Keep your eye on the cue ball

Reverse-pull marketing recommends, `Let patients ask the questions when they`re ready.` Based on the scenery in the office, they may start asking sooner than you`d think.

Reverse-pull marketing recommends, `Let patients ask the questions when they`re ready.` Based on the scenery in the office, they may start asking sooner than you`d think.

Tom Hughes, DDS

Reverse-pull marketing (RPM) is a powerful marketing strategy employed by dentists for practice growth and increased revenues. In an RPM program, patients are prompted to voluntarily inquire about services. Through their questions (remember, this is a reversal; so they are not your questions), the patients reveal their wants and desires that your services can satisfy.

How does a dentist get this kind of patient? Really, it sounds too good to be true - patients who walk in and ask meaningful questions about services they are willing to pay for in advance. But it can and does happen for dentists who understand the power of RPM!

An effective RPM strategy uses powerful cues to prompt a potential buyer into asking questions pertinent to the "buy." A dentist employing RPM for cosmetic procedures would naturally use visual cues, including photographs and information regarding cosmetic procedures. The cues prompt the patient to think about these treatment options. That`s right. Thinking is the first step. It`s not the dentist selling, not the dentist talking, but the patient thinking.

RPM puts into motion a subtle, yet strong, process that is unique for each individual. One benefit of RPM is that, as it works and patients begin to ask questions about your services, they typically have already spent a great deal of time thinking about how they would look after treatment. By the time a discussion begins in earnest, they are, in many cases, already considering not only the logistics of the procedure, but also the "buy."

Are you skeptical about the power of RPM? In fact, RPM is nothing new. Most businesses have used it for a long time. It is simply presenting buying cues in such a way that the customers are able to imagine how they will feel after they have purchased a product or service. Tastefully furnished model homes, automobile and furniture showrooms, and outdoor clothing catalogs are but a few examples of how RPM is used to invoke feelings and thinking that ultimately will lead to a purchase.

RPM is new to dentistry, simply because dentistry did not evolve like other more traditional businesses. Traditionally, we were not compelled to show our patients what we could do for them; they came to us primarily only when they needed our services! The changes in technology and materials have given us the opportunity to market as other businesses do, vying for the consumer`s discretionary spending dollar. Before you dismiss RPM as just another gimmick, look at this from a business point of view. Let us examine the buying cues that most dental offices offer and then compare these to an office that is effectively designed for RPM.

Which of the following apply to your office?

- Reception area that is decorated like a living room in a country inn

- Pictures of meadows, seascapes, birds, or any other nondental subject in the reception area, hallways, and treatment rooms

- Magazines in the reception area and treatment rooms that deal with decorating, celebrities, automobiles, or current events

- A bubbling aquarium in the reception area

- Artificial flower arrangements tucked here and there

What buying signals do these accoutrements send? Would any of them even remotely prompt a patient to inquire about any kind of dental treatment? If as few as two in the above list apply to you, then you don`t have enough experience with the synergistic effect of different visual cues to fairly evaluate the power of RPM. All of the "traditional" furnishings above compete with your opportunity to provide patients with visual cues that begin the process of thinking about dental services. As a matter of fact, the traditional cues often are placed in dental offices in an attempt to get the patients to forget where they are! It`s an attempt to create a false sense in patients as to where they are. But don`t kid yourself, they are not fooled ... they know exactly where they are.

Dentistry has changed. You may have taken extra care to choose soothing pictures and the latest magazines. But what revenues have you generated from these costs? You are paying rent for your wall space. How are those walls paying you back? What`s more, what are the tangible benefits your patients receive from traditional office decor?

Now let`s look at an office that is fully immersed in RPM. This is what you will find:

- A reception area that looks professional and says, "This is a dental office, we are proud of it, and our most important concern is the health and appearance of your teeth."

- Tasteful photographs of beautiful, healthy smiles in the reception area, hallways, and treatment rooms

- Photographic "mission statements" in the reception area and/or treatment rooms

- Attractively bound albums in the reception area and treatment rooms with "before and after" photographs depicting cosmetic treatments

- A VCR or other interactive media playing silently and continuously with information about dental health, including the newest treatment options

- Props depicting examples of cosmetic dental work in the treatment rooms

- Recall cards depicting treatment options

- Appointment and business cards depicting your mission statement

Passive, yet powerful

The RPM-designed office described above provides powerful buying information in a professional, yet passive, manner at virtually every turn. Many patients who are unhappy with the appearance of their teeth suddenly realize that they have options they did not even know existed. And patients who were not especially unhappy with their appearance are delighted to learn they can look even better. Either way, the process begins.

