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If you follow my books and articles, you will have heard this before. The most important number you should look at is the percentage of new patients coming from direct referrals from current patients. That number converted to a percentage says more about the status of your entire practice than any other one key practice indicator. So important that unless you are getting at least 50% of your new patients from direct referrals, something is wrong. I would suggest that you actually shoot for 70-80%, but anything lower than 50% means people don’t like you and your practice and there is some work to be done.

I received an email the other day from the wife of a young doctor opening their first practice. This is how it began: “Hello, I have heard that referrals are your best source of advertisement. What do you recommend for incentives for referrals.”

At first glance she is just asking how we “reinforce” this specific behavior by incentivizing the patient who just made the referral. What’s more important is how you get them to make the referral in the first place. Then you incentivize them in order to get them to refer again. And again. AND AGAIN.

Like most things, encouraging referrals is a protocol or system that stages the patient’s office interface in a way that constantly reminds the patient that we would love to see their friends, relatives, neighbors, co-workers, etc. Here are a few steps that will get any office off on the right foot for getting 50% or more referrals every day.

  • Are You Referral Ready? Most offices fall short here. They assume that they are already doing most of what they could do to encourage referrals. The problem is that we are just a small consumer-based business where the consumer gets to decide where they go and with whom they spend their money. Here is the #1 marketing axiom: You can’t get better at giving people what they don’t want. If you are not growing (new patients, referrals, and production) you are not inspiring the patients you already have. A lack of growth means you are not meeting the needs of the consumers you see. If you are not growing, you are trying to give patients something they don’t want. Remember Einstein’s definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. You have to be referral ready. This referral readiness involves giving patients what they want, when they want it, at a price they can fit into their budgets. The short list would be consumer-friendly hours (Fridays, Saturdays, early and late every day), being in-network for the potential clients insurance company (everyone wants to use their insurance and consumers today are educated shoppers who demand that the businesses they frequent be sensitive to their financial needs), be willing to work on patients of all ages in your office (including kids), have interest free financing, and offer the products and services that they want. Short of these basic needs of any consumer, you will never be referral ready.
  • Stage every contact to influence patients to refer: It’s not the Golden Rule where you do unto others as you would do for yourself. No, it goes to a higher standard today. It is the Platinum Rule where you do unto others as they would be done unto. Big difference. Consumers today are the only ones that are allowed to vote on what they want, when they want it, and what they will pay. And they are highly price sensitive. Every patient you see has an invisible checklist of things that they view as important. Staging requires that you have the right staff, well trained, with incredible people skills and self-motivated so that they can understand the individual’s needs and give them what they want. Partnering with your staff to do this is the first step in staging. Being perceived as caring and compassionate and a good listener is the key to creating the loyalty that encourages your patients to become raving fans for you and the office. Walt Disney said it best: Do what you do so well that people can’t help but tell everyone they know about you”. This staging to get direct referrals is everyone’s responsibility. Staging begins from the first moment a patient contacts you by phone. That’s why the person who answers the phone is one of the most important people in the office. They literally have their hands on the handle of the faucet through which every patient first contacts you. Have the wrong person in the seat, or the wrong personality, and you are doomed. When the patient arrives, the office is ready, the entire staff prepared, and the receptionist rises and addresses each patient by their full name and remains standing to do this. You must always be on time. You anticipate their needs, process them smoothly through their appointment and make sure that their expectations are exceeded.
  • You ask every patient, every day, for referrals: If I posed this question (Do you ask for referrals?) to 10 different offices, they would all say yes. But if I were able to actually watch each office I would observe that they never do. In fact, they run behind schedule all day long, foul up the financial discussion, and even hurt the patient while delivering a less than optimal clinical result. It’s almost like the average practice self-sabotages any chance of getting referrals to the point that they become the preverbal “Donor” If you are truly referral ready, you ask for referrals every day from every patient. Every day and every patient that goes through hygiene is given a couple of cards from their hygienist and asked to refer their friends and neighbors. Every new patient I see is asked: “If we can really wow you by always being on time and exceeding your expectations, would you send us two of your friends?” I have never had anyone say no. Every patient that I stick with a needle for clinical work gets a “Terrific Patient” card that I fill out by saying: “You were great today. If you need anything, just give me a call at 972-523-4660 (yes, I give them my cell number). We would love to see your family and friends.” We look for ways to encourage referrals by anticipating what the patient needs. We are always looking for a patient to pay us a compliment so that we can ask for that referral. At checkout every patient is asked by the receptionist: “Is there anyone else in the family that needs to get their teeth cleaned?” It is a never-ending quest to encourage patients to refer.
  • Rewarding the patient for referrals: The trick in marketing and any referral strategy is to have them refer and then continue to repeat that action forever. That means you are constantly raising the bar to the ever-changing demands of the public. You can’t do what you used to do and expect continuous improvement. You must embrace change while keeping your finger on the pulse of consumer demand. The number one thing you should do is always have the doctor make a call for any referral to thank them and encourage them to send you more. Number two is a systematic campaign that we call our “Care to Share” If you go to the Summit website you can search for and read any article that I have written and there is one that covers all the details of a care to share campaign. Suffice it to say this is presented to every patient when they check out and it encourages referrals by rewarding both the referrer with some monetary reward or gift and by rewarding the referred with some discount or gift. Finally, I would consider some type of give-away contest like a raffle for a flat screen TV every 2-3 months (Walmart has 50-inch models for less than $300). Those that refer get their name in the fishbowl and every 60-90 days you pull out a winner. We have personal business cards for every staff person and to encourage them to ask for referrals, we would pay each staff member $20 cash per person that brings the card in to redeem the offer. The back of the card just says that if you come in for an exam, necessary x-rays, and a consult we will do it for $1 (one dollar) if they come in before_______________ (the staff person puts a date a couple of weeks away to create urgency). We had staff members leave them with tips when they ate out, to patients they worked with, and used them as a business card anytime they needed to hand out their information. Don’t discount the value of your staff bringing in new patients. Our staff averaged 2-10 a month for each and every staff person. We even created a graph to track the hand out rate and reward the one person with the most cards handed out with a little surprise at the end of the month. I have sponsored a traveling circus and midway for our patients so that they could come free and bring their friends. This attracted over 600 people when we did it and only cost $2,000 for the night. Santa Claus was in our office a few nights in December with gifts, photos, and a tour of the office for our patients and their friends. Our patients always invited their neighbors. I could go on and on but you get the idea. Out of the box, different from what others will do, on a consistent basis, we always looked for ways to encourage referrals, always thanked them, and encouraged them to send us more.

This referral intensity is guided by a culture of team members being so excited about what they do and how they do it that they simply and automatically assume that everyone would want to be our patient.
Michael Abernathy, DDS
972-523-4660 cell
[email protected]