How Armstrong Craven Supported Smile Brands Inc.

6 min

We sat down with talent acquisition leader Rob Devlin to discover how US dental services provider Smile Brands redefined their post-pandemic talent strategy. Rob is an award-winning talent acquisition leader who specialises in global dentistry. Before joining Smile Brands, he was head of resourcing at My Dentist, leading the resourcing strategy for the brand across Europe. 

Overview of Smile Brands

Founded in 1988 and based in Irvine, California, Smile Brands is one of the largest providers of dental support services in the US. They have 700 affiliated dental practices across 30 states, all dedicated to promoting healthy and confident smiles. 

Smile Brands provide business support services that allow dentists more time to care for their patients and less time needed for the administration, marketing, and financial work involved in running a practice.

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The Rise of Global Dentist Organisations

When we think of the traditional way dental practices were set up, it was to purchase a house and place a surgery inside. Nowadays, major global organisations such as Smile Brands, My Dentist, and Heartland purchase these traditional practices, rebrand them and operate them with support from centralised teams. The advantage of this is they can offer the dentist increased support and, importantly, drive higher margins. 

"There have been numerous challenges within the current economy, impacting the cost of delivering dental services such as workforce wages and property leases, which is making it less and less advantageous for people to open their own private business." - Rob Devlin, Talent Acquisition Strategy Consulting

Another significant benefit of these global organisations is that most dentists leave university laden with debt. So rather than setting up their independent practices and increasing their debt, joining corporate dentistry, with all its benefits, is far more appealing.

The success of the private practice is also dependent on many different factors, many out of a dentist's control, including the location of a business. 

"The patient demographic can affect the profitability of a business. For example, a practice in Beverly Hills would have a more affluent client base. In contrast, a practice in downtown Los Angeles would include many customers who rely on Affordable Healthcare for treatment." - Rob Devlin, Talent Acquisition Strategy Consulting

The current state of the US and the global economy is causing a rise in the cost of dental services. All these factors are making it increasingly less advantageous to open an independent dental practice. 

Covid-19 and The Great Resignation

Following the Covid-19 Pandemic, countries around the world experienced a job market phenomenon called 'The Great Resignation'. By January 2022, the United States Bureau of Labour reported that 4.3 million people had quit their jobs. People were looking for better-paid jobs with better work culture and work-life balance. The dental sector was not immune to this phenomenon, as employees resigned to look after their families or seek healthier work environments.

The Great Resignation resulted in a significant shortage of dentists, hygienists, and dental assistants and forced leaders within Smile Brands to reflect on talent acquisition strategies. 

''The governing bodies of this industry are trying to engage people at a much earlier life stage around why this is an attractive vocation. How do you get into the vocation? How can we increase our access to people that may be coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds that can't afford to go to university? How can we support people from segments of society that would generally be less privileged and unable to access this type of trade?’'  - Rob Devlin, Talent Acquisition Strategy Consulting

However, due to the shortages, everyone is fighting for talent. Wage inflation and intense competition have meant that firms have had to offer high salaries and bonus schemes to get people to join dental practices. However, what happens when this strategy doesn't work? 

The Challenge: To redefine a failing post-pandemic talent strategy

Due to the recruitment challenges that the pandemic had brought to the dental sector, Smile Brands acquired the services of Rob to evolve its talent acquisition strategy. 

"Up to the point of the pandemic, the Smile Brand's talent acquisition team had operated in a relatively self-governing manner. There was a high level of confidence in their ability to attract and recruit candidates because the company had an excellent cultural reputation and was viewed as a positive workplace. They had exceptional ratings on Glassdoor, and the CEO, Steve Bilt, had one of the highest approval ratings of any CEO in the sector. The brand used this reputation and ratings as a solid foundation to attract and retain talent." - Rob Devlin, Talent Acquisition Strategy Consulting

Like many organisations across all sectors during the pandemic, Smile Brands paused all hiring activity and talent agendas. This is a common reaction to challenging economic conditions, but the long-term impact can be significant, as Smile Brands discovered.

"Smile Brands were forced to pause operations and temporally close practices except for urgent dental care. However, while Smile Brands paused, their main competitors decided to carry on driving their recruitment strategy. This means that the company started to fall behind in their hiring activity." - Rob Devlin, Talent Acquisition Strategy Consulting

This was felt at all levels, with some senior leadership leaving the company as part of the 'great resignation' that captured the US after the pandemic lockdowns.

The results were significant; the company had significantly fewer clinical professionals in the business by the end of the pandemic. In addition, the TA leadership gaps led to a lack of standard processes, policies, and an applicant tracking system that wasn't optimally configured, making any future hiring much more difficult.

Smile Brands had to urgently start the recruitment process to fill the gaps left in the last couple of years. However, due to the impact of the pandemic, they didn't have the infrastructure to carry this out to the scale that was needed.

