Not long ago, I received a marketing piece from a group that specializes in marketing for dentists. I get one almost every week. Do this, don’t do that, along with the promise of unlimited new patients with some brand-new marketing magic that will change the face of dentistry. A lot of talk but, from my experience, not much meat. True, you cannot, not market. Especially if you understand that not marketing is marketing, but you just chose not to spend money on it. Everything you do is marketing. The hours you choose, staff you hire, services you offer, in-network or out, and on and on and on. Everything you do is designed to give you the results you are getting. I want to take a moment and help you remember that, in a small consumer driven business (dentistry), your potential clients vote with their feet and pocketbooks. They choose who they will spend their money with. So if you are not getting your fair share of patients and your average which isn’t great, is about 20-30 new patients a month and no one really wants to be just average, you need to take care of the ones you have. What should a new patient expect from an office that makes the experience “remarkable”? Not average, but truly memorable to the point of that every patient shows up, pays for treatment, and refers everyone they know. A culture that guarantees that every year you will grow 15%-20%. You literally won’t be able to stifle the growth because you are remarkable and remarkable is rare when it comes to dental practices.
We all spend money on branding and marketing our practice while trying to attract new patients. With varying results, I hear doctors complain about this strategy or that. They get less than a 1% response from direct mail and they are upset. 1% or less is normal. Google ads cost a lot and they don’t get many patients. True again. They thought that Facebook would be the ticket, but come to find out all of these strategies are over used and all of them underwhelm the office that sent them and the patients that read them. Our potential patients are fast becoming desensitized to any type of marketing, so it’s not surprising to see that the “tried and true” marketing strategies are beginning to wain. That’s why every new patient is precious. We must treat them like the potential gold mine they are. Look at them with the idea of what they would spend in a lifetime in your practice. Far too often the “lifetime value” is extremely low in most practices because most patients don’t come back. They basically voted you off the island and moved on to the next average practice. Few doctors actually track their attrition rate or how many active patients (patients that have been to the office in the last 13 months or less) do not have an appointment or even what their percentage of cancellations and no-show’s average yearly. We have to really exceed every patient’s expectation and give them more than they anticipated. Honestly, this should be fairly easy based on the statistics of an average practice. These steps will do just that.
If you are looking at your return on investment for your marketing, don’t look at the number of patients who schedule. Look at the number of patients that call. It is not the fault of the marketing company or marketing piece if you drive people to call, and because the person who answers the phone doesn’t come off as caring, compassionate, and competent, they don’t schedule or schedule and never intend to keep the appointment. Most offices have a front desk person who creates reasons and hassles for the patient not to schedule. How many hurdles do you put in front of your potential clients that are barriers to them making and keeping an appointment? No consumer hours, few services they are looking for, don’t see kids, poor reputation, and few or maybe even bad reviews, etc. This happens before the doctor even has the opportunity to mess up the relationship by running late, over charging, hurting them, bullying or confusing the patient. You are saying: “No way that this happens in my office”! But look up the number of patients that are referred from an existing patient every month. Oh, wait, that’s right, you don’t track that number, even though it is the most important indicator of whether you are remarkable to a patient or not. In fact, if you are not getting at least 50% of your new patients from direct referrals from existing happy patients, I wouldn’t spend a penny on marketing. You would just attract more patients that come in once and never return while telling everyone on their Facebook group to never darken the door of your office. You must be remarkable in this new dental economy. Nothing less will work.
Here are some quick tips on what every new patient should expect and receive when they visit your office. Remember, only the patient gets to vote on whether you did this or not. They, the patient, awards the ribbon for being remarkable.
- Before the first visit: I am assuming you have at least appeared to be caring, compassionate and competent by being open consumer hours, with an easy to get to location with a product the new patient wants to buy and systems to handle the intake of a new patient. The patient has made the appointment, you have their name and how they can be contacted (which may not be a cell or work number), and a mailing address. Be sure to confirm the appointment with a welcome letter and a new patient package. We generally will do this by mail and by email. NOTE: I like snail mail, if possible, with a package design that is impressive. And simply because it comes in a folder to their residence instead of just online, you will stand out as different and remarkable. The package contains: A letter from me, the doctor, a brochure, an appointment card with a map, a newsletter, and your health history form. The health history form can also be completed online prior to their visit. This form goes automatically into the new patients file where, if done on a written form, it creates more work for the front desk by needing to copy it into the patient file. Obviously, we encourage the patient to do this online. The idea being that if filled out prior to the first visit, the patient will not have to spend as much time in the office leading up to bringing them back. We have the “new patient” package already made up by a part-time employee (typically a teenager) who does small jobs after school. We make sure the new patient receives the packet prior to their appointment. We make their choice of our office and their first visit a celebration for both parties. This is special for us because they have chosen us from among many possibilities and special for them because we are going to “wow” them by going above and beyond their expectations as we serve them and become their dentist for life.
- The pre-op call: We all know how important the post op call is for patient relationships. I’ve taken it a step farther. I had 2 younger partners, with the emphasis on younger. While I still did the lion’s share of production, I realized they were creeping up on me. I may be old, but I still have my pride. I was looking for a way to make sure I could still out produce my partners. This is what I came up with. I would look at the next days schedule for any new patients coming to our office and would write down the name and phone number of all the new patients. Right after work I would call them with a “pre-op” call. I would just say: “Hi. This is Dr. Abernathy, and I was just calling to see if there was any question I could answer or anything I could do to your make your appointment tomorrow go more smoothly”. Basically, just a simple “welcome” to the practice, see you tomorrow call. NOTE: I never told the front desk, who had already confirmed the visit, that I did this with every new patient that came to our offices (we averaged 17 new patients every day and part of that demand came from how we created a remarkable experience for every patient). The patient shows up the next day, the light goes on to check the patient in hygiene and the 2 younger doctors race in there to claim the new patient. The patient’s response was always: “Would it be alright if Dr. Abernathy checks me?” It took those doctors almost 2 years to figure out what was going on. The neat thing about this is that patients seemed to be less resistant to my recommendations and never seemed to cancel. Remember, the Doctor must do this.
- After the first visit: I always call the referral source. In my practice 80% of the patients were referred by a trusted friend. I want to encourage that action to happen again, and again. Reward what you want repeated. In fact, we have created a detailed Care-to-Share program that institutionalizes this protocol for all our patients. It has created the impression that nearly all our patients come from recommendations from our existing patients. In addition to a letter sent thanking the referring patients and a call from me personally thanking them and encouraging them to send us more, a letter goes to the new patient. It is handwritten on my logo designed stationary. It just says how glad I was to meet them and thanked them in advance for referring their friends and neighbors. I never used pre-printed cards. Yep, it takes about 30 minutes a day, but it also ensures a constant number of new patients as well as having the existing ones to stay with us forever.
- After the Case Presentation appointment: This usually occurred during the first visit in conjunction with a cleaning. We always made sure the patient walked out with the following items: A copy of the financial policy, the patient’s summarized treatment plan (we never used any practice management complete walkout treatment plan), brochures covering the treatment recommended, photos of the areas of concern, fees, treatment plan, and an appointment card. Again, we always recorded how they would like to be confirmed. We never assumed it was their cell, work, or home number. We wanted to know how to reach them the day before the appointment. While we had software to send texts for reminding the patient of their appointments, we, for the most part, made sure that everyone had a personal call to actually confirm their reserved appointment. Anything less will not give you the results you should demand.
- When treatment was completed: Following the final treatment I always sent a thank you letter with a post-op photo for cosmetic cases and another copy of our “Care to Share” program with 2 business cards. You must continue to encourage referrals.
- Keeping the patient happy, informed, and loyal: We send all of our patients a newsletter 4 times a year to constantly keep in touch with them. Each newsletter has “address correction requested” typed beneath where the postage goes. This allows returned mail to give us the patients current address. We also send birthday cards and special occasion letters to our patients.
- Enter the new patient into the recall system: The real benefit of marketing is not just the patient that comes in for an offer. It is taking that patient and turning them into a referring machine. In doing this it becomes even more important to maintain an active recall system of loyal patients. Please feel free to give me a call so I can describe our “recall magic” system of perpetual patients. The “Whitening for Life” program is a great way to encourage your patients to never miss a recall appointment. We guarantee all of our work. This offer hinges on the patient not missing a normal 6-month recall. The foundation for all great hygiene recall systems starts with paying hygienists like we pay associates: On commission. This creates an unlimited pay scale where accountability falls on the hygienist to work smarter and have a 90% plus recall. NOTE: 67% of the work you will ever do on any patient will come out of recall hygiene, and not new patients. Give your patients a reason to stay in your practice.
- To stay in constant contact with my clients in the form of a personal “drip” marketing campaign. I want to make it difficult for my patients to forget me or even consider me to be like other doctors. I want to constantly remind them that we are unique in a special way. No one wants another “average” dentist. Be remarkable.
- To show the patients that I care, and it shows. In this tenuous relationship we have with our clients, we need to remember that repetition and reinforcement is key to encouraging patients to stay with us. Sorry to say, they want to know what you have done for them today, and many of us forget that they have driven by 50 other practices to get to our office. If you don’t fall into the habit of showing you care, they will fall out of the habit of coming to your office.
- To ask for referrals every time I can. I seldom, no, never see staff and doctors truly ask for referrals. They are satisfied with getting 20-30 % of their patients from direct referrals, or by throwing more and more money at a marketing campaign that is destined to fail rather than taking the time to engage their current patients. There is nothing that beats a referred patient from one of your current clients that are raving fans. It is contagious and spreads like wild fire. You cannot stay “average” when your direct referrals top 50%.
- To encourage communication with our clients. The more times you ask, question, and engage your clients in meaningful conversation about what they want, the more likely you will have the feedback to improve what you give them. Change is a constant, and constantly finding out what that change needs to be is key in staying ahead of the pack of dentists that would love to be the “it” dentist in their area. Friends talk and help each other to be successful.
Bonus activity: the Terrific Patient Card. This may be the one weird remarkable thing we always did with every patient we worked on. I have a short and simple rule to kick start your internal marketing: When it comes to patient/office contact, always have the doctor do their fair share. One of the simplest and most profound results in internal marketing can be found in a little card we call “The Terrific Patient Card” (link below). For over 40 years I have written a short note to every patient I stuck with a needle. Its purpose has been four-fold:
Final Result: We had an 87% referral rate in our office for decades. I don’t discount the efforts of my staff or the systems we designed, but a great deal of the success we have enjoyed would be the direct result of taking 20 seconds to send a Terrific Patient Card. This is a black and white, do it now before you fall back into the same old habits that got you where you are today, can’t miss strategy that will help you open the flood gates on becoming “remarkable”. Ask yourself: Wouldn’t you want your doctor to take each and every one of these steps?
Michael Abernathy, DDS