First impressions count

Ask most dentists how much they spend on marketing each year and the response is likely to be a few hundred pounds on Yellow Pages advertising, and maybe a bit extra to keep the website going. But in reality, an average practice expenditure is around £30,000.

So why the big discrepancy? It’s all about how we see marketing. To most dentists, marketing is synonymous with advertising. But marketing is the means of establishing you’re practice’s image in the minds of your existing and future customers.

Refurbishing the practice, for example, isn’t just for the benefit of the staff – it’s to improve the patient’s image of your practice. Investing in new technology isn’t just about buying the latest dental gadgets – it enhances the services you offer, and helps your patients to perceive you as being a modern practice.

Let’s take a look at all the aspects of your practice through your patients’ eyes, and how the application of a little marketing will affect the way that they think of you.

Successful, modern practices know they need to create an excellent first impression. The first thing their patients see is the outside of their practice, so they make sure it always looks clean, smart and attractive. They realised long ago that an exterior with peeling paint, rubbish in the front garden and an old-fashioned, unpolished brass plate by the front door, gives the impression of a dental practice, which has a similar old-fashioned approach and little pride in its work.

The same theory should be applied for the inside of the practice. Stained carpets and old-fashioned décor gives a bad impression, so make sure that the reception area is light and airy with comfy, modern seating.

Your reception area offers you a great opportunity to create some ‘wow’ factor for your practice. More and more of our clients are putting a huge amount of effort into making their reception area really special, by anticipating the needs and desires of their particular type of client. For example, some family oriented practices with lots of young patients have invested in Playstations and buy in the latest games. As long as headphones are also supplied, this keeps both the children and their parents happy! Similarly, practices with a holistic view of dentistry have made their reception area calm and relaxing areas to be, by installing low lighting, comfortable chairs and a soothing water feature.

When it comes to the treatment room, your patients are unlikely to know enough to judge whether the equipment is modern or not. But they will be able to tell if it is clean and well-looked after. They will also form opinions based on your manner towards them, how gentle you are while treating them, and even how you and your dental nurse interact together.

Your patients are unlikely to know much about dental equipment, but they will notice if you get in a piece of equipment that makes a real difference to their treatment. They’ll appreciate the fact that you have invested in something which helps to make their dental treatment less painful or more convenient, and are quite likely to tell their friends and family about it, therefore marketing it for you.

The way you and your staff interact with your clients strongly influences their image of your practice and can make or break the business. Successful practices are those which realise that their receptionists are their public face, and so ensure that they are knowledgeable and informative, polite and friendly, as well as looking smart and presentable. Your staff need to know that having a bad day is no excuse for being rude or impatient – even if it is a one-off the client won’t know that, and will not appreciate being treated badly.

All the points mentioned will help to form an overall impression of your practice, one that will stay with the patient until you do something pretty radical to change it, and one that they will also pass onto their friends and family. So, given the original aim of marketing – which is to build a reputation and image that appeals to your target clients – it seems clear that marketing is at the core of your business, reflected in everything that you and your staff do each day, and without it you wouldn’t have a business.

To gain the most benefit from the £30,000 that you already spend on marketing, you need to let people know about it. You need to make sure that your patients know that you have invested in new equipment and explain to them how it will improve the standard of dental care they receive. You need to let them know about training courses you and your staff have attended, and what difference it will make to the services you offer.

And you should let them know when you refurbish the practice – don’t just assume they will notice, tell them you have done it and let them know what the benefits will be. If you want to attract new patients, you also need to let them know about your practice – what services you offer, what your ethos is, and why they should choose you above any other dentist in the area. The way you communicate will play a key role in your success, and further influence the perception that customers have of you.

This is why the most successful practices set aside some extra marketing budget – to pay for your methods of communication. We’re not talking about the difference between spending £500 and £5,000 on marketing. We’re talking about the difference between the £30,000 you currently spend and £35,000. And that £5,000 – just 15% extra – can make or break your practice.

Patient newsletters can be a successful marketing tool. They provide a perfect vehicle for keeping your patients informed about what is happening in the practice. Patients will feel valued because you have taken the time and trouble to communicate with them. They are more likely to ask about new services and procedures that you have featured in the newsletter. And your practice will rise in their estimation, which will often prompt referrals to friends and family.

In fact, for practices which are happy with the size of their patient lists, but that want to encourage uptake of higher-income treatments, a patient newsletter is the ideal way of achieving their goals. Practice leaflets, websites and patient welcome packs have a similar effect.

Professionally produced, comprehensive patient welcome packs that include a patient information/treatment leaflet, fee guide, payment plan description, medical history form and smile analysis, all housed in a high quality folder, are likely to cost around £5,000 for 2,000 copies (£2 to £3 each).

They are usually sent to anyone who calls to enquire about joining your practice, and can encourage the ‘wow’ factor, which strongly influences the recipient, prompting them to choose your practice above others they have contacted.

Many dentists regularly complete detailed clinical audits, but the most successful also regularly carry out marketing audits. They make sure they ask new and existing patients how they heard of the practice or treatment, and log the answers. They regularly look at the results of their marketing activity, and adjust it if necessary to reap the maximum rewards. And they regularly give their marketing communications a fresh look, making sure their brand image is kept up to date and on message.

Many dentists still find it hard to justify spending so much on a pack, and yet a look at the figures below makes it clear that welcome packs can still more than pay for themselves. These figures assume that the proportion of new enquirers who become loyal new patients is currently 40%, rising to 70% after introduction of the new patient pack.

There are also lots of hidden benefits in attracting new business through marketing. Your investments in equipment and training, for example, are put to better use and therefore cost less per patient. Staff morale is likely to rise as the business becomes more successful, and you ensure a brighter future for your practice. So, the next time you start thinking about marketing in terms of cost or income generator, remember – you are already investing thousands of pounds in marketing.To make sure that expenditure reaps the maximum benefit for the practice, you just need to spend a little extra on communication – the results will speak for themselves.

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