As a matter of urgency, Rob and the company had to devise a strategy to drive professionals back into the business. To be able to do this, Rob and the talent acquisition team had to set ambitious targets around hiring.

"15% of the group's businesses closed due to open requisitions, and Smile Brands was in danger because of our inability to recruit. We had to break down this hiring goal and what it looked like on a recruiter-by-recruiter basis and agree on a process to succeed." - Rob Devlin, Talent Acquisition Strategy Consulting

This issue isn't isolated to the US. The dental care provider, Bupa, is closing practices due to staff shortages in the UK. In 2023, it is due to cut 85 practices affecting 1,200 amid a national shortage of dentists. Mark Allan, the general manager for Bupa Dental Care, stated:

"Despite our continued efforts, the dental industry is facing a number of significant and systemic challenges that are placing additional pressure on providing patient care, in particular recruiting dentists to deliver NHS dental care." - Rob Devlin, Talent Acquisition Strategy Consulting

How did Armstrong Craven Support Smile Brands?

The Vision 

Rob's vision when approaching Armstrong Craven was to build an in-depth understanding of the current capabilities of Smile Brand's talent acquisition team, the challenges of finding the talent needed, and if they need to adjust or find a new model for attracting talent. Rob explains this process:

"I wanted a parallel project with a real-world leading talent intelligence company working alongside us. Working with the Armstrong Craven team enabled us to answer some critical questions." - Rob Devlin, Talent Acquisition Strategy Consulting

These included: 

  • What can we learn about our internal capabilities? 
  • Do we need to consider a different operating model?
  • Is this market just really challenging, and it doesn't matter who implements the recruitment process, the same problems will keep occurring? 

The Strategy 

Armstrong Craven started the partnership by seeking dentists, dental hygienists, and dental assistants and focusing on a specific territory known to be a challenging area to recruit. The territory was the Northwest of the US and, in particular, Boston, Massachusetts. 

"The first action was to carry out talent mapping in the region to gain an in-depth insight into the available talent to fill the three job specialisms we were seeking to recruit for. The talent mapping was predominately in locations where Smile Brands had an office, particularly where they had an office that wasn't  currently open. Following the talent mapping, Armstrong Craven sought to engage and reach out to potential talent identified during the process." - Rob Devlin, Talent Acquisition Strategy Consulting

Rob also brought in the services of Cogency, a recruitment technology company who were brought on to analyse the company's recruitment systems and support redesigning their systems' architecture to make them more efficient. 

SMRS was also a partner who focused on carrying out a data analysis of everything in Smile Brands' recruitment systems. This helped shape the talent attraction strategy regarding what needed to be done differently to attract exceptional talent to the business. 

The Findings 

One of the biggest barriers to recruiting talent in this industry is that professionals in the sector are challenging to reach out to and engage with. When Armstrong Craven are searching for female tech talent, who are significantly underrepresented, the typical response rate from passive talent is 4%. For dentist professionals, the response rate was just 0.4%. 

It was found that the low response rate was due to dentists wanting to spend the majority of their time caring for their patients. This working culture meant that dentists were not used to or motivated by spending time online, therefore, were not as responsive as other talent populations. 

What is clear is that many dental professionals choose to work where they do because of location:

"The reality is most people don't want to leave where they work as they are generally happy as the primary reason they'll choose to work somewhere is location. You're going to earn a certain amount of money unless you're in a really low socio-demographic area or a remote area. Unfortunately some of our practices are located in very rural parts of America where it's geographically very challenging." - Rob Devlin, Talent Acquisition Strategy Consulting

This makes it challenging to persuade dental professionals to uproot and move practices, especially to very remote areas, causing a significant issue. Due to their low populations, there is little to no talent to fill these vacancies. 

"Another significant issue was that specific traditional talent pipelines, such as graduates and the military, were lacking. So, we were starting at ground zero in our search for talent." - Rob Devlin, Talent Acquisition Strategy Consulting

From the talent mapping and engagement project conducted by Armstrong Craven, Rob gathered substantial data to present to CEO Steve Bilt to prove how hard this population was to engage with. In addition, it allowed Steve to ask the question; What is this data telling me? And what are the reasons for it looking the way it does? 

Key Takeaways 

The presentation of this key data has meant that Smile Brands is now clear about the scale of the challenge around hiring dental talent, with Armstrong Craven’s research to prove the facts. Through the findings, Steve has opened up the floor to Rob and the TA team to make more informed strategic decisions over how to refine their talent acquisition processes.

