For a clinician in private practice, three things are essential to success: excellent clinical skills, quality business systems that provide real time operational information, and outstanding marketing and communication. But nobody will tell you this before you have plunged into your practice.
Healthcare practitioners from all fields will agree that their training does not prepare them for the business world. The best clinicians discover through experience that private practice is a business that demands entrepreneurial skills and commitment to succeed. You can have the best product (read clinical skills) in town, but if nobody knows about it and you can’t sell or warrant it (read market, build trust and provide the best aftercare) you will be out of business.
The larger part of my career was spent working with the NHS. Three years ago, my husband and I acquired elleven, a fully private orthodontic practice. Walking into the clinic, I had no idea that most of my time would be taken up by alien concepts such as marketing, communication and finance. The rose-coloured glasses came off very quickly, and after many hours of reading, learning and implementing managerial best practices, I am happy to say we grew elleven into a successful multidisciplinary practice.
With 95% of our qualifying dentists naively plunging into private practice, we have a situation where many are unable to maximise the value of their practice. Some, like me, spend so much time in hospital NHS practices that they are clueless about the operations aspect of their activities. The solution: include managerial basics in training at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Until then, however, private practitioners will need a sharp learning curve to attain managerial skills if they are to succeed with their business.
It took me six months in private practice to get to a point where I felt I had some traction. After three years, and the ‘Best Marketing’ award at the Private Dentistry Awards (2012), I can safely confess that helplessness and tears, my early companions, have been ousted by knowledge and confidence as I journeyed to this point. These are my six steps to success.
1. Who are you, what do you want to be?
Determine what your practice is and what makes it unique. Why are you who you are, and how does that make you different from the competition. This is your Mission Statement, and drives all your activities. Establish some unique selling points (USPs) and use them to guide your actions.
Use specific, identifiable qualities that patients will associate with your practice. ‘Nice team’, ‘polite people’ are not what you are looking for. Instead consider ‘unmatched customer service where each patient is given individualised attention from the moment they walk in through the completion of treatment’, or ‘outstanding technology that provides patients access to services through the internet, smart phones and other tools’, or something as simple as ‘responsiveness: we will immediately address your concerns and respond to you in a timely manner’.
Every member of your team has to believe in your message, and will do so more readily if included in the process. Use team meetings to brainstorm ideas and decide what makes your practice the one patients will want to visit.
2. Who is your desired patient?
New patient development is essential for practice growth. How do you target potential new patients and maximise the number that will contact you? This is your tool for targeting patients who have not yet visited your practice. How do you create exposure within the desired patient profile demographic and entice them to contact you?
To target your market, first develop a profile of your existing patient base to understand the procedures most commonly performed. Classify them by age, gender, geography and any other criteria you find relevant.
For each group, develop a marketing strategy that fits in with the practice mission but touches a concerns specific for this group. For example, invisible braces and whitening might work better on the TV screens at the local gym than ‘all on four treatment’.
Avoid jargon and keep your language simple. Your audience needs to understand what you are saying. Don’t say ‘Cerec’ but offer a benefit that they can relate to, such as ‘a crown in one day!’
There are different ways to reach your target audience. Traditionally, practices have relied on push-marketing techniques to get the message out to their target group. With the increasing use of the internet and social media, ‘pull’ techniques, where potential patients find you, also work well. A combination of the two will provide maximum coverage, with trial and error determining what specific tools give you the best return on investment.
Harness the power of the internet. The internet allows you to turn the traditional marketing dynamic on its head and, in my opinion, merits additional discussion. From my experience I have learned there are some must-haves that make a marketing strategy successful.
The practice website becomes the first point of contact and should be fresh, interactive, and targeted to the patient profile you are seeking:
• Consider ease of navigation, ability to interact, request appointments, visibility of contact information
• Prominently display new patient offers, before and after pictures and testimonials
• Provide information and illustrations of treatments
• Mailing list option: use an‘opt in box’ that will help develop database for mail shots. Protect privacy by asking only for a first name and email address
• Search optimisation – ensure your practice is local Google maps. Adwords (pay per click) can help boost new patient inquiries
• Use a good host. Your website company should provide regular summaries about the number of hits on your website so that you can compare it to the number of enquiries at reception.
