Why patient referrals are key to growing your practice

September 6, 2017

One dentist explains why he relies on positive and negative feedback from patients to grow his office.

I recently sat down with Dr. Bret Osborne from Osborne Dental in South Jordan, Utah. I first met Bret when I was working for a company called Dental Intel. I remember he was working in a small clinic with just two operatories at that time. I am convinced that Dr. Osborne is as nice of a person as you will find anywhere. I recently reconnected with Dr. Osborne and found out that he has been able to grow out of that two-op practice and into a larger, nicer space with five equipped operatories and room for a few more. I immediately asked if I could sit down and interview him about his growth strategies.

You have been able to grow tremendously over the last few years. What is your number one strategy?

Our number one strategy has been and probably always will be getting patient referrals. We always want patients to be having a good enough experience that they are willing to tell their friends and family about us.

Tell me a little more about that because I think every dentist wants more patient referrals. How do you get patients to send friends and family?

I have always said that you don't know what you don't know. I think that kind of goes without saying though. We have applied this concept in our dental practice by asking how the patient is doing or how their appointment was at multiple points in the office. If you are taking good care of patients and you ask them how their appointment has been so far (if I ask), or how their appointment was (if the front office asks at the end), you might be surprised by how many people have nice things to say about the office or the staff. We piggyback on that enthusiasm to get patient referrals.

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Can you give me an example of how that would look?

Sure! In fact, I think you walked me through something similar to this when we worked with you at Dental Intel. Here is how that would look:

The patient would say something along the lines of, "Oh, my appointment has been great! Everyone is so nice here!"

I would respond with something like this:

"I am so glad to hear that! We really do try to take excellent care of each and every patient. You know, patients telling family and friends about their experience is one of the main ways that our practice grows. We would love if you would share your experience with your family and friends too!"

It does not always go exactly like that, but it typically follows the same outline.

That sounds simple enough. I know a lot of people give referral incentives. Is that something that you do?

Well, yes, and no. We always make a point to try to exceed expectations, so we try to get them to send family and friends without telling them we are going to give them a gift. Then we send them a gift if they refer someone and they are even more excited. As long as we treat their family member or friend well, we have seen the referral rate increase after we send a thank you gift that was not expected.

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What percentage of your patients do you get from patient referrals, and how many per month do you get on average?

We typically get around 60 percent of our patients from referrals. Our average this year is 17 referrals per month.

And what kind of investment are you making to get those referrals?

We usually pay out around $60 per new patient between the gift we give to the referrer and the welcome gift that we give to the new patient.

So, it sounds like you have another 10 new patients per month or so coming from other sources if referrals make up about 60 percent of your new patients. Where are those patients coming from?

We get one or two each month coming from insurances, and the rest come from online either because they saw our website or our reviews.

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Is that something that you work on proactively? Or do they just find it?

We use a company called Dental Business Builders. We have been working with them for a little over six months. and that has helped us start to drive traffic from our website. We didn't get anything from online before that.

Have you had a good experience with them?

Yes, my experience with them has been good, although I didn't use anything before, so I don't have anything to compare it to. They are very responsive to questions, and our leads from our website have been steadily increasing.

Ok, so you have been doing this practice ownership for a while and you have done very well at growing a small practice. What is some advice you would give to someone just starting out?

If I had to start over again, I would invest more effort into figuring out what patients like and making sure that they were having good experiences. I used to be afraid to ask patients about their experience because I was afraid they might have negative feedback. Once I figured out that I could use negative feedback to improve rather than taking it as a personal attack, we were able to get our patient experience fine-tuned. This meant better patient retention and more patient referrals. I would definitely say to start there since those have been the two major factors in our practice growth so far.