Getting the message across

Image, as regular readers of Blue Horizons articles will be aware, is vital to a practice’s success. To your patients, the image your practice carries the same impact as the quality of service and dentistry you offer.

Therefore if your image is that of a modern, high-class practice, patients will assume your dentistry will be of a similar quality. If your practice is a little down-at-heel, then patients will think your services are too.

Your practice image goes far beyond the bricks and mortar of your surgery though. It covers everything that the patient will see, hear and experience from their very first contact with the practice and throughout their treatment. This includes the service they receive from your staff, your chair-side manner and those little extras such as free drinks and the option to watch DVDs in the surgery.

Your image is projected by your patient communications – everything from your standard mailing letters to printed literature. These can often go unchecked and unchanged by the practice for years, which can mean that an out-dated image is unwittingly being portrayed.

Today’s most successful practices, however, ensure that their communications are properly worded and designed so they not only convey information, but also motivate patients to take action. This can include considering new treatment options and organising a consultation or referring friends and family to the practice.

In this article, I am going to help you evaluate your patient communications, point out common mistakes and show you how to turn each communication with your patients in to a great chance to generate fees.

The first step is to collect a hard copy of every piece of patient communication you have, from standard letters to printed literature. Make sure you include any leaflets you hand out that are provided by product suppliers – to patients, these are inextricably linked to your practice image.

Identify any gaps in the range that you have available. You should have all the routine correspondence items, plus letters to re-energise dormant patients, prompt patient referrals and to accompany any brochures or newsletters you send out.

These days, unless you are primarily an NHS or NHS-style practice, you need to have a patient newsletter, a practice leaflet and welcome pack. These are quickly becoming the norm for private practices, and if yours is the only one in the area that doesn’t bother with them, your patients will wonder why. And they may well assume that it’s because you don’t particularly want to communicate with them, and so go to a practice that does.

Make sure you have some form of printed literature that covers all the treatments you offer, particularly the cosmetic ones. For example, I recently visited a practice and while I was in reception a patient asked for some literature describing implants. The practice had nothing to give her – no doubt she went elsewhere and the practice lost around £2,000.

If you apply the same issue to other treatments such as whitening and veneers, it is easy to see how professional literature can make you tens of thousands of pounds each year. (And conversely, how not having the literature can cost you a similar amount).

Review the style, content and design of all your printed materials. You need to have a consistent image and feel throughout. At a basic level, this means ensuring that you use the same logo and colour scheme for each item. The design of each item should be consistent with the others – for example, you should not have one leaflet with lots of rounded corners and circles, and another that is very graphic and angular.

Photos should also have a similar tone throughout. If you are using photographs of people, they should reflect the type of patient your practice treats in terms of age, lifestyle and even race.

Don’t forget the text too – sometimes practices achieve a lovely informal, friendly tone in their newsletters, only to counteract it with a very stiff and formal covering letter. Ideally, you should try to acquire some literature from another leading practice that has a similar outlook to yours. You need to benchmark against the current ‘best in class’, since it is safe to assume that a high-quality image will become the norm for successful practices over the coming years.

Any extra investment will be worthwhile, as the literature will have the best possible effect on existing and potential patients and will also be less likely to date as quickly. Ask someone who is not closely involved with the practice to give their opinion on your literature too. Often it is easier for a fresh pair of eyes to spot anomalies that you might have simply become used to.

Finally, remember that all your communications should have a clear purpose. Your patients need to know exactly what you are trying to tell them without having to wade through waffle or technical jargon.

Ten things to avoid

1. Do not send out anything which conflicts with your practice image – this will simply confuse patients and muddy any messages you are trying to convey.

2. Do not use literature that doesn’t have your own practice branding, such as that produced by suppliers. (An inked stamp or sticker on the back does not count as practice branding). These weaken your image.

3. Dental jargon and technical terms only mean something to those in the business. Patients will not understand most, if any, of them and will switch off.

4. Old-fashioned language will make your practice appear stuffy and patients will think similarly of your dentistry.

5. When creating your patient communications, don’t go for the cheapest option. This doesn’t necessarily mean going for the most expensive deal, just choosing the way that best reflects your practice image.

6. Don’t go for the hard sell – it just puts patients off. You need to nurture an idea through regular communication.

7. Don’t limit your literature to high-end treatments. Patients want a good, well-rounded mix of information. This is true in the case for patient newsletters. Include genuine good advice on oral health issues and unbiased summaries of the various treatment options available.

8. Don’t give too much detail about treatments or focus on the features of your fantastic new piece of equipment. The former can be scary, the latter dull – tell patients instead of the benefits treatments carry for them.

9. Dancing teeth or grinning molars are very dated and should be avoided at all costs.

10. Don’t assume patients are happy with the communications you currently use just because they have put up with it until now. Your communication needs to be at least as good as, and preferably better than other competitor practices.

Obviously, the main reason for producing practice literature is to market your services, but there are other ways in which you can further boost your chances of success via your patient communication.

One very simple method is to put a ‘PS’ on the bottom of your letters. This can remind people of an offer you are running, or a service which you provide. The fact that this brief message appears at the end of the letter, and separate from the rest of it, means it will make a bigger impact than it would if it were buried in the middle of the text. The other high-impact place is right at the start of the letter, so don’t waste that with a long lead-in to the main message.

If there is a potential sales opportunity attached to your communication, make sure you follow it up with a polite telephone call. For example, you may have contacted dormant patients with a letter reminding them of the importance of regular dental care, and asking them to call you to make an appointment.

This should be followed up about ten days later with a call to the dormant patient, saying that they should have received a letter from you, and offering to make an appointment for them. The way this is worded is vital. ‘You don’t want to make an appointment, do you?’ gives the patient the chance to say no thanks. ‘We have some spaces available next week, when is the best time for you?’ is far more positive and in most cases will result in an appointment.

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