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Building Referral Business in General and Specialty Practices


Success in business is often based more on whom you know rather than what you know. When building a successful referral-based dental practice, fostering relationships with those constituents, whether patients in a general practice or general dentists for a specialty practice, is key. Continue to know more about the specific strategies for building referrals.

Building Referral Business in General and Specialty

Referrals are integral to the success of any dental practice, speciality or otherwise, experts say.

There are two approaches to building a successful referral-based dental practice. If you have a general practice, you want referrals from current patients, friends and family members. It certainly represents a solid portion of practice revenue.


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If you have a specialty practice, referrals are essentially 100 percent of your business.

“You make your money off general dentists, who are basically your employers, by having them send you patients,” says Louis Berman, D.D.S., F.A.C.D., a board-certified endodontist and principal at Annapolis, Maryland-based Annapolis Endodontics.

No matter what type of practice you operate, there are keys to successfully maximizing your referral-based business.


Helen Cohen, M.A., C.E.G., is the principal of e3 coaching and a personal trainer for dental practices. She says that for an established dental practice, referrals — especially from existing patients — are the best way to acquire new patients. It is also the most cost effective because dollars are not being expended.

“Dental practices are essentially a business,” Cohen explains. “As a business, you have to develop relationships, and dentistry is a relationship business. When someone opens a business, one of the questions investors ask is, ‘What are your acquisition costs?’ Word-of-mouth is still the best method because the patient who is referring someone to your practice has already screened you.”

How do you get current patients to refer others? Cohen says it is important to get beyond using your practice website to list all your dental credentials and links to articles you have written. Everyone already knows you are a dentist. But what differentiates you from the dentist down the street? How are patients treated when they visit your office? It is a paradigm shift to looking at things from the patient’s vantage point.

For example, how is customer service handled from the initial phone call contact?

“Patients want friendliness,” says Cohen, who spent many years working inside her husband’s dental practice. “A lot of times, you phone an office and they say, ‘Doctor’s office.’ We never answered the phones like that. We said, “Dr. Cohen’s office. This is Helen. How may I help you?’ It automatically makes it more personable.”

Cohen believes that if you put a higher priority on developing relationships with your patients rather than the clinical aspects of dentistry, and you deliver quality care above and beyond what they expect, you give them a wow factor.

Along those lines, follow up phone calls — what Cohen calls ‘care calls’ — at the end of the day go a long way toward fostering that wow factor. And not every patient needs to be called — just those who experienced a root canal or a significant and difficult procedure.

“Patients are so appreciative of the phone call,” she says. “And they will tell others about getting a phone call from their dentist.”


A specialty practice is different. Berman, who has owned a successful endodontic practice for more than 30 years, says it is not just about being good at what you do, but about successfully using personal relationship skills with referring general practices. In other words, relationships are everything.

“You’re an extension of the services being offered by that general practice,” Berman says. “The last thing you’d want to do is have that patient who is being sent to you being sent to somebody else after that. The interaction that you have with the referring office, the ease of transition and how successful your procedures are is truly a reflection of the person who sends them there.”

Berman also said what you do inside your office that makes patients want to tell their friends and referring doctor about you is crucial. A key element is having a send-them-right-over policy, especially if you are an endodontist or an oral surgeon. Flexibility is key.

“You need to be able to say, ‘Yes, we can see your patient now. They might have to wait for about half an hour when they get here, but we’ll be okay,’” Berman says. “And then you have to put the gears in motion in your office as far as how to manage that patient a half an hour from now.”

Patients who are truly having an emergency, Berman adds, don’t mind waiting to have their dental needs met.

A specialty practice is dynamic, Berman explains, and staff need to understand that. From the time they clock in until the time they clock out, things will not be predictable. But if you can accommodate the general dentists and the patients they refer, you and your practice will generate a tremendous amount of goodwill.

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