Balancing marketing the practice to attract new patients and communication efforts to retain existing patients
Marketing: Perhaps the most dreaded word to dentists—and maybe the most misunderstood. When picturing dental-practice marketing, many practitioners envision online campaigns or expensive ads—if they envision anything at all. For many clinicians, it’s hard to even know where to start.
“Dentists were not set up to run a practice leaving dental school,” says Gary Kadi, founder of Next Level Practice. “And so many are frustrated by the fact that they have really great clinical skills, but then they have this monster that they're staring at called their business. But it's not a default way that their mind works because the mind of a dentist to be a great dentist, not an entrepreneur. But you have to be both.”
And unfortunately, this means tackling the marketing beast.
“Docs who are interested in taking an entrepreneurial approach to their profession can no longer avoid some of the business issues if they’re going to compete,” says Michael Goldberg, DDS, chief strategist for Practice Perfect Systems. “And it’s just so much more important now to understand the basics of business, including things like marketing.”
And it can be tricky to understand. Successful marketing goes beyond sending out mailers or spending thousands on Google keywords: To execute a successful marketing plan, you have to really understand your patients, both current and future. Because without one, you’ll have very few of the other.
Know your audience
When it comes to attracting new patients, identifying what sort of patients you want is the first step. Rather than wasting money on buckshot marketing tactics that rarely work, target the type of patients that would be attracted to your practice and market accordingly.
“You have to know who your demographic is,” says Laci Phillips Newland, a practice-management speaker and coach and founding partner at Practice Dynamics. “For example, the print marketing is coming back for certain demographics, because they're not into the social media anymore—we have those communities, those patients who have left the social media platforms, and they want to see things differently now. If that is who you’re targeting, you need to know those trends. We’ve got to do a little bit of research before just jumping in.”
While researching those trends may seem daunting, dentists need not look far from home for the answers. A gold mine of information on how to attract future patients can come from the existing information you know about your current patients. This information, at your fingertips in your practice-management software, can help narrow down what’s working and what’s not.
“Run some reports in your software and figure out okay, who's my patient base, where are they coming from, how are they finding us,” Phillips Newland says. “I’m always shocked by how many dental practices don’t track where their referrals are coming from. If you don’t do that, you’re just throwing your marketing dollars out, instead of using it to reach the audience you want to be reaching.”
Once you’ve identified your market, you need to address how to alleviate barriers to care. This means understanding what could prevent patients from coming to your practice, and offering an experience that overcomes these challenges.
“Remember the top 3 reasons people don’t see a dentist? Cost, time, and fear,” says Greg Pellegrom, cofounder and CEO of SmileSnap. “If you address fees, even a general range, people view it as a sign of trust and can make informed decisions without wasting your time or theirs. Conducting consults and/or visits digitally also saves everyone time and is perfectly acceptable in today’s world.Anyone that has anxiety over the dentist can engage from the comfort of their own home and you can build trust by nurturing them along the way."
Nurturing that trust is critical to attract the patients you want—but also to keep the patients that you’ve worked so hard to get. The value return on the cost of marketing to new patients will be low if those patients don’t come back. This means you can’t forget to give current patients the attention they deserve to encourage customer loyalty and repeat care.
Build report with current patients
In fact, building relationships with your current patients may be more valuable than attracting new ones. Instead of focusing on new patients, Kadi recommends optimizing the patients you already have and focusing on increased case acceptance instead.
“Get off the new patient treadmill,” Kadi says. “Existing patients are the real riches, and the real wealth that exist in a practice. What most practices do is they throw new patients into a business model where only 20 percent of their patients are coming back twice in their hygiene department. And then only 28 percent of their patients accept treatment. So, when you look at those numbers, if practices just went to work on their patient retention and increasing their case acceptance, they would be so busy that they wouldn't even need new patients. You should be thinking case acceptance, patient retention and then new patients.”
Building these relationships to ensure case acceptance and patient retention are high means giving the patients a reason to come back. This includes providing quality care with other incentives—there are probably many practitioners in the area who can do top-notch dentistry, but what makes your practice stand out?
“Patients want to know why they should come back,” Kadi says. “You need to stop telling transactionally and sell transformatively. You need to position the dentist as a means to some other end. Then you’re going to be able to close the larger cases and people are going to know why they’re coming back.”
Essentially, Kadi explains, you need to provide a higher value proposition to patients. Instead of encouraging them to come back for a cleaning, dentists should be educating patients on why that cleaning is important because of oral-systemic health. If practitioners tie that cleaning to the patients’ medical records, and explain how poor oral health can affect overall health, you’re placing more value on care while simultaneously providing valuable information and building patient trust.
“You have to instill this methodology into this,” Kadi says. “There are 4 levels of dentistry: Emergency, maintenance, optimal and complete health. So, the closer you can get to complete health in your hygiene department, you can go from 20 percent of the patients coming back to 80 percent.”
To get these increased numbers, you also have to build patient trust. One way to do this is to engage with patients and get them invested in you, your team, and your practice. Good communication can go a long way in building these relationships.
“I like incorporating personality into the communications I have with my patients,” Dr Goldberg says. “In my practice, we sent out an email newsletter on a regular basis twice a month. They were on timely topics, but they incorporated personal issues as well so the more a patient knows about their doctor and their doctor’s office’s, team, the more they will connect and trust. And trust-based marketing is really, really important.”
Break that trust though, and you’ll lost patients.
“Don’t give people a reason to look elsewhere, or they will,” Pellegrom says. “After you effectively market and cater to your target demographic to acquire the right type of patient, then it’s up to the practice to deliver on exceptional patient experience and outcome in order to retain them.”
And if patient retention isn’t where you want it, you need to figure out why. Where was trust broken? What trends do you see in one-time patients? Which patients need to be reengaged?Again, you don’t need to look far to find that information: It’s all in your practice numbers.
“You need to look at your practice data,” Phillip Newland says. “How many patients have we actually lost and when was the last time we saw them? Then it’s about reaching out and making those videos or sending out text messages or emails—or maybe even a postcard—to bring them back in.”
Use your patients’ voices
Taking the time to build positive relationships with patients that keep them coming back obviously benefits your current bottom line, but it can also lead to growth. A happy patient is more likely to make a recommendation to friends, leading to referrals and organically increase your patient base. Marrying this relationship between current and prospective patients should be every practice’s ultimate goal.
“I think that there’s an opportunity to expand the practice by creating missionaries of your practice from your patients to continuously populate your practice,” Dr Goldberg says. “You do want to ask for referrals and you want to tell people that you're accepting new patients.”
While it may feel awkward to approach your patients about referrals, it can be invaluable. For some practitioners, it may feel self-serving, benefiting from the investment you’ve made into your current patients is a no-cost, simple way to gain new ones. There’s no reason not to leverage the relationships the practice has built into future new relationships.
“When you take care of your customers, you automatically get a wealth you couldn’t get anywhere else,” Kadi says. “On a good day we save smiles, but on a great day we change lives. That’s what you have to bring to your patients, current and future.”