The recession is over. Most practices are at last beginning to see a recovery after years of austerity. The trend which started in London is spreading throughout the land. So does this mean everything in the garden is now rosy? Absolutely not! Although patients may have more available resources for dentistry their own experiences during the hard years have conditioned them to search for value for money more aggressively than ever before. This doesn’t mean they’re looking for ‘cheap’; just for ‘good value’ and the only way they can decide what to choose is from the information they gain access to.
Marketing is about information. It’s not about ‘selling’ but it is about giving consumers the information they need to help with their purchasing decisions. It’s a hard fact that nowadays our patients are consumers. The days of patients blindly following a dental professional’s advice without question are long gone. Decisions about healthcare spending are made using the same mental processes that would be applied in the consideration of any major expenditure. People want to be able to make comparisons; not only on the ‘product’ (the clinical services) but on the whole experience they will receive at the practice from even before the moment of arrival to the aftercare they can expect following procedures.
It’s necessary to retain as many existing patients as possible and also garner a continual supply of new ones. Why? Well obviously to keep up numbers but also to allow the practice to grow. Dentists will keep their existing patients in good order. Hopefully once initial treatments have been completed these patients will need very little maintenance at further routine examination appointments but the ‘lifetime value’ of these patients is enormous. New patients certainly often need more extensive initial courses of treatment and the income this provides is pivotal to the maintenance and growth of the practice. As well as this, treated correctly, these new patients will lead to a raft of further new patients but gaining them can be a costly process. That’s where marketing comes in.
There are many experts who will tell you that marketing is free; whatever the cost. By extension there should be no such thing as a ‘marketing budget’. By this they mean that the business generated by successful marketing will be worth far more than the initial investment. This is true, there can be no doubt marketing should be seen as an investment in business health but the hard fact is that many practices may lack the up-front funds required to pursue costly campaigns.
With this in mind this article aims to explore low-cost marketing methods which can be implemented by anyone, even those with a limited budget but which can produce significant returns on the modest investment required. We won’t be looking at television or radio marketing. We won’t consider professional search engine optimisation or even professionally produced videos. We’ll avoid expensive print media campaigns. All of these things may be beneficial in individual cases but there are many other strings to the marketing bow.
To begin we need to revise the basics. Marketing is traditionally divided into internal and external techniques. With the growth of the internet and social media these distinctions are becoming more and more blurred.
Cost or investment?
Nevertheless, let’s look at the foundation stones. Internal marketing describes procedures aimed at existing patients to retain their custom and encourage them to refer new patients to the practice. External marketing is directed at acquiring new patients and is often associated with advertising of some sort although there are other methods of doing this. It’s internal marketing that we’ll consider here.
From a cost point of view internal marketing comes up trumps. It’s much cheaper to retain an existing patient than it is to gain a new one and although new patients are important the retention of our existing ones is both important and profitable.
We need to look at this in more detail. What do we need to do to convince existing patients they should continue to choose us? They’ve got lots of other options!
Patients need to feel valued. They need to know they’re appreciated and that they are important to you. They have to be convinced that you can provide both clinical and non-clinical services they can rely on and that they have made a wise decision in choosing your practice to provide their healthcare. This does not only apply to private patients; NHS patients are just as demanding and if you don’t step up to the plate will also vote with their feet.
Let’s look at some specific ways of making our patients feel special:
1. Smile at them. This may sound too simple but it really is important. All dental team members need to smile a lot. Greet patients with words like ‘Good to see you again’. Patients love a ‘friendly’ practice and will tell their friends.
2. Use their names. For reasons of confidentiality this should be done in private areas like the treatment room. Greetings like ‘Good morning Mr Smith’ show patients they’re recognised as individuals, not just a number on a list.
3.Treat patients with respect. Put them at ease and be considerate. Visiting the dentist isn’t everyone’s highlight of the week. When talking to patients sit or stand at their level. Delivering instructions while towering over a prone patient is intimidating. Of course never forget to thank patients at the end of an appointment. Courtesy costs nothing and pays dividends.