• Social media – Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest – are adjunctive tools help drive the mass to your website.
• Facebook is a relationship tool for targeted advertising to generate interest in your practice with a link that accesses the more detailed website.
• Twitter is spontaneous and with catchy tweets you can quickly create interest and excitement.
• Pinterest is great for creating a photo portfolio of before and after cases (with patient consent of course), and linking them to your website.
At elleven, our website is our strongest tool, with about 70% of our patients coming from this form of marketing. As a practitioner you may find that while social media are very useful tools that keep you in real-time, they are extremely time-consuming. After a busy day at work and paying attention to other aspects of the practice operations, not many clinicians have the time or the energy to update the website or post on Facebook and Twitter.
At elleven, we have overcome this by hiring a young under- or post-graduate student who has the skills, energy and interest in keeping our social media up to date. Young people are also better tuned to the needs of a large segment of the patient population, which gives us better feedback on what our clients want.
The process does not end at reaching your target audience. When a potential patient calls the clinic, you need to pull out all the stops to make sure they come in for a consultation. Your office staff are usually the first point of contact for this patient and must be able to achieve a high rate of conversion. Every member of the office team must therefore be informed of current marketing projects and offers, and trained on how to manage new patient inquiries. They must sound interested and empathetic on the phone, be fully informed of what is at the practice, and know who to turn to when they do not have an answer to a question.
Where did you hear from us? All enquiry calls should end with this question. If you are to gauge the effectiveness of the different marketing tools used, you want to know where you get the best value for your money. Believe me, nothing in marketing is cheap, and you need to spend wisely.
The art of conversion: turn five minutes into five years. This is your job. The first five minutes of your consultation will likely be the point where the patient decides to commit to you for extended treatment. This is where you sell yourself to your patient. I like to break it down into a four-step process:
1. Awareness: tell your patients what you do, they are just not going to know.
2. Interest: create an interest, makes sure you are getting feedback.
3. Desire: present features and benefits of your treatment modalities, and what differentiates you from the others. This is when patients will want your service.
4. Action: this is the point at which the patient has decided to work with you. It is often an emotional decision, and the patient should not be encouraged to second guess themselves. Stop talking.
3. Give an unbeatable experience
Many practices forget that patients need constant reassurance that they have committed to the right clinic. Internal marketing encompasses the factors that help achieve this, ranging from practice environment and décor to concierge level service.
Invest in a treatment coordinator. At elleven, one of our best investments is our treatment coordinator, who is the greatest link between our patients and clinicians. She takes customer service to the next level, and has the time, skills and training to make each and every patient feel important. She is a new patient’s first contact and creates a personal touch for each patient. She receives them at the door, gets them their favourite drink, conducts an informed tour of the practice, introduces patients to various staff members and takes care of follow up phone calls. She is a non-clinical link to the practice and patients feel they can freely converse with her about personal and professional issues. Our treatment coordinator and website are probably our two best marketing investments.
You want your patients to talk about you. Word of mouth advertising based on personal experience provides a credible information source for potential patients. Your current patients are therefore your greatest marketing tools; look after them because you want them to say positive things about you. Some things that help build loyalty to you include:
Unexpected wows: give random gifts, have patient appreciation events. At elleven we have taken our most loyal patients to day events and also have biannual seasonal parties to show our appreciation.
Build awareness internally: have testimonial books with before and after pictures in relevant places. Use tasteful posters and brochures with your branding to increase awareness of what you do.
Stay in touch: this is a way of building relationships and influencing people. Use newsletters and email. We have a seasonal newsletter that is 50% dental information and 50% social: introducing new staff, announcing new family arrivals, pictures about recent events, celebrity information and always a seasonal tip.
