Patient acquisition is the process of attracting and then accepting new patients to your practice for treatment. While some dental professionals are happy to have every potential patient in town, the most successful practices target their acquisition activities to go after the right ones. The “right” patient understands your treatment plans, wants what you’re offering (in whole or part), wants it now or soon, has the ability to pay and pays for it (whether they use insurance to help them or they pay out of pocket – doesn’t matter). And, if their overall experience is satisfying, they are a great new patient referral engine, telling family and friends about your services.
New patients are the lifeblood that keeps dental practices running smoothly. Patient acquisition is financially beneficial to a practice as it counters the natural progresses of existing patient attrition and when done at a more robust rate, increases the total yearly fees that are billed to your practice.
A referral is typically when someone you have a relationship with, recommends your practice and services to a potential new patient. Patient referrals provide your office with an instant personal connection to a new revenue prospect. Because of this personal connection, those referred tend to stay longer than a patient referred by unconnected media resources. Internal dental patient referrals are the largest source of new patients for practices. This is followed by networking (fraternal, philanthropic, social organizations, locals schools and PTO’s) and professional referrals from colleagues, either general doctors or treatment specialists.
There are also a number of website directories (like dentalreferral.com) you can employ to supplement your patient acquisition efforts. These sites match patient needs with the right dentist by easy-to-use online search tools.
Referrals are one of the most affordable ways to acquire new patients. A patient referred by an existing patient is 60% more likely to refer another person, become a lifelong patient and have immediate loyalty to your practice – based on the recommendation of a family member or friend.
There are 3 key steps in the referral process:
Request – educating on your referral program and then requesting participation.
Teaching your patients and your office staff how to refer is the first step. You can always start simple with a basic referral card. Then use your practice management software to track referrals. Follow up on each lead as quickly as possible to demonstrate your professionalism and care.
Reminder – reminding patients that you value their referrals.
Utilize all contacts you have with a patient to continually remind them how important their referrals are to your practice. Start from when they walk in the door, with your signage and front office staff, right through to when they leave carrying a supply bag or at home when they get your statement in the mail. The more frequent the referral message, the more memorable it will be with patients.
Reward – providing an incentive or gift for the referral.
Before you start, research laws in your state or province in regards to gifting patients. You can start easy by sending a personalized thank you card or have tangible rewards geared to the demographics of your patient base. Movie tickets are great for teens or a gift card to a coffee shop for senior patients. Some practices also like to reward with a credit on a patient’s account. But for your best patients, with healthy mouths and great dental benefits, a grab bag of gift cards to local restaurants or the movies creates a bigger “wow” factor.
So here is how you can get things going at your practice:
Establish a referral program.
Establish a referral program for your practice and coin a catch phase like “Share a Smile” to brand all of the collateral advertising pieces. Print flyers or brochures and display them in your waiting area, operating and hygiene rooms in a prominent location, and encourage your team to mention the program to each patient that comes in for treatment. Don’t forget to highlight specific incentives that patients could receive if they send referrals your way. These incentives could take the form of anything from a discount on dental services to an unrelated “fun” item, like a gift certificate to a local restaurant or movie theater.
Ask for referrals.
Ask for referrals. Many of your patients may not “take the hint” and start referring people to your practice. Be proactive and train your staff to ask every patient if they have anyone they would like to refer to your practice. Make sure they leave with a flyer or brochure, and give them the option of filling out a referral card in the office. Emphasize that their referrals won’t be required to buy anything or make an appointment – you’ll simply be reaching out.
No everyone on your staff will be comfortable asking for referrals so make sure to provide script options to those not comfortable. A great way to frame the request is “Did you know we are now accepting new patients like you? Do you have any friends, family or coworkers who are looking for a good dentist? Please ask them to mention your name when they call so we can thank you with an “X” gift.”
Include referral cards with all mailings.
Always include referral cards with invoices, statements and any direct mail marketing materials you send out. For example, if you mail a brochure or a newsletter to patients or area residents, include several tear-off referral cards inside.
Give away freebies.
Give away freebies, such as personalized pens, toothbrushes or magnets, with your contact information and website address printed on them. These items can usually be printed in bulk at an affordable rate, and they can be a surprisingly effective way to generate new interest in your services.
Include a referral link on your website.
Include a referral link on your website, where visitors can simply type in the names and contact information of individuals that may be interested in your services. Remember, the easier you make the referral process, the more likely your patients are to participate. Don’t forget to mention any incentives you may offer via your referral program.
Respond to inquiries quickly.
Respond to any inquiries you receive from interested parties as quickly as possible. People will appreciate the personal care and attention, and it may make them inclined to start referring their family and friends immediately – perhaps even before their first appointment is scheduled.
Send handwritten postcards, greeting cards or thank you notes.
Show patients you care by sending handwritten postcards, greeting cards or thank you notes. Coming from their dental professional, this level of personal commitment may take many people by surprise – and that’s a good thing! Try sending these personalized notes to new patients after their first visit, as well as patients who have just started or finished a significant treatment or procedure. You may also want to get into the habit of reaching out to all your patients during the holidays, to thank them for their loyalty – or on their birthday to acknowledge this special day. Keep your notes short, and always send them as quickly as possible after an appointment or meeting.
Most experts agree that a mature dental practice should allocate 3-5% of fees revenue to marketing. Recall, reactivation, other internal marketing, and marketing to existing patients for referrals and additional services in the office and at home should account for a third, or 1-2%, and two thirds, or 2-3%, to external marketing and marketing to potential “prospective patients”. Newer or less mature practices can likely use a lot more external marketing than 2-3% of fees.
A dental practice should always craft a business plan to guide their marketing efforts. This plan should detail projections on patient counts for both existing and new patients, along with revenue targets. A well-structured and supported referral program should be generating 60% of the plan’s new patient target on an annual basis.
Practices can easily keep track of referrals using their practice management software. Run a report, at least twice a year, on the number of referrals by source, so you can thank/reward your best referral sources.
Successful practices tailor their patient acquisition activities to go after the right patient – and the same holds true when looking for a partner to help with your referral program. First, decide what you want and how much work you want to handle internally. Do you need a consultant to give you advice? A business partner who can provide a turnkey solution? A supplier to print your marketing materials? Someone you can source patient rewards from? Fit is key – so select a company you can trust, one that will be there in the future and not disappear in the middle of your project. Make sure they have knowledge and experience to consult, share their experiences of what other dental practices are doing, and stand behind their promises.
Use your local professional network or your state dental association and ask for recommendations. Then arrange a face to face or phone meeting to make sure there is a good fit. If it is a turnkey provider have them provide samples of programs they have done for other offices and request that they share results (without breaking any confidentiality). Ask for client references and contact them with a set of prepared questions. Once you have settled on the right consultant or business partner, develop a work plan with quarterly follow up once the program has been implemented. If you are not happy with results, talk honestly. The foundation of any relationship is good communication.