8 low-cost ways to increase new-patient numbers

Jan. 5, 2011
Patients assume you know how to do the dentistry; what they come for is friendliness, a reasonable wait time, a great atmosphere, and — most importantly — the relationship. Dr. Rhonda Savage gives you eight inexpensive marketing ideas you can use to boost your new-patient numbers.

By Rhonda R. Savage, DDS

At a recent convention, an audience member came up after I spoke about customer service and marketing and told me that when a patient calls her and asks, “Are you accepting new patients?” she responds with a smile in her voice and a moment of hesitation and says, “Well, I don’t know! Are you a nice person?” This consistently gets a laugh and warmly connects the new patient to her and the practice, with the subtle underlying message — we’re nice people and we have nice patients.

What message does your office convey? On a scale of 1 to 10, where would you draw your mark on the line regarding the atmosphere in your practice? Patients assume you know how to do the dentistry. What they come for is friendliness, a reasonable wait time, a great atmosphere, and — most importantly — the relationship.

Every dental practice can increase new-patient numbers by connecting and staying connected with their patients.

How do you do this? You’ll need key staff, a systematic approach, a budget, a personable doctor(s), and consistency.

The method: Put your patients and the relationship ahead of your product (the dentistry). Deliver quality care in a warm environment, going above and beyond what the patient expects. Stay in touch through newsletters, recall/reactivation, calling patients, and sending cards/gifts. There are companies that can help you with this. Smile Reminder is a leader, and others are Demandforce, Lighthouse, and Sesame Communications.

How many new patients do you need? It depends on your demographics, type of practice, and practice philosophy. A general practitioner needs 10 to 20 new patients a month just to maintain a patient base. If you need to grow your practice, you’ll need — at a minimum — 25 to 40 new patients per month per doctor. A specialist or a general dentist who provides comprehensive care will have an even greater need for new patients.

Staff-driven systems: Consider dividing your team into modules. Each staff person has an interest, talent, and skill. They are the leaders in their module of interest. The module leader and co-leader are in charge, and the module meets during the month as needed.

The different modules can be:

  1. Patient care/marketing: Smile Reminder
  2. Administration: recall/reactivation, collections, scheduling
  3. Facility: repairs, updates, inventory control
  4. Staff CE: daily training and long-term educational goals
  5. Business operations: accounts payable, accounts receivable

After the module meeting, the group presents at the total team meeting. The doctor doesn’t have to do everything; someone else is responsible for execution. Your team will become much more valuable and trusted.

Internal marketing

Value the relationship: The No. 1 determining factor is warmth. Patients want a relationship; it’s what will set you apart and keep them in your practice. A relationship means you need to “give patients a little piece of you” at every appointment. As you talk with your patients, be sure to tell them something small about you personally. To the patient, the relationship is more important than your product, which is dentistry.

When your patients receive great service in a warm, caring environment, you then have the ability to ask for a referral. Say, “If I can help you in any way, just let me know! And if you happen to know any friends or associates who could use my services, I’ll treat them just as I’ve treated you. This is how I do business.”

Here are some marketing ideas to implement in your practice. These ideas will help you develop “the warmth factor.”

1. One way to break the ice for patients is to have a nicely decorated corkboard in the reception area where the team puts up personal pictures. The pictures can be of travel, family, hobbies, pets, staff events, or sports participation. This gives patients something to start a conversation, and they feel they instantly know more about you.

2. Another way to make patients feel special on their first appointment is to have a white erase board at the front desk. Someone artistically inclined can write a greeting (first name only) on the board to welcome new patients. Reactivated patients can also have a greeting welcoming them back to the practice.

3. Deliver quality care in a warm environment. Warmth and connecting is very important throughout the practice and especially at the chair. I understand how hard it is to be the boss, deliver the dentistry, and manage the business. Stress can add up and come out in frustration with your employees. You will anti-market the practice, however, if you let your frustrations boil over at the chair or come out through negative body language. Often female patients are inclined to complain to the team, “I can’t believe how (he) she talked to you! I’m not sure I’m coming back.” Or, “I was hurting and needed more anesthetic but was afraid to ask. When she called me to see how I was doing, I wasn’t comfortable telling her I was sensitive during the procedure.”

4.Develop good listening skills. Good listening skills make your patients feel special. Great eye contact, smiling, and taking the time your patients need will increase your case acceptance and referrals. Toastmasters International is a resource for becoming a better case presenter, developing your listening skills, and learning to answer questions under pressure.

The opposite of listening is quiet. Eighty percent of patients’ concerns regarding dentistry are financial, and 20% are fear. Patients hate the noise of the drill. Consider investing in noise-cancelling headphones for your patients. Bose makes wonderful headphones, and you can purchase disposable ear coverings for them.

5. Be an on-time doctor. Patients today are more impatient than ever before. Start your day on time and start on time again after lunch. Be on time for your hygiene checks, and ask your hygienists to let you know toward the beginning of the appointment that they’re ready for a check. Then do your best to get in there before the end of the appointment.

6. Stay in touch through newsletters, recall/reactivation, calling patients, and sending cards/gifts.

Have a graduated system of staying in touch. Develop a budget, and don’t be cheap! Eighty percent of your referred patients will come from 20% of your patient base. An attendee recently said, “The cost of flowers has gone up so much! Paying $60 for a bouquet of flowers is ridiculous!” Paying $60 for a gift when a patient spends thousands is nothing! What is the lifetime value of a new patient?

Here are a few gift ideas:

Give gift baskets via Google. CountryWineBaskets.com is a great resource. They have wonderful, high-quality baskets. Or use the talents and do business with a patient who might have this type of business.

Send something tasteful and appropriate from a locally owned business.

Send flower bouquets to a patient’s office if possible. Send a small bud vase with a thank you card that says, “For all you do, this bud’s for you!”

Send some “sinful brownies.” These are awesome brownies. Find the recipe at www.Brownies.com.

Have a team member personally deliver cupcakes (check out Fred Meyers or your local grocery store bakery) or a case of fresh apples if your referring patient is a teacher.

Send thank you cards, get well cards, birthday cards, Happy New Year cards, 4th of July cards, and Thanksgiving cards. Use Plaxo.com to send cards by e-mail inexpensively. You’ll need an e-mail database for your patients. Do you routinely collect e-mail addresses?

Alternate the off months with your newsletter. Include fun facts and other things that are not dental-related in your newsletter.

Have a raffle in your office and another raffle in your newsletter (raffle fun non-dental stuff). Have a business card fishbowl drawing. Dr. Kalvin Chen’s practice in Brea, Calif., has a business card raffle. The prize is a lunch for four delivered to the person’s workplace. This brings attention to the workplace about the dental practice, and it also rewards the patient.

Send a survey via e-mail. Smile Reminder offers a great survey, as do TeleVox, Lighthouse, Sesame, and Demandforce. Women like surveys. They like to know that their opinion counts. Women drive the majority of the family’s health-care decisions. They are the majority purchasers of automobiles, large electronic appliances, and computers. If you’re not marketing to women, you’re missing out on a huge opportunity!

Stay connected on a business/like/fan page. Use the talents of your “Facebook queen” in the office. For a copy of my article on “Facebook: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly,”click here. Also, create a “killer” Web site. For a copy of my article, “Is your Web site a bestseller?” e-mail me at [email protected].

7. Connect with your suppliers, vendors, and specialty doctors. Treat those you regularly do business with as special people, because they are! Give frequent, small gifts of appreciation to your mail person, Fed Ex driver, and dental supplier. Also consider sending gifts of appreciation to your dental laboratory.

Visit your specialty practice. Both Dr. Chen and I have done this in our private practices. When your team members get to know the specialist and his or her team members, they can then enthusiastically refer patients who may be reluctant to go elsewhere for their dentistry.

8. Define your strategy and philosophy. A good business model example is: “We go above and beyond for our clients (patients). Our relationship is more important than our product. If there’s anything we can do to help you, don’t hesitate to ask!” Put it in writing and talk about the philosophy as a team. Always come back to the philosophy at your team meetings and ask yourselves, “How are we doing?” Team meetings are a time to talk about what’s going well and what’s not. If you have open, respectful communication, your office will grow!

In today’s world, you cannot be a thousand times better than your competition, but you can be better in a thousand small ways. How is your practice different than the competition?

Special thanks to Dr. Kalvin Chen, who can be reached at [email protected].

CLICK HERE to read "37 ways to recognize your dental team."

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Author bio
Rhonda Savage, DDS, has been in private practice for 16 years and is the CEO for Linda L. Miles and Associates, an internationally known practice-management and consulting business. A noted speaker, Dr. Savage lectures on practice management, esthetic dentistry, women’s health issues, periodontal disease, communication/marketing, and zoo dentistry. Contact her at [email protected].