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Priming the Marketing Pipeline
Follow these strategies for receiving, converting, and retaining prospective new patients.
There’s a common problem with much of the advice given to dentists about how to market their practices. Namely, marketing is often talked about as if it’s a singular event, as if there’s a sole effort that can be a marketing magic bullet and spontaneously cause the practice to begin to grow. Fortunately or unfortunately, in reality, marketing is much more of an ongoing process, and doing it well requires a long-term, strategic approach. After all, when the goal is sustainable progress over time—rather than a quick burst of temporary success—it’s easy to see that growing a dental practice is a marathon, not a sprint.
When it comes to bringing in new patients, there are plenty of services and advertising mediums that can help increase dentists’ new patient flow. But before turning to them, it’s important to first make sure the practice is prepared to receive and convert those prospective new patients—and more importantly—to retain them.
Here’s a helpful analogy. Imagine all new patient sources as a giant faucet. Through increased active marketing efforts, the flow can be adjusted from a trickle (new patient flow that comes naturally from casual word of mouth) to a steady stream, and even up to a gush. However, just as with a real faucet, an exertion of force—in this case, time, money, and energy—is required to turn on this marketing faucet. Unfortunately, time, money, and energy are among the practice’s most limited resources. So, before applying that effort and investing in marketing channels that will increase new patient flow, it’s critical for dentists to first examine how well they are catching the water that is already naturally coming out and what they have underneath that marketing faucet. Is it a nice solid bucket? Or one with big gaping holes in it?
Dentists need to watch out for common “holes in the bucket,” those often-overlooked issues that allow patients to drain out of the practice unnoticed, or worse, never make it in at all, squandering both passive and active marketing efforts. Some of these “holes” may be readily apparent, such as an unhappy or simply introverted employee who has been put charge of answering the phones. Others are less obvious and may be unique to a specific practice. At the most basic level, there are certain critical success factors—baseline clinical, operational, and management elements—that any highly functioning dental practice should have in place before committing to any major marketing expenditures.
New Patient Skills
In many offices, the person with the least experience is tasked with answering the phone. The problem with this is that the phone is one of the main conduits for new patients, and the initial phone call from a prospective new patient is an integral and exceedingly delicate element in the success of any marketing campaign. Seemingly simple things like being appropriately friendly, praising the patient for making the decision to call, answering questions, addressing concerns without turning off the caller, and (gasp) actually asking for the appointment are real front-desk skills that must be taught properly, reinforced regularly, and practiced purposefully. Many front offices also wait too long to get new patients in, and schedule them weeks out, forgetting how easy it is for patients to slip back into avoidance mode after just a few days. Fortunately, these front-desk conversion challenges can be addressed through effective training and the implementation of some simple new-patient rules: Always answer the phone quickly (even during lunch), invite every single caller to make an appointment, and schedule new patient visits within 2 to 3 days, even when it’s not an emergency.
Conversations About Cost
Many practices also find it difficult to talk to new patients about fees and insurance. This can be solved in a number of ways. First, if these conversations are not the dentist’s strength, a staff member who excels at them should be charged with being the go-to financial representative for the practice. Putting someone who feels comfortable with these conversations front and center will help patients feel more comfortable, too. It can also be helpful to offer an in-house membership program as an alternative to dental insurance. This type of plan can alleviate many new-patient concerns about price, while also saving the practice the expense and hassles of insurance companies. Just as with front-desk verbal skills, the important thing is to have a standard approach in place for dealing with price and insurance concerns, thereby eliminating one of the major reasons new patients leave a dental office.
Treatment planning and presentation is fraught with challenges. First, the hand-off from hygienist/assistant to doctor needs to be smooth and seamless. Then, there’s the danger of over-presenting and scaring a new patient away. In any given practice, there may or may not be a dedicated treatment coordinator who reviews treatment options, costs, and benefits with patients. Some offices are extremely proficient at these processes. However, most could see big increases in their treatment acceptance and revenue by cross-training the entire dental team and making sure case presentation and acceptance skills are well-practiced and in line with the practice’s overall treatment philosophy. Again, practice management companies can offer excellent training for dentists and their teams that can have a big impact on optimal patient dialogue and overall production as a result.
One of the biggest, solvable issues in most dental practices is recall. Regular patient communication—including appointment reminders, newsletters, and e-mails to dormant patients—can significantly tighten recall, as well as reduce no-shows and cancellations. Automated electronic patient communication services send patient communications and appointment confirmations automatically from the practice software via e-mail and/or text message. This is a highly effective, turn-key way to keep patients coming in regularly and accepting more treatment plans. What’s more, this type of service provider may also offer other online marketing tools, such as website design, social media messaging, gathering online reviews, and search engine optimization. These services have become so cost-effective—often the savings on appointment reminder postage alone can easily offset the expense for an entire electronic patient communications system—that many dental practices are adding them to their marketing arsenal and freeing their staff up for other pressing office tasks.
When trying to identify what steps to take to ensure the practice’s marketing success, it’s important to remember that while there are a myriad of ways to attract new patients to the practice, unless the practice is well prepared to handle them at every step, a large portion of that investment can go to waste. By focusing on what happens to prospective patients once they’ve connected with the practice, and improving the systems that get them in, keep them in, and produce revenue, dentists can set their businesses up for long-lasting, consistent growth. That is the sign of truly effective dental practice marketing.
About the Author
Naomi Cooper | Ms. Cooper is the chief marketing consultant for Pride Institute and the president of Minoa Marketing. Naomi works one-on-one with dentists who are looking to develop a cohesive marketing approach. For information about Pride Institute’s seminars and marketing consulting services, call 800-925-2600 or visit www.prideinstitute.com. Ms. Cooper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.