MARKETING from the inside outPart 1

Build your practice by tapping into a valuable source of new revenue — your current patient base.

by Melinda Spitek

I must confess I'm not much into the inner workings of the mind of a rainbow trout. But a friend of mine (an avid fisherman) once told me something that captured my imagination. A trout, he said, will never expend more energy swimming to a food source (like an insect) than is likely to be contained in the food source itself. Fly-casting is an art because the fly has to drop close enough for the fish to consider it "positive energy income."

The idea totally makes sense. Always begin by getting the most positive reward for the expenditure of time/energy/income. Start by harvesting the low-hanging fruit before hauling out the old extension ladder or the motorized cherry picker.

When it comes to improving production and profitability by "growing your practice," what comes to mind most naturally is acquiring new patients. It's also the most emotionally satisfying — a harvest of newcomers arriving in your office, drawn by the mass-media promotion of your clinical skills.

But there are more fundamental and cost-effective ways of building your practice, especially if you haven't yet implemented an organized, disciplined practice-marketing effort. The fact is, you're already sitting on a valuable and identifiable source of new revenue — your current patient base.

These are uncertain and competitive times. The dentist who counts solely on patient referrals based on exemplary dentistry to sustain a practice over the next few years may be courting disaster — not to mention many hours of empty chair time. Actively marketing a dental practice has grown from a good idea to a probable benefit to, quite frankly, a requirement today. I have spoken with many outstanding clinicians who are apprehensive and puzzled about this new paradigm. The most common stumbling block is knowing how and where to begin. The most common misconception is perceiving practice marketing as some sort of expensive, high-profile advertising.

Let's begin with the cornerstone of any practice-marketing program — internal marketing. That is, promoting your services to those who already esteem them most: current patients, plus those on your rolls whom you haven't seen in 18 months or more. And by "promoting," I'm not talking about selling or advertising. It has more to do with cultivating attitudes and perceptions about your practice, chief among them the sense that an appointment is actually a visit with respected and trusted friends to be warmly anticipated. Such a perception naturally encourages a patient to accept treatment and then refer family and friends with confidence.

I spent more than 20 years managing the front office of various dental practices — answering the phones, scheduling appointments, and processing new patients. That experience has given me a unique opportunity to see the practice from every point of view, from the new patient to the returning patient to the doctor. Like the four blind men and the elephant, our perceptions are strongly shaped (you might even say distorted) by our personal wants, needs, and motivations. After spending grueling years in dental school and then honing your techniques with continuing education, it's only natural to want to believe that you are esteemed for your dental dexterity. But the overwhelming majority of your patients will never be clinically knowledgeable enough to make such an evaluation. They must proceed on the basis of what they can evaluate: the reception room décor, your team members' attentiveness, and, most importantly, your own professional visibility.

"Visibility" is a matter of establishing and maintaining a connection between you and your patients during the time between appointments. Patient letters, newsletters, and media advertising all work, but they are not the only routes. Community involvement — such as participation in a cause like the Smiles for Life Foundation — can be a highly gratifying means of promoting visibility without appearing self-serving. Even if your speaking and writing skills are no better than average, you can aspire to become the local dental advocate by offering to speak to groups at no charge or writing nonpromotional information on dental topics. Do this routinely and you will be perceived as an opinion leader, the kind of dentist patients look forward to seeing and are reluctant to desert.

This is marketing your practice from the inside out. It doesn't require billboards or skywriters to encourage your best patients to regard your practice in the manner it deserves. Incidentally, your current patient population is by far the richest source of quality referrals. They also are the most likely to agree to proposed treatment, so they deserve your sustained attention and respect.

The next most likely target for expanded production are the patients you haven't seen in more than a year. There are any number of reasons why these patients have not returned, but reestablishing the link is typically simpler and more cost-effective than recruiting strangers who have never walked through your office door. Think of this as an extension of your initial internal marketing effort.

Not long ago, I received a call from an office manager complaining about the patients the office was losing to an HMO. She was so upset that she decided to purge the defectors from the database! Unfortunately, at that moment she also cost her dentist the chance to reach this valuable sector of the population. In the Army, they'd call them AWOLs — "Absent Without Official Leave." The Army goes out of its way to avoid labeling someone a "deserter." Dentists should do the same.

A well-thought-out, internal direct-mail campaign can reactivate a surprising number of patients on your rolls. Many dentists believe that their inactive patients have forgotten about them. In reality, it's just the opposite. Those patients feel like you have forgotten about them since they haven't heard from you.

Don't expect much to come from a single mass-mailed letter. A cost-effective reactivation campaign should consist of at least two to three mailings, three to six weeks apart, or, depending on the size of your list, a campaign of mailings plus follow-up telephone calls. Not only does this repetition build credibility, it's more likely to catch a patient whose dental need has developed just since the previous letter.

If your inactive patient list is old, expect 25 to 35 percent of the first mailing to be returned, stamped "forward expired." Use this as an opportunity to clean up your database. The good news is that your second mailing will be smaller, more focused, and more cost-effective. The third mailing will be smaller yet, since there's no need to target the patients already returning to your practice.

In the second of this two-part article, we will discuss external marketing. This is the kind of effort most dentists think of when they hear that dreaded word marketing. External marketing makes use of multimedia ads designed to attract patients who are not referrals and who would not otherwise have heard of the doctor. The ads are intriguing and can be highly effective, but if you're a newcomer to a conscientious practice-marketing plan, internal marketing is definitely the place to begin.

Use a professional to guide you, and you — like that hungry rainbow trout — will realize a satisfying increase in productivity for a relatively minor outlay of time and energy.

Part 2 of this article will appear in the January issue.

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