How to get your patients to refer in droves

March 1, 2008
Here are three remarkably easy — and highly effective — ways to encourage patients to refer family and friends to your practice.

by Stewart Gandolf, MBA, and Lonnie Hirsch

Here are three remarkably easy — and highly effective — ways to encourage patients to refer family and friends to your practice. The cost is almost nothing, so your return on investment is through the roof.

1) Ask patients for referrals. Yes, you really do have to ask. That’s rule one. Patients don’t often refer spontaneously, but most patients would happily refer if they were asked.

Most of the dentists we talk to have heard of “asking for referrals,” but they feel uncomfortable or simply shy away. Patients who are pleased with your services are grateful and ready to say “thanks.” So ask! Not asking is a costly mistake.

Here’s how to get beyond the stage fright (or other excuses).

Doctor talk. While staff can ask too, it’s best if the dentist does the asking because that’s the highest level connecting point for the patient, and the most direct channel for appreciation.

Timing is important. Pick a moment when you know the patient is happy and you’ve achieved great results. Ask a “checking question” to make sure the patient’s high on the satisfaction curve: “Did we do a good job for you?” or “Are you looking forward to showing off your bright smile at your sister’s wedding?”

Script it. Rehearse it. Keep it short and sincere. One of the best is to sincerely say that you like having them as a patient, and you would love it if they’d send their friends because you know they’d be great patients too.

2) Give patients a one-minute commercial. Contrary to what you might think, the typical patient knows little about all that you do. They simply aren’t aware of your full range of services. So reserve a minute to tell them.

With each visit, present a short bit of information about ways you help other patients. Make it brief, conversational, informal — but focus on something you’d like to promote.

One approach is to simply tell an anecdotal story.

For example, “Something happened recently that I want to tell you about. One of our patients was beaming about her daughter’s upcoming college graduation, and she mentioned the new dress and makeup she had purchased for the event. Funny thing is, even though we have brochures in our lobby, she didn’t know that we offer a terrific teeth-whitening program here.

To make a long story short, both she and her daughter made appointments. They were in and out of here in no time — with sparkling new smiles for the graduation, the grad party, and for all the visiting relatives.

I’m telling other patients because most people have no idea that they can get a bright, new smile in a single visit. And if someone has a special occasion, we can usually set a quick appointment. We like to take care of our patients and the friends they refer ...”

3) Inspire patient