Marketing Your Practice through Your Patients

The fastest, easiest way to increase your patient base is to look at your own patient files. There is a gold mine of names and contact information of all your established patients — people who know you, your office, and your good work.

There are several discreet ways to use your current patient base in helping you bring in new patients.

What to say to win new patients

Opportunities to ask for new patient referrals are everywhere in your daily routine—it’s simply a matter of knowing how to do it.  The last thing you want is to make your patients feel uncomfortable, or imply that it’s their job to keep you in business.  So be subtle and use a little psychology.  The key is to keep the focus on your current patient’s concerns, while leaving room for a little nudging.For example, suppose you’ve performed a bonding, and the patient tells you how happy she is with the improvement.

Patient: I’m so pleased!  I never thought my teeth could look so nice.
Doctor:  It’s nice to hear that.  My patients’ appreciation really makes my job enjoyable.  It’s a shame that so many people don’t know about this procedure, really!  If you do know of someone who might benefit, maybe you could share your experience with them and let them know how easy it really is.

Or suppose you’re preparing to fill a child’s tooth and have just given a numbing injection with Mom in the room.

Mother: I’m surprised Michael didn’t cry this time.  He usually fusses a lot.
Assistant: Yes, a lot of patients – not just children! -- are nervous about injections, but we work very hard to be as gentle as possible.  We really wish more people knew how painless we can make them.  Maybe you can help us spread the word?

Non-clinical encounters also provide an opportunity to “market” your practice.

Patient: You know, I’m so glad the doctor’s letting me pay by credit card. Otherwise I’d have to put this off for a long time.
Front Desk: Yes, we’re very concerned about our patient’s health and we try to make it as easy as possible for them to come in as soon as they need to.  We only wish more people knew how flexible we are about financial arrangements.  If you know anybody who needs special arrangements, we’d be very happy to speak with them.  Please have them give us a call any time.

For patients concerned about how to schedule multiple follow-up visits, consider this scenario:

Patient: The doctor says I need three follow-up appointments.  I want to schedule them all now so I can get my own time set right away.
Front desk/scheduler: We understand how important it is for you to plan ahead and be sure of the doctor’s commitment.  Of course we’ll take care of your appointments right now. We strive to give our established patients top priority.  That goes for any of your friends you send to us, too. Just tell them to mention your name.

Of course, you don’t want to come across like a used car salesman with a motto of “Just come on down and we’ll make a deal!” It takes more subtlety and craft than that, but consistently working your current patients can pay dividends in the long run.

Fight back against hard times

In this economy, Michigan dental offices are experiencing a record decline of patients as people move out of the area. That’s having a big impact on the bottom line. In addition, current patients who are looking to cut expenses may do so by only going for preventive services and cleanings once a year instead of twice. Or they may even put off other, more advanced services because of the higher dollar amount out of their pockets to pay for what insurance won’t cover.

So how can a dental office try to make up for this decreased patient base and lower overall income? By mining your current client base. Your patients know you, have a good sense of the practice and know how you work. And internal marketing is relatively inexpensive, but can yield big returns.

There are two basic ways to work your current patient base:

  • Encourage the patients themselves to refer friends and family to your practice.
  • Incentivize the staff to help increase patient referrals.

Both of these tactics should fit within your practice’s established marketing budget. Typically, most dental offices set aside 2 to 5 percent of collections and direct them toward marketing efforts. This sum has to include any and all marketing you do, and the incentive programs should also be included in that calculation.

Let patients help you

Internal marketing doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated.

A tried-and-true approach has been to send a letter to your current patients, asking them if they have been satisfied with your services. If so, would they please consider referring your practice along to their friends and family? You might say something like, “Do you have friends or family that aren’t satisfied with their current dental provider? Please pass along our name and contact information and we would be happy to assist them.”

Some practices are missing out on an easy way to help their patients make referrals. They don’t have an individual website.

These days, new patients are made up of younger families who have grown up using the Internet. When a current patient tells a friend about you, one of the first things the friend is going to do is try to find you and your practice on the web.

If you don’t have a web page, seriously consider investing in one. For a nominal set-up fee (perhaps $3,000 for writing, design and creating your custom site) and then $500 per year for hosting, you have a way of connecting with those referrals 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. With it, potential referrals can see what their friend has been recommending, perhaps reading your newsletter or viewing your offices and staff.

Don’t forget to say Thank You

Make sure that patients who refer others to you understand that you value their time and effort in recommending you.

It’s not uncommon to send a thank you letter and enclose a gift card to a local restaurant or movie theater. You want to avoid any notion or promotion of “Refer a patient and get a gift,” as that seems a bit tawdry and commercial. The idea is to thank the patient for the referral after the fact – a surprise acknowledgement of their good deed on behalf of your practice.

These gift cards are relatively inexpensive — usually around $25 or so — especially in comparison to the worth of a new adult patient. And that new adult patient may also have family or neighbors that need services. You can see the potential snowball effect.

Are you sure that you know when a patient has recommended you to a new patient? On your new patient intake form, make sure you have a space for “Who referred you to our practice?” If the new patient writes, “a friend” or “my cousin,” have your front desk staff follow up – while the patient is still in the office. They can ask, “I see that you found us through a friend. Can you tell us who that is so we might be able to thank him or her?” Most patients are more than willing to supply the information when they knew their friend is going to be rewarded. In addition, the new patient who’s referred by a current patient of record can count toward staff incentive programs (See “provide incentives for new patients section below.”)

Level with your staff

Instituting an internal patient referral campaign means you need to have a heart-to-heart talk with your staff about the financial health of the practice. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially for those doctors who have generally kept the financial side of the house to themselves. But when we get to the precarious state where many Michigan practices are these days, it’s time to open up discussion with the staff.

You can begin by telling them the truth. All practices in Michigan are feeling the pinch, and you are going to try to do something to stem the tide. Let your staff know that unless the practice can increase its revenue, you may not be able to avoid reducing their hours. They’re probably already aware that all businesses these days are working to trim the expense side because the revenue side has shrunk dramatically.

Then explain to them the internal marketing campaign and how they can go about helping the practice increase its patient base—and that there are rewards for doing so.

Provide incentives for new patients

There are many different and complicated ways you can incent your current staff to increase the patient base. Some practices use points to reward each individual staff member who brings in a new patient, but I find these systems more trouble than they’re worth. For example, say Missy the assistant and Jenny the hygienist basically say the same thing to the patient at the same visit. How do you keep track of that and award ‘points’ accordingly? It can get confusing.

This is why I recommend talking to the entire staff about increasing the patient base and rewarding them as a group. I suggest measuring the patient base every three months, and comparing that to the same time in the previous year. Three months is enough time to see a trend, but quick enough so that the reward is quickly tied to performance. Measuring against the previous year helps to take into account the seasonal fluctuations in your patient base that occur within a year. If the patient base has increased to a certain level, you can create a bonus system for the staff.

It can be difficult to find a way to talk naturally to your patients about referrals. It’s unusual territory, and you don’t want to make the patient uncomfortable or feel obligated in any way. I suggest scheduling a follow up meeting with your staff to discuss ways you can casually talk about referrals with current patients, and perhaps do some role playing exercises as suggested in the sidebar.

For example, I have one dental client who instituted staff incentives for increased patient base. The practice recently met its practice goal for the quarter, and the entire staff went on vacation to Mexico, paid for by the incentive program.

Internal patient referrals are the best way to get an influx of new, solid patients that you can count to be a part of your patient base for years to come. You just have to take the steps to make it happen.

Published in Dental

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