Encouraging Patients to Repeat and Refer
Internal marketing includes every step of the patient experience
Tara Hardin, DDS
Since joining her father's practice in Mason, Ohio, in 2000, Tara Hardin, DDS, an accredited fellow of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry (AACD) and the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD), has found immense success by utilizing internal marketing to grow the business and increase case acceptance for elective procedures. Inside Dentistry recently joined her to discuss the importance of this strategy, and she shared some of the more creative tactics that she has utilized.
Inside Dentistry (ID): How do you define internal marketing?
Tara Hardin, DDS (TH): Internal marketing refers to the marketing that I do inside my practice. These activities include things such as training all team members to provide an incredible experience, handing out gifts, and asking patients for referrals and reviews. Many of these concepts are outlined in the book Everything Is Marketing by Fred Joyal. Internal marketing includes everything from the cleanliness and smell of the office to sending flowers to patients who are having a bad day or undergoing cancer treatment. I try to show my patients not only how much I care about my dentistry but also how much I care about them personally. Humanizing ourselves and providing incredible dental care with the best technology is the best way to internally market your practice.
ID: So, it is both marketing to your own patients and also through them?
TH: Yes. My patients are already here and already support me. They trust me when compared with the patients that we reach with external marketing, which requires building relationships with people who do not know you and trust you. If I tell my friend to go to a specific McDonald's because it has the best burger in the area, they will probably try it even though we know that the food at all McDonalds locations is essentially the same. That is why asking our current patients for referrals is very important. I consider that to be the best internal marketing.
ID: How can dentists invest in internal marketing, and how much should they invest?
TH: Everyone has their own number; however, investing in internal marketing is something that all dentists are constantly doing and sometimes don't even realize it. Buying a new scanner is investing in internal marketing because of how you present the scanner to patients as a more comfortable, accurate way to obtain impressions. The same goes for oral cancer screening devices. Everything that you do should be framed with an explanation. You are telling patients how you set yourself apart while subtly marketing your practice. Having a highly trained staff and pursuing continuous learning can be considered internal marketing efforts as well.
ID: Why is internal marketing particularly important for a business such as yours that is built largely on elective procedures?
TH: People who are searching for elective procedures want to feel comfortable and know that they have come to the right place. An elective procedure will require them to pay out of pocket, and there might not be a need, so you have to create a want. When you create a want, and they walk into a beautiful modern practice and see friendly people, they want to buy. When you are trying to gain treatment acceptance for elective procedures, you need to provide a different experience for patients, but you also need the credentials to back it up. I completed my fellowships with the AACD and the AGD, and I have taken thousands of hours of continuing education. Patients buy elective procedures from dentists who have credentials beyond dental school, a beautiful facility, and a friendly team. It is like a recipe; you need to keep adding the right elements that create value for patients.
ID: What are some simple, creative internal marketing strategies that have worked well for you?
TH: I have a large KöR® Whitening poster in the office. A large piece like that generates questions regarding the process. When I send patients home with KöR Whitening products, I give them a branded insulated lunch tote to keep the products cold. We also have custom sunglasses with the practice's name on them that we provide to patients during procedures, and we allow them to keep those. One patient sent me a picture of himself wearing the sunglasses while posing with the commissioner of Major League Baseball at an "MLB at Field of Dreams" game, so I was able to share that on my social media channels. I also provide patients with little plastic referral cards that serve as gift cards for new patients as well as a referral program. These often work well for getting patients to refer their spouses, which is so important. And, of course, all of our patients leave with hygiene products in an overnight bag that has my name on it.
ID: We heard you also have had a lot of success with your "emotion-supporting dog," Mitch. How does he function as internal marketing?
TH: Most people really like dogs. Even people who have cats are drawn to pet Mitch because he is little. He perches on top of the countertop where you enter and sits there, waiting for people to come in. Patients bring him treats, and if he is not there, many will ask, "Where is Mitch today?" One woman heard him barking in the background during a call with a member of my team, and it encouraged her to come in and get treatment. She sent me a Facebook message that said, "Hands down, you have changed my whole life, and you have changed how I feel about coming to the dentist. Now, knowing that I may see Mitch is just the best thing ever. I literally heard him bark, not knowing why he was there, and it helped me relax. Amazing, wonderful, and fantastic—this describes you and all of your team. Thank you for changing my fear of going to the dentist. You are a blessing, and I hope that you truly know that you are." That was one of those messages that you receive that really confirms that you are doing things right. Mitch will sit in a patient's lap, curl up in a ball, and go to sleep. I had one patient who came in for a procedure and said, "I cannot get this done today." However, she loved Mitch, so I suggested that she carry him with her to the chair. She subsequently insisted that he stay with her throughout the procedure, even as he chewed on her shirt, and it allowed us to finish successfully. Internal marketing is about providing your patients with the ultimate dental experience, whatever that means. It can be giving them a neck pillow or noise-reducing headphones, using a DentalVibe® for painless injections, or having an emotion-supporting dog on site.
ID: How much have you seen the principle of reciprocity really work?
TH: It really works. It is unbelievable. Patients bring me gifts. I am a fee-for-service practice, but for 2 weeks in a row, patients brought me cookies from Crumbl Cookies. I could not believe that they left my practice, drove to a Crumbl Cookies store, and brought these cookies back for my team and I. Patients know I go above and beyond for them in so many ways, and they want to give back. When I send flowers to them, I always get a thank you note or text.
ID: Have you always had this attitude? What drove you to go above and beyond with internal marketing?
TH: My father started this practice. He laid the groundwork, but he did it the old way: handing the patient toothpaste and a brush. That is a very different experience from putting it all neatly in a bag that they can keep under their sink and eventually use for travel while remembering you. Creating that memorable dental experience is what I really focused on—taking everything one step further from my father's model. It is all about shaping the entire patient experience from beginning to end. Create a positive atmosphere, know how to give a painless injection, get really good at your craft, let them leave with a gift, and follow up to make sure that everything went well. Patients who have that experience will repeat and refer. The goal is to get them all to tell their friends and family members. Make it your goal for every patient to say, "I have the best dentist and this is where you need to go."