Patients love talking about non-dental things. You can create a buzz by thinking outside the box. For example, send gifts for passing A-levels, or take a group of your biggest referring patients to a day out at Ascot. Find something that makes you different and worth talking about.
4. Show them you care
Successful, coordinated teamwork takes planning and practice. By having protocols in place, your staff and you can provide a quality care, excellent outcomes and a unique patient experience.
When new or existing patients call, your staff should be able to honestly answer questions, especially those about costs. Patients have already made 95% of the decision to purchase your service by attending your practice. They may now just need some final information such as pros and cons of treatment, financial options etc. to decide that you are their right choice. By being open and honest you are building a bridge of confidence and avoiding potential misunderstandings. Every conversation is a new opportunity to build trust, and it is important for your team to view it as such.
A unique selling point can help cement your relationship. For example, the clinician calling 24 to 48 hours before a first appointment to introduce themselves, welcome the patient and asking a couple of questions about the reasons for the visit will compel the patient to come in for the appointment. We do this at elleven and find it works extremely well.
Send new patients information packs with testimonials, before and after photos and brochures about things they had inquired about. Informed patients will ask the right questions and be better prepared when they come in to the clinic, allowing efficient use of your time.
Ensure a smooth hand-off between teams during the various steps of treatment. Your patients will trust people who appear to know what they are doing. A world-class clinician who operates a haphazard practice without clearly defined roles for office staff will never inspire confidence despite his/her outstanding skills.
5. Get patient feedback and use it
What patients say is infinitely more valuable than what you say about yourself. Invite your patients to give feedback early on rather than at the end of the appointment, assuring them that their comments, positive or negative, are very important to you.
If a patient says something positive during an appointment, latch on to it immediately, asking, ‘May I quote you on that?’ or, May we share your story with others?
Video testimonials are ideal for websites, but try to keep patients on message, having them answer questions such as:
• How did you feel before coming to see us?
• What are you thoughts about the solution we proposed for you?
• How do you feel now?
• If someone asked you about your experience what would you tell them?
Now with CQC looming on every practice principal’s head it is even more important to have feedback forms to help evaluate your practice at all levels and tell you exactly what your customers think.
6. Recognise and encourage referrals
Referrals are essential to keep you in business. Word of mouth and personal experiences are extremely important, and the best marketing tool you have. You need to let your patients know this while not sounding desperate; this is best done by using your team to convey this message.
A specialist practice can target referring dentists with emails and newsletters regarding particular treatment procedures, sharing before and after pictures, keeping them abreast of the technology and techniques you are using. This reassures them that they are referring their patients to a competent team. Demonstrate your appreciation by holding evening meet and greets, or even simple short educational CPD events. This allows them to meet the team and see the environment their patients are treated in.
It’s a business, it still needs to operate
As a clinician, my training and my profession are my priority. Like all businesses, I have a product: my skills. If I were to focus purely on the marketing and management aspects, I would not have any time to work on my product and would run myself out of business. So while marketing is important, I recognise that I cannot do it all myself.
I have therefore ensured that I am surrounded by people who understand what I want to achieve, and who make an effort to attaining these goals. This gives me the ability to concentrate on what I am good at: looking after my patients and providing the highest quality of care. Remember to remain focused and to be cognizant of your limitations so that you aren’t bogged down in non-productive activities and can maximise the success of your practice.
Shivani Patel BDS(Hons),MFDS RCPS MSc(Lond) ,IMOrth RCS, FDS(Orth) RCPS is a consultant orthodontist who qualified from Guys Hospital and then studied orthodontics at the Royal London Hospital. Since qualifying, she has worked in a variety of dental facilities including maxillofacial and oral surgery. She was awarded a Fellowship in Orthodontics by the Royal College of Surgeons after her further clinical and academic training at Guys Hospital and the Queen Victoria Hospital, West Sussex. Her special interests include multidisciplinary clinics (hypodontia) and snoring/sleep apnoea. Shivani is a clinical lead in the UK for Suresmile which is exclusively available at Elleven Orthodontics.