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Practice Building 101: Strategies for generating internal referrals

Aug. 22, 2023
In dentistry, there is nothing better than internal referrals. Here are some proven strategies that will have them rolling in.

Whether you have a large practice or are just building a practice, there is nothing better than internal referrals. New patients who come in after speaking with a satisfied patient already feel like they know you. This makes it easy to develop a dental relationship.

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I get asked about generating referrals all the time, and I wish there was one “correct” answer. Here is a relatable story. An old man was traveling down a dirt road in his wagon. He had been up since before dawn loading his wares to bring to market. Alongside the road was a man sitting on a stool with his mouth wide open. The old man on the wagon stopped and asked, “What are you doing sitting there in the hot morning sun with your mouth open?” The man on the stool closed his mouth and said, “I am very hot and my stomach is hurting because I am hungry.”

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The old man again asked, “What are you doing here with your mouth open on the side of the road in the hot sun?” The reply was a quick and angry, “I am waiting for a bird to fly into my mouth, stupid!” The old man turned around and climbed back into his wagon. But before he left, he took a hunk of cheese he was going to sell and threw it at the man’s feet. The old man then said, “Do not hurt yourself bending down to get something to eat,” and away he went.

The point of the story is that unless you work for it, things do not just fall into place. When it comes to generating internal referrals, you must do the work, not just wait for new patients to stroll in. Here is a list of things to try, but I am certain that you can come up with some of your own that won’t leave you sitting around “with [your] mouth open.”

Proven strategies for generating referrals

Whether you are in a large or small community, try to establish business and personal contacts near your practice. In 1979, I would have breakfast or at least coffee at various establishments around my community. I hated breakfast, but it allowed me to show my face in the community. I would also invite other dentists to have breakfast, and I always paid. If I was alone, I would make sure the waitress knew I was a dentist. This may sound stupid and corny, but I had toothbrushes made with my name and number on them and always left one behind with a pen. That pen got used a lot and generated many referrals.

I made sure that we joined a temple and got involved there. All houses of worship need people to help on committees, and volunteering allows you to meet people.

I have written many times about the need for your practice to be neat as a pin and for staff to be warm and friendly. Hiring for attitude and training for excellence always works. When a patient comes in, you must be ready to do a complete exam if that’s what the patient wants. “Can you just smooth down this tooth or polish my denture?” As I have said a thousand times, the answer is yes. You must make each patient visit as pleasant as possible.

After all treatment, please show concern for your patient’s comfort. We give pain packets that have instructions about how to use Tylenol and Advil in combination. This goes a long way to show that you care. Are you calling your patients after procedures or using an automated text system like apedental.com? Sending a personal, handwritten note or “thank you for becoming a new patient” is a great touch.

As a fee-for-service dentist, I maintain a positive attitude about dental insurance because every little bit helps in fee reduction. I also allow patients to pay over the course of treatment, because this is how most Americans live.

Willingly accept children into your office. Many parents will send in their children first to see how they are treated. Don’t forget to stock a treasure chest with the good stuff!

Finally, all staff have families, and they need to be proud of where they work. We implemented a bonus system for staff referrals, and it has been very effective.

Remember that there is not just one thing that generates internal referrals, but you cannot simply sit with your mouth open hoping referrals fly in.

Editor's note: This article appeared in the August 2023 print edition of Dental Economics magazine. Dentists in North America are eligible for a complimentary print subscription. Sign up here.

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