphy’s Law is a pretty good framework for recruiting success. See, they’re not just working to treat the mouth at Aspen Dental – they’re also listening to it.

Because as the company’s own “words to live by” so succinctly sum it up, “anything close to excellence isn’t.” If you’ve ever been to a crappy dentist before, you already know no truer words have ever been spoken.

Toothache: Aspen Dental’s Problem

Aspen Dental faces many significant challenges beyond just the dearth of new dentists in recruiting and hiring, In addition to the general unawareness of the DSO system, the small fraction that has heard of DSOs overwhelmingly believe that they offer substandard quality and dental care.

According to a 2014 poll, around 80% of dental students familiar with DSOs rated quality of care at these organizations “below dental industry average,” and only around 23% of graduating dental students in this same poll report they’d be willing to work for a group practice like Aspen Dental.

A True Shortage of Talent

While there are only around 150,000 active, general dentists in practice, according to the American Dental Association (ADA) – around 80% of whom are in traditional private practice, as opposed to being part of a group or a DSO affiliate – approximately 3 in 5 have those practices located in or around just five major metropolitan areas: New York, Boston, Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles.

This means the entire rest of the country only has access to 40% of its licensed dentists, a severe distribution gap that’s traditionally limited access in rural and tertiary markets to even basic dental or oral health services.

Aspen Dental has committed to changing that, and Murphy and his team support practices that are not only off the beaten path, but fully half of the Aspen Dental Practices operate in federally designated HSPAs, meaning the company’s mission is more of a mandate to the chronically underserved markets in which the organization operates.

Of course, even with 600 offices in 34 states, fully 92% of Aspen’s target recruiting demographic – that is, dentists with under 10 years of experience in private practice, according to Murphy – live in locations outside the Aspen Dental network. This means candidate conversion has been a persistent problem in Aspen’s process, since the requisite relocation to far-flung, oft-forgotten places like Moorhead, Minnesota or Syracuse, New York (where Murphy is himself based) leads to an extremely high rate of voluntary drop off throughout the recruiting process, Murphy explained.

“We want the best, most talented dentists lining up to work with Aspen.”

“We want the best, most talented dentists lining up to work with Aspen,” he said, explaining his (somewhat lofty) vision when asked what success actually looks like to him. “We want to quickly select the best and the brightest given our surplus of doctor candidates,” Murph continued, “and once dentists join Aspen, they have the support they need, and never voluntarily choose to leave the network.”

Those are some pretty high standards, but despite the fact that these might sound like unrealistic expectations, don’t bet against Murph just yet. When he first joined ADMI a decade ago, the network was more of a mom and pop shop in terms of size and scale, with around $50 million in care delivered at 35 practices that year. Fast forward 10 years, and Aspen Dental looks like it’s on pace to deliver nearly $1.1 billion in care, the first time the company would exceed what’s a pretty impressive business benchmark, by most anyone’s standards. Not Murphy’s, of course.

He sets the bar for him and his team of 20 recruiters a little higher, emphasizing that the 100 or so practice owners they’re supporting at any given time have an opportunity to “build our employer brand reputation, improve lead generation and conversion rates, and decrease time to fill and cost per hire.”

Only then, Murphy says, will they successfully recruit more doctors, and turn a shortage into a surplus, and transform Aspen Dental into the employer of choice more dentists choose than any other network or provider.

What needs to change to address the problem that, in Murphy’s words, “we aren’t doing a good enough job attracting and retaining dentists?”

Here’s a closer look into the strategy Murphy and his team are developing and executing, including insights into their improved interviewing technology that’s enabling increased process agility, candidate personalization and improved conversion rates throughout their hiring funnel.

Data that Drives Growth

Dentistry is a health science, after all – which is why navigating the many associated recruiting challenges at Aspen Dental requires more than gut feelings and anecdotal evidence. Murphy says that changing the organization’s ability to collect, manage and monitor data have been critical, particularly in terms of his ability to forecast and measure individual recruiter performance in real time, all the time.

For Murphy, utilizing historical data to forecast future talent needs throughout the business have been critical in providing both the baseline and benchmarks for aligning individual recruiters’ goals with overarching business outcomes across the enterprise, holding recruiters responsible for their own results while encouraging accountability and maximizing productivity.

Using a 12-month rolling turnover and other data points such as active and budgeted head counts, expansion plans for new offices, attrition for existing ones and similar inputs required to quantify (and prepare) for workforce planning for the next year.

Murphy then combines this rolling forecast with five years worth of market data on historical and seasonal hiring trends, using these inputs to better inform his ability to project quarterly variances in business needs and more accurately predict the number of new hires each recruiter (and the larger team) must hit.

Once a reasonable estimate of number of hires is reached, Murphy and his team work backwards, calculating how many leads are going to be required at the top of the funnel to achieve the forecasted number of hires, while aligning their recruitment marketing and sourcing efforts around these meaningful metrics and basic baselines.

Similarly, Murphy has also implemented balanced scorecards, designed to further reflect the organization’s commitment to data-driven recruiting while standardizing the way the company measures individual recruiter performance and reducing the bias inherent in the talent acquisition process and function.

The four baseline metrics reflected on these balanced scorecards include:

The effect of the scorecard is ultimately to tie real recruiting results to real business results, ensuring recruitment activities are aligned with the bigger picture and bottom line outcomes.

“I think when you’re clear about the results you expect, you’re able to keep your focus on the earlier stages of the interview process.”

Improving those results, Murphy explains, requires recruiters to increasingly emphasize personalization over automation; by building relationships instead of a database, recruiters can build closer bonds with both candidates and clients alike, enabling improved candidate conversion rates during the recruiting process, better quality of hire and, consequently, happier hiring managers – all of which ultimately drive retention, too.

The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, this data driven approach has been embraced by the individual recruiters on Murph’s team, providing them insight into what they’re doing, how well they’re doing it and how their activities today align with the opportunities of tomorrow. Forecasting inevitably emphasizes what’s coming, and that, in turn, requires playing the long game instead of reflecting the sort of short wins recruiters generally point to as proof of performance.

“I think when you’re clear about the results you expect, you’re able to keep your focus on the earlier stages of the interview process,” Murphy explained of Aspen’s approach. “When there’s more research towards the top of the funnel, they know more about the candidate, and therefore, can personalize their communication with the candidate, which leads to better recruiting results.”

That’s enough to make anyone smile just a little bit brighter. Which, if you go to think about it, is pretty much the entire point.

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