An important point to remember about RPM is that this is a process that patients will complete in their own time. Some may determine they want a procedure, but must decide between the treatment and new carpet or whatever else they have planned with their discretionary monies. Others will find a way to make it happen immediately, including payment in full. Still others may find the procedures fascinating, but will not contemplate treatment for quite some time - until perhaps a special occasion makes them reconsider.

In an office designed for RPM, all patients who enter the office begin the process of thinking about cosmetic treatments simply by seeing the buying cues. It`s easy to determine how many potential cases for elective care an RPM strategy can generate. Simply count the number of patients in the practice. Many other businesses would gladly invest far more to have access to that kind of prospect pool. The more synergistic the buying cues are, the more cohesive the message, as well as greater chances for success. This is true for several reasons.

First, not all people will respond to cues in the same way. Some patients may not be interested in the photographs on the walls, but they will be fascinated by an album depicting before-and-after photos. The more verbal patients may be interested in the description of procedures. Others may be drawn to a VCR tape that shows patients discussing their satisfaction with a given procedure. Still others may pass by five or six photographs with merely a glance.

But they will focus intensely on a series that depicts a particular esthetic condition that applies to them. These cues, when presented correctly (that is, tastefully, professionally, and devoid of "hard sell" messages), serve to create a comfortable atmosphere where the patient may begin to ask the questions that will lead to the buy.

It is important for dentists who are considering RPM to be comfortable with the process. When first introduced to the concept, some dentists remain hesitant. Such a program can seem like blatant advertising, a controversial topic in our profession. To that I say: Where else should we expect our patients to learn about the new procedures and services we have to offer? If not from us, then where and from whom? How we offer our complete array of services to ensure dental health should not be a point of discussion.

The responsibility clearly lies with us, in our offices. The question we should be asking is, "What is the best way to provide our patients with this information?"

Since the RPM program presented here is passive and professional, I maintain that visual cues are the optimum way to promote dental services. But one challenge dentists seem to have with RPM is that it seems too simple and too subtle to be true. Therein lies the paradox, as well as the reason why so many have trouble initially grasping the power of RPM.

It is powerful because it is successful. It is successful because it is subtle! If the buying cues are pleasurable and subtle, patients are not opposed to being exposed to the cues during their appointments. In other words, a well-planned RPM program gives the following nonverbal message in many different ways: "This is what I can do for you, if you are interested." RPM presents the cues, but the intense power that drives this process lies within the patients as they begin to imagine the possibility of improving their appearance and the very way they perceive themselves!

As the patients begin to think about the possibility of treatment, they will begin to ask questions about their options. This virtually eliminates any need for a dentist to overtly sell his or her services. This is important to remember since an overt sell initiated by the dentist says to the patient, "You need a little help in order to look better." This is something most people understand, but do not appreciate hearing! In fact, it can be disastrous. Without the right cues to initiate a patient`s thoughts about treatment, a dentist`s suggestion, no matter how well intended, is trying to sell something to someone who is not ready to buy. This is a situation most dentists who are concerned with professionalism (not to mention retaining patients in the practice) want to avoid.

The single most important element in an effective RPM program is that it is the patient who initiates any dialogue about treatments you may offer. This point is so subtle that many will overlook it. But be assured that this initiative on the part of the patient is the powerful driving force in RPM. They will ask when they are ready. The more ready they feel, the more likely it is that they will ultimately elect treatment.

Dentists considering RPM may want to begin by adding a few visual cues to their office, perhaps a collection of photographs or an album. Dentists who are learning new techniques may opt to add several different types of cues. Each should depict the specialized procedure he or she is competent to deliver. In other words, an RPM program can grow along with the dentist`s expertise and comfort level.

The generation of a greater number of high margin procedures may initially motivate a dentist to try RPM, but the degree to which it can change a practice is truly limitless!

The practice of dentistry becomes enjoyable and rewarding because the nature of the relationship between the patients and the dentist changes. Patients who are willing to pay for esthetic procedures are appreciative and grateful. These patients, and those they refer, become loyal, enthusiastic patients who value their dentist as their partner interested in their dental health for a lifetime.

And isn`t that our ultimate goal, to provide a valuable service, to be appreciated, and to be compensated accordingly?

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