4. Telephone your patients after appointments. Simply ask: ‘Is everything comfortable?’ This is amazingly reassuring and again convinces your patient that your practice offers an exceptional level of care. As a rule of thumb, telephone everyone who has had an injection as well as those who have had dentures fitted.
5. Keep in contact with them. The six or 12 months between visits gives patients plenty of time to forget how pleasant your practice is and even find another supplier. Regular contact makes patients feel like members of a club and enhances their loyalty. This doesn’t mean bombarding them with weekly sales letters, but how about a monthly newsletter or occasional information about new services you’re providing? The cheapest way of keeping in touch is by email so try to gather your patients’ email addresses and gain their permission to send them practice communications. Sending letters and hard-copy newsletters is also effective but this does carry some costs. If this is a problem try sending hard-copy to lapsed patients only as it is often a good way of re-activating them.
Make patients work for you
In dentistry, whether we like it or not, our patients are ‘customers’ and our treatments ‘products’ which by default we ‘sell’ to them. That’s why making our existing patients feel valued and important is pivotal to practice profitability. Any marketer will tell you that it is much easier to sell to someone who has bought from you before and that people buy from people they like. This goes much further in practice. Our patients can become ambassadors for our practice and encourage others to come to us.
If a patient makes a complimentary remark about you, your practice or services and treatments they’ve received, you could follow with, ‘Mrs Smith, it’s so kind of you to say that. If you’re happy with the way we do things here please tell your friends. Our practice is always delighted to welcome new patients on the recommendation of our existing patients.’
It’s important to ask. Many patients may think your list is already full and you don’t want to add to it. To make the process easier give your patient some referral cards to hand to their friends.
This system can be enhanced with ‘rewards’. At the very least send a thank you letter to the referrer when a new patient attends on their recommendation. Some practices send small gifts or include the name of the referrer into a monthly prize draw.
Existing patients can generate referrals in other ways. Again, after they’ve made a complimentary remark ask them to write a short testimonial, or better still record one on video. Get permission from the patient to use this in external marketing, for example on your website or in advertisements. Potential new patients are always impressed by verifiable comments from existing patients.
Ensure your website is engaging. Keep a blog and informational articles as well as formal information on the pages. Encourage existing patients to regularly visit the website and share its address with their friends.
Practice parties are a novel ‘shoestring’ method of internal marketing. Invite 10-12 of your regular patients to an informal gathering at the practice outside normal working hours. Provide some drinks and nibbles. Let patients talk to team members and each other. You could include a practice tour and answer questions patients may have about the practice but don’t turn this into a sales event by promoting your new services or treatments.
Practice parties can be themed: Valentine’s Day, Chinese New Year, Easter etc. to add interest but the important thing is that patients enjoy an hour or two in a non-threatening environment. Patients who are invited to these parties always feel very special and invariably tell friends or place posts on social media.
Another way of increasing practice profitability through internal marketing is the concept of ‘upsell’.
‘Would you like fries with that!’ In dental practices an example would be asking a patient if they need oral hygiene products after a visit to the hygienist. This is completely ethical. Not much point in the hygienist demonstrating interdental cleaning if the patient hasn’t got the necessary brushes or floss. This concept can be extended. Your ‘standard’ crown may be porcelain bonded to metal but why not offer patients the choice of other types of crown if clinically appropriate?
Make sure your existing patients are aware of the services you offer. You know you carry out tooth whitening, but are you sure they do? Produce a short brochure describing all the services you offer and have it available in the reception area for patients to look at or take away. These brochures can now be printed very cheaply by the major online printers.
This short article has concentrated on cheap or free methods of increasing practice profitability using ‘shoestring’ marketing. The list is far from exhaustive; in fact the possibilities are really limited only by your own imagination. Hopefully this article will demonstrate that all of us can make significant additional profits by the development of marketing within our practices at a minimum of cost.
Philip Lewis BDS qualified in 1977, and is a practice principal in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight. He has special interests in aesthetic dentistry and postgraduate education. He writes extensively for the dental press and has appeared on television and radio in his capacity of media spokesman for the British Dental Association. Philip is an ambassador for The Mouth Cancer Foundation charity and clinical lead of its Mouth Cancer Screening Accreditation Scheme.