Some marketeers would have us believe that gaining new customers is all about promotion – how loud you shout and in whose direction. But as a marketing professional who has been working in dentistry for 25 years, I don’t agree that acquiring new patients is quite so one-dimensional.
It’s true that lots of businesses lure new customers with special offers, promotions and gimmicks, but often this custom is short-lived, with people moving swiftly from one brand to another, constantly seeking out a better deal.
There is no doubt that in 2015 customer choice is an important factor for those running any type of business. Customers changing utility suppliers, supermarkets, and broadband providers is a regular occurrence and some even consider it something of a hobby, all aided by the accessibility of information available on the internet. In fact, so concerned are our administrators that the public has the ‘freedom to choose’, that changing energy suppliers is now a government-sponsored activity.
To help the switching process, comparison websites have sprung up for almost every conceivable service, and dentistry is not immune. NHS Choices is designed to make selecting a practice more transparent, facilitating an ‘informed choice’ for patients, whilst a plethora of dentist-finder websites are now available, covering both the private and NHS sectors. All these websites have ‘Tripadvisor’ style comment boards, where satisfied (and dissatisfied) patients can post comments online for all to see. Websites offering comparisons between treatments and their prices are now freely available and are all contributing to an environment where customer loyalty, once considered an aspiration, is now treated as naivety.
So how can dentists maintain their traditional trustworthy relationships and rely on patient loyalty amidst the emergence of a new, more fickle breed of patient, who makes greater demands and has the confidence of knowing they have a choice?
Dentistry has always been a profession that has relied heavily on the relationship between practitioner and patient, and research in 2012 revealed that dentists are amongst the most trusted professionals. In a poll conducted by Bray Leino, 88% of people surveyed confirmed that they had a very high degree of trust in their dentist, even greater than in their doctor.
This trust can, in some part, be attributed to NHS provision and the fact that traditionally patients tended not to move dentist unless they moved house. But the rise of the private sector over the last 30 years has changed public perception. Consecutive governments of every persuasion have tinkered with funding models, which have hardened people’s attitude to the profession, encouraging patients to question the status quo.
In a research paper published in the BDJ earlier this year, Lucarotti and Burke (2015) identified certain factors that influence a patient’s decision as to whether to change dentist – factors which include age, payment options, dentist age and gender and previous attendance patterns.
The research concluded that the proportion of patients changing dentist has been rising steadily since 1993 and between 2003 and 2005, 15.5% of patients changed their dentist. This means that even a conservative estimate would put the number of transitory patients at a figure of well over a million people and it is likely that this figure has increased further in the last decade.
In marketing terms these patients would be described as ‘warm leads’ – in other words they are patients who understand the value of dentistry and they are in the habit of regularly attending, but for one reason or another they have fallen out of love with a particular practice.
In marketing speak, any one of these patients arriving at your door should be an ‘easy win’.
But what can you do to make sure that these patients choose your practice over a competitor? As usual the answer isn’t simple – there is no golden bullet – but a few tried and tested strategies should help increase your appeal.
I use aspirational here in its broadest sense, in which the practice understands and defines its target market and then creates an environment and an atmosphere to which that group of patients aspires, be that within the private or mixed sector.
Dental practices should not seek to be ‘all things to all people’ in their quest to attract new patients. The more successful practices have a clear understanding of how they appeal to their patients and mirror these qualities.
You need to be available when your patients demand and this is a factor that is becoming more and more important.
Flexibility of opening hours is one of the main criteria for patients who are now familiar with 24/7 access for many services. Online booking, opening at weekends if possible and not closing at lunchtime, particularly if you have a high street location, all helps to make you accessible to patients searching for a new practice.
There is a perception amongst the majority of patients, be it real or imaginary, that dentistry is expensive.
Your challenge is to maintain reasonable prices for your private work and provide patients with a financial solution should they require one, and payment plans clearly have a role to play in this scenario. When choosing a plan provider you should choose one who shares your goals and will help you grow patient numbers whilst offering an outstanding level of service.
Because marketing is about your practice, it seems logical to choose a plan provider who offers a ‘practice branded’ option as this gives you the best opportunity to strengthen patient loyalty.
You need to develop effective external communication so that patients searching in your area are aware of your practice. You can do this via your website and also by having an active social media presence.
Loyalty and trust are integral features in successful dental practices and help to maintain a consistent patient base. Of course all practices need new patients to replace organic attrition, but by concentrating on attracting the ‘low-hanging fruit’, ie referrals from existing patients and those actively searching for a new practice, you can make the most of what are often limited marketing resources.
Gaining new patients from the growing numbers who choose to move practices every year is an opportunity for every practice, but remember to keep your eye on existing patients as well, as there needs to be a monthly net gain in order for your practice to grow. By maintaining those aspects of your practice that keep your current patients satisfied and developing new areas that help you meet patient demands more effectively you will automatically define those things that make you attractive to new patients.
Lucarotti PS and Burke FJ (2015) Factors influencing patients’ continuing attendance at a given dentist. Br Dent J 218 (6): E13
For more information and to find out what Milkshake Dental Marketing can do for you through DPAS’ new initiative, Business Bites, contact DPAS Dental Plans on 03456 802 820 or email [email protected].