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How to get your dental practice through the slow times

Oct. 20, 2017
All dental practices will inevitably experience slow times. These are not the times to save money by pausing your marketing campaigns. This dentist learned just the opposite to be true, as well as several other ideas for getting through the slow times.  

All dental practices will inevitably experience slow times. These are not the times to save money by pausing your marketing campaigns. This dentist learned just the opposite to be true, as well as several other ideas for getting through the slow times.


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Whether you’ve been practicing for two or 20 years, you’ve probably experienced slow periods from time to time. Though every practice is different, the dental industry does tend to have a certain seasonality to it. Many dentists see an increase in patient traffic in the mid- to late summer when children are out of school, and at the end of the year when patients schedule procedures before insurance benefits expire. Conversely, patient counts in September often decline as students head back to class and become busy with other activities.

While we all like the peaks more than the valleys, there are plenty of ways to make the most of that inevitable down time. Here are 10 tips for slow periods that should not only alleviate the stress that often accompanies a downturn in business, but also help position your practice to attract a steady flow of patients year-round.

Slow periods are certainly cause for concern, but there’s no reason to run around like Chicken Little. Overreacting to downturns can lead to poor decisions that you’ll likely regret later. For example, when you’re feeling desperate, joining a preferred provider network might seem like a great way to draw new patients. While there are some networks that make sense, if you’re discounting your fees to an unsustainable rate just to participate, then you’re probably not going to make up the difference in volume. Remember, you can be busy and still go bankrupt.

It’s tempting to spread out your schedule when things slow down. But rather than stretching out an hour-long procedure to two hours because you’ve got nothing else scheduled, stay on track. Schedule your patients early in the morning and late in the afternoon and leave the middle of the day open for patients who call in with last-minute issues. Fitting in latecomers will go a long way toward building loyalty and will help you develop a reputation as an accommodating option. Staying efficient will also help you better prepare to handle heavy patient loads when business picks up.

MAINTAIN YOUR MARKETING BUDGET—When times are tough, marketing budgets are often the first items on the chopping block. But the slow season is exactly when you should be ramping up your marketing campaign, not only to drive immediate traffic, but to fuel long-term growth as well. Keep in mind, you may have cut your advertising campaign, but your competition likely has not. I promise that staying consistent will pay off. I do direct mail every month. I rotate between a $99 new-patient special that includes an exam and cleaning, and a no-charge second opinion. Between these two offers I generate 20 to 25 new patients a month. If I took a month off from this marketing, I’d be cutting off my new patient pipeline.

BE CREATIVE—Use the slow time to develop memorable marketing pitches that separate you from the competition. A few years ago, my office created “Mulkey bucks,” fake dollar bills that have a goofy picture of me on them. Patients can cash in these “bucks” for a $50 credit on their next visit. One year, we actually had 58 patients redeem the quirky currency.

The best way to understand what’s going on in your practice is to take a close look at your patients’ behavior. Your patient management system can provide key data points—which patients come in regularly, how much they spend, how many family members are being treated—that you can use to improve your practice. Analyzing that data on your own can be complex and time consuming, so I recommend springing for a software tool that will do the heavy lifting for you. I use Dental Intelligence, but the program you choose should be able to show such key metrics as who needs follow-up treatment, which patients have overdue bills, and how many elective cases you have in the pipeline. Technology can help you avoid leaving money on the table, which by some estimates can add up to $1 million to $1.5 million annually.

I hate to harp on the idea of follow-up, but you lose revenue when patients fall through the cracks. Our practice has designed a patient task list to ensure that we’re capturing the information we need each time we interact with a patient. The checklist helps us confirm that someone has asked a patient to schedule a follow-up appointment, that we’ve entered the correct billing and insurance information, and that the bill is accurate.

Since we have a fair number of cash-only patients who are retired and self-employed, we thought it would make sense to offer a product that would make their dental care more affordable. For a set fee, we provide a few cleanings and annual exams and offer discounts on other services, such as emergency care. An in-office savings plan is a great way to engage these types of patients and encourage their loyalty. Make sure you consult an attorney before launching an in-office savings plan because some states have restrictions on them.

Use your down time to organize all your clinical supplies and instruments so they are easy to access. Remember that it costs you money and slows down your schedule every time an assistant must leave the room to locate something. It also pays to have an organized front desk to ensure that the check-in and check-out process runs smoothly and efficiently.

Remember, your patients can choose another dentist! There are 20 other dentists located near my practice. Thanking my patients helps separate me from the pack. It’s a simple but powerful gesture.

Patients expect to hear from you if they’ve undergone a major procedure, but I make a point of touching base with every patient I’ve treated each day. I simply send a text asking if everything is OK. This enables them to report any issues or ask questions that may have arisen since their appointment. Most of them thank me for following up. Again, this is a simple action, but I’ve found that it goes a long way in cultivating long-term relationships.

It may not be possible to implement all of these strategies all at once, but even trying just a few will help you even out the ups and downs and allow you to attract a more consistent stream of patients.

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Michael Mulkey, DDS, is the founder of Lost Mountain Dental in Marietta, Georgia. He specializes in the treatment of complex and restorative dental problems. A seasoned marketer, he is also a brand ambassador for Mudlick Mail, one of the nation’s leading direct mail providers.