How to fail (and succeed) at marketing

February 14, 2018

Marketing a dental practice won't always be successful - Dr. Jill Sonner shares how one big failure helped to create success later on.

I had the opportunity to take a look into the practice of an extremely successful dentist recently. Dr. Jill Sonner is one of the owners of Renaissance Dental Center in Raleigh, NC.

She and her partners have been attracting more than 50 new patients per month to their high-end dental practice. If you know anything about Raleigh, you will know that this is a very competitive market and that this type of new patient volume - especially for high-end procedures - is rare. Obviously I wanted some answers from Jill, and she was happy to oblige.

Dr. Sonner, can you give us a little bit of your background by way of introduction?

Sure! As you mentioned, my name is Dr. Jill Sonner. I have been practicing dentistry since 2004 and purchased my practice in 2009. I love dentistry, but for me, the most exciting part of dentistry is being able interact with people and create an environment that people love being a part of.

Not everyone who is running a thriving dental practice always makes the right decisions, so can you point out a marketing strategy that you tried in the past that did not yield the results you were hoping for?

Definitely! In the earlier days of my practice, I partnered with a local news station. It was a one-year contract that cost $8,000 per month (ouch, that hurts to say out loud), and we did not get a single patient that came in directly from those efforts.

Wow! That sounds like a painful learning experience!

Yes, it definitely was! But you said something important. It was a learning experience. I've talked to dentists who have done something like I did, and decided that because they had such a bad experience or because they got taken for so much money they are better off doing no marketing. That is the worst thing you can do!

So what were your takeaways from this experience? What did you change because of this? Obviously you didn't just give up.

We had to start thinking like our ideal patients. We had to do what WE knew would work rather than letting ourselves be convinced by a good sales person. We started tracking our progress and paying much closer attention to our numbers.

So what are some of the marketing efforts you have implemented that have provided the best ROI?

Like I mentioned earlier, we put a lot of focus into creating a practice where people would enjoy coming. We are always upbeat and positive and we have invested a lot into ourselves and into our team to make sure that the experience will always be amazing. This has generated a lot of internal referrals.

Knowing the difference between patients not being disappointed and patients being extremely happy is important. The difference is not always vocalized, but it definitely manifests itself in patient referrals. If my dentist didn't do anything to make me upset, I would probably continue going there until something better came along, but I probably wouldn't go out of my way to tell my friends about it. When my dentist is amazing, I am not going to go anywhere else, and you better believe I will tell my friends about it. At least this has been our experience.

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That’s great advice! I hear that in several of the interviews that I do with successful practices, so I know it is extremely important to figure out how to create that experience for patients. Is there anything else you are doing by way of marketing, or are all of your new patients coming from word-of-mouth referrals?

We do online marketing as well and have had a lot of success with that. We also advertize with a local magazine that we know a lot of our patients and ideal patients read.

How did you find your online marketing company? I know this can be a really hard choice for people.

Talk to your peers! Talk to people who are doing really well in markets similar to yours. I think a lot of people just ask anyone and everyone, but it is important to understand that your market might be a lot different from a friend's market. Find people who are attracting the type of patients that you want to attract in a market that is similar to yours. Get as many details as you can from them, and use those to make your decision.

That is wise advice! One last question before we wrap up. If you had to start from ground zero tomorrow, what would your business plan look like?

If I am being completely honest, I would never start from ground zero again. I would buy an existing practice. My strategy to grow that practice would be similar to what it is now though. Treat people right! Create a place where people are happy to be! Market in places and for things that are likely to draw the attention of the people that you want in your practice!