Weathering the Economic Storm
Fred Joyal, CEO, 1-800-DENTIST
The tendency for most small businesses during an economic downturn is to cut advertising and marketing. This is certainly true for many dental practices, but it can really cause your practice to stall at a critical time. I appreciate that it’s stressful when patients start coming in more slowly and spending less, and advertising seems to be less effective, and that it seems like the only place to cut is in the promotional expense, otherwise you have to lay people off or downsize in some way.
There is an alternative. You can still keep your revenue up, and perhaps increase it, if you focus on some typical weaknesses in a practice. The first is the telephone. It’s estimated that 50% of new patients are lost in the first phone call. Imagine if you could just improve that by 10% or 20%. And that isn’t really that hard. The first step is to let your staff know how important it is to get every new patient in, and that happens when you are friendly, compassionate, and non-judgmental on the phone. Don’t treat the phone as a distraction, treat it as the aorta of your practice, which it is. Get those new patients in right away, even offer to put the dentist on the phone for a minute or two with a new potential patient. All you’re trying to do is increase the number of people who show up to fill those gaps that are starting to show up in your appointment book.
The next step is to make sure that every single patient knows everything that you do. Through newsletters, e-mail, and phone calls to pending treatment cases to make sure they have all their questions answered, every communication should nudge your patients closer to acceptance. The great marketing mistake that most dentists make is assuming that all of their existing patients know everything the practice has to offer. I guarantee that this is not true. I haven’t met a dentist yet who hasn’t had a patient who showed up having done a major cosmetic procedure somewhere else, or Invisalign, or whitening, simply because they didn’t know their dentist did it, and responded to advertising from someone else. Don’t let this happen to you. Repetition is critical in advertising. That’s why you see ads over and over again. People don’t pay attention until they’re interested. You have to stay in their consciousness until the moment they care.
It’s also important to realize that in difficult financial times, going to the dentist is not convenient or even possible for many people during normal business hours. Think about closing on Mondays and opening on Saturdays, or having early morning or evening hours. This could add 10 to 12 hours a week of availability for your patients. That’s almost a third of the hours most practices are open. There’s no need to work more hours, just work more convenient hours for your patients.
During this period I would consider taking more insurance plans. I would also be very diligent about making sure your patients take full advantage of their coverage each year. This means a year-end reminder. Certainly you want to be doing as much covered dentistry as possible at this point. And make sure all of your patients are aware of your financing options. Some may need critical care, and have the ability to pay over time, and you can help them get started now.
What successful businesses do when times get tight is advertise more. They know that their competitors are backing off, and they also know that the only long-term solution is to keep driving customers into their business, even if it costs more to do so. Track your results closely so that you don’t waste money, but be mindful that new patients, even if they don’t spend a lot of money right away, are the bedrock of your future prosperity.
This is also the time to start seeing more emergencies. While many dentists shun emergencies, the fact is that as people procrastinate more and more in tough economic times, the primary driver for them to see a dentist is discomfort. Be there for them, and very often they can and will find the money to get themselves properly restored once you have solved their immediate need. Dentistry suddenly moves up as a priority when pain is involved. Even if the restorative work takes place gradually over the next year or two, get started. You’re going to need to treat people next year, too.
In busy times it’s easy to just chug along without putting a lot of effort into internal marketing or maximizing your results from advertising. Now is not that time. Now is when you should be actively contacting and informing your patients, and as other dentists cut their ad budgets, you can become more visible with your own. Remember, you’re in this for the long haul, and people need to take care of their teeth. Refine everything you’re doing in your practice and you’ll come out ahead. Keep putting money into marketing, and even if it gets you fewer patients, it’s still better than no new patients. And with your team focused on the telephone as a priority, and making sure every single patient knows the services you offer, you can weather this economic storm and strengthen your patient base, and when the economy improves then you will be among the first to enjoy the recovery.
About the Author
Chief Executive Officer
Los Angeles, California