MARKETING YOUR PRACTICE: Know yourself, your team, and your patients

Sept. 1, 2007
Marketing your practice can feel like a full-time job. Whether you want to find a way to consistently add new patients month after month or are looking to grow by increasing your internal marketing efforts, promoting yourself and the services you offer is a tall order.

By Naomi Cooper Eckhardt

Marketing your practice can feel like a full-time job. Whether you want to find a way to consistently add new patients month after month or are looking to grow by increasing your internal marketing efforts, promoting yourself and the services you offer is a tall order. How can you get your patients and prospective ones to value what you offer and see you as the professional you are? It’s an age-old question, and the most important thing is finding a place to start.

Traditionally, in marketing you begin with two basic things: knowing yourself and knowing your audience. You can hire the most prestigious ad agency in town to create the highest quality direct-mail piece, most dynamic Web site, or most sophisticated TV ad, but if your message doesn’t represent you well and resonate with your audience, you might as well not be marketing at all.

Knowing yourself

First ask yourself, “What is different about my practice?” In other words, what unique experiences do patients have in your office vs. every other dental office? Those attributes are important to remember in all of your marketing so that you can play to your strengths and create appropriate expectations that correspond with the experience you actually provide.

Does your practice have a friendly, welcoming office environment? Is your staff the most caring and wonderful dental team ever assembled? Is your office modern with all the comforts of home? Then say so! Think carefully about who you are and express that message clearly in every communication. Whether it’s in a business card, a new-patient brochure, or a patient’s first call to the office, you should always communicate what separates you from the pack.

It might help to jot down a list of positive adjectives that describe your practice. Be careful not to describe the ideal practice you’ve built in your mind; describe the practice you already have. You may invite the whole staff to participate, and you could even include some patients. You never know what you might learn from another person’s perspective.

The other part of knowing yourself is to understand your strengths and weaknesses. While it’s important for you to understand and articulate what is special about your practice, creating and implementing a consistent marketing campaign is something best left to professionals.

“It’s important for doctors to manage their time well,” says Christine Taxin, a consultant based in Westchester County, N.Y., with more than 30 years of dental office management experience. “Surround yourself with the best of the best - experts who can help you reach your marketing goals - and keep your vision on track. You’ll be much more likely to have consistent results from your marketing efforts than if you try to do it all on your own.”

Knowing your team

A practice with an effective, friendly, well-trained front desk can see excellent results from a variety of marketing programs, from Yellow Pages advertising, to direct mail, to 1-800-­DENTIST, almost immediately. But marketing is not a magic bullet for front-desk dysfunction. On the contrary, if front desk staff doesn’t have the training, ability, and desire to establish rapport with patients, the potential results from any marketing campaign will be lost, with callers being categorized as undesirable, scrapped as “shoppers,” left on hold, or simply never helped to appoint.

While many offices track the effectiveness of their marketing campaigns, few track the effectiveness of their team members in taking patient calls - especially new-patient calls. When the phone rings, each of your team members must be able to answer the phone well.

“No matter how sophisticated your marketing becomes, never forget that good, old-fashioned patient service is the glue that binds it all together,” said Katherine Eitel, creator of “The Lioness Principle” and an experienced dental industry speaker and motivational coach. “Making a connection with a patient as a human being and appearing confident, professional, calm, helpful, and genuinely interested is what consumers crave in this fast-paced, high-volume world. More than anything else, patients want to be seen, heard, understood, and made to feel that you really want their business.”

If you even suspect that this might be a challenge in your office, invest in phone skills training for all of your team members - front office and clinical staff alike - before you plan your next marketing campaign. Many highly regarded consultants in the dental industry focus on this topic, and many of them will engage your team in role-playing, customize scripts, and even do secret-shopper calls to ensure that your staff isn’t turning patients away unintentionally.

Finally, the doctor’s personal involvement in getting staff buy-in up front - and throughout the life of the marketing campaign - is absolutely essential. Show your entire staff what kind of marketing you are doing and when it is hitting the marketplace. Tell them how much it costs and what kind of return you expect. And above all, remember to reward your team members for helping make the campaign a success.

Knowing your patients

Marketing creates expectations, so you must deliver those promises. But meeting expectations isn’t always enough.

“Patients judge the dentistry and total care by what they see and hear on their first visit,” said Linda Miles, CEO of Linda Miles and Associates, who has more than 29 years of experience in dental consulting and lecturing worldwide. “Patients return to the practice if they get what they expected. They refer to the practice when their expectations are exceeded.”

To exceed expectations, you must know your patients and what they want. Who are your most loyal patients? What do they have in common? Ask them what makes them come back. What do they think is special about you and your practice? Ask your front desk staff what patients seem to appreciate most.

Then find out what is unique about your patients by analyzing your patient database. What area does your practice draw from? Are most of your patients young singles or families? What percentage are aging baby boomers? What are your most popular procedures? And how are you communicating with your existing patients about what your practice has to offer?

Next, decide who to target with your new-patient marketing. Your best future patients might be nothing like the patients you already have. Are you looking for new movers or soccer moms? Do you cater to fearful patients who might need a lot of work once you’re able to gain their trust? Do you accept insurance or is your office fee-for-service only?

Once you’ve profiled your desired and current patients, think how you can communicate that you uniquely meet their needs. The best way to think about this is in the benefit you provide, not the feature you can offer.

For example, if you cater to seniors, rather than informing them that you have advanced training in implantology and offer the highest-quality materials available, tell them that you can restore their ability to smile, chew, and talk with confidence using natural-looking implants that will look and feel just like their natural teeth. Most patients assume that you are highly educated and skilled. What they don’t know is how you can help them.

As female professionals, most of us already have full-time jobs, and if we count our families, many of us have two. I don’t know one woman dentist who needs more on her plate. So it’s important to find practice-management consultants and marketing partners who are experts in their field and can help you implement and realize your marketing goals based on what you’ve learned about yourself, your team, and your patients.

It all starts with your knowing exactly who you are. A little bit of introspection and investigation will lead you to that kind of self-awareness. It’s the first step toward marketing success!