"It's helped inform a lot of other broader strategic conversations in the business around disposals and M&A, and whether it's sustainable for Smile Brands to operate businesses within these more remote locations is informed on graduate recruitment strategy. So it's helped us understand where to build strategic talent pipelines." - Rob Devlin, Talent Acquisition Strategy Consulting

During the search, Armstrong Craven also took the step to pivot away from the initial brief to undertake more of a talent mapping exercise to target future talent, which has helped Smile Brands develop a more specific strategy to target earlier-in-career talent to address their talent shortages, including the targeting of graduates leaving dental schools. 

The New Talent Strategy

Despite the devastating impact of the pandemic and their ambitious targets, Smile Brands are tracking ahead of last year and well ahead of any recruitment drive they have delivered before. 

"When I joined in June 2022, we had approximately 850 open requisitions and this has been reduced to around 600 equalling a 25% reduction in under seven months. This is a clear sign of progress." - Rob Devlin, Talent Acquisition Strategy Consulting

The talent acquisition team has also been restructured to ensure it performs at a high capability. In addition, new directors have been appointed, primarily focusing on supporting the team in developing the right skills, frameworks, and processes to enable high productivity. 

Future Strategy for Smile Brands Talent Acquisition Team

There is often caution around recruiting graduates from executive teams. Historically, for Smile Brands, graduate hiring had caused increased overheads and was not considered profitable. As the talent market had changed, Rob made an urgent case for entry-level talent. 

"Unless Smiles Brands open the doors to graduates, we will be forced to close practices, as there are no experienced hires in some locations." - Rob Devlin, Talent Acquisition Strategy Consulting

Not having a focus on graduates to address the recruitment shortages also has significant financial implications for Smile Brands: 

"It was calculated that every day that a graduate wasn't hired, it cost Smile Brands between $5,000 and $10,000 in revenue for a dentist, between $2,000 and $5,000 for a hygienist, and $2,000 for a dental assistant. When we have approximately 600 requisitions open, graduates must be considered." - Rob Devlin, Talent Acquisition Strategy Consulting

A strategy has been put in place to attract graduates where Smile Brands are taking part in recruitment events both on and off campus. The military strategy is continuing to be worked out by the team and will be implemented later this year. 

Further objectives Smile Brands are hoping to achieve include:

  • Start broadening the way they measure talent acquisition. Currently, they are just measuring on hires, but they want to start looking at the time to fill and the quality of hire. This will provide a more nuanced and balanced view of what is happening. 
  • Create a clinically led strategy where ambassadors and advocates go into dental schools as key opinion leaders to encourage the future workforce. 
  • Discover more innovative ways to advertise the employer brand in the jobs market, rather than just stating 'come and work for Smile Brands'. One of the company's ideas is to have leading and experienced professionals within the industry host exclusive online events and discover more about these professionals. Due to the calibre of the people leading the event, the engagement should be high. 

Gaining Competitor Insight 

From Rob's conversations with opposite numbers at Smile Brand's main competitors, he quickly learnt that around a dozen companies face similar challenges. However, Rob believes that while many of these firms invest heavily in their recruitment strategies, Smile Brand is more innovative. Examples of this include:

"Simple things like personalising the candidate journey with video content from sector leaders and video content embedded across the end-to-end journey. Working in partnership with key opinion leaders and influencers outside the organisation to enhance the brand's perception." - Rob Devlin, Talent Acquisition Strategy Consulting

The strategy for many firms is to hire as many talent acquisition professionals as possible and set them up trying to engage with talent over the phone day in and day out. But with this type of talent, this tactic is ineffective, especially in rural areas with a lack of talent. Talent acquisition teams must be innovative to recruit at the scale they need. 

Addressing the skills shortage through DE&I

Despite being more innovative in their approach to talent acquisition, for Smile Brands, one area of further opportunity is diversity.

"While the company has an excellent reputation for being a diverse employer, our work around encouraging underrepresented groups has the potential to do much more" - Rob Devlin, Talent Acquisition Strategy Consulting

Rob highlighted innovative talent acquisition strategies, including:

  • Partnership to recruit ex-military
  • Celebrating events like Black History Month by having black doctors that work for the brand to write blogs and talk about their experiences. 
  • Having groups of dentists from underrepresented groups attend events encourages talented individuals from these groups to engage with the brand. 

Reaching out to diverse and underrepresented groups can form the strategy to fill some of the positions that Smile Brands struggles to fill. It will also elevate the brand's reputation for diversity and make it an even more attractive proposition. 

Using Research-Driven Talent Solutions 

Rob and Smile Brands benefited from using a global leader in strategic talent research. Armstrong Craven supported Smile Brands through their recruitment challenges brought on by the pandemic by developing and redefining their talent strategies through research-driven talent solutions.   

We have built an extensive network of meaningful partnerships with some of the most respected organisations in the world. Our industry-focused experts provide specialist talent mapping, pipelining, deconstructed search and insights to help businesses ensure they can attract, hire, and retain the scarce and senior talent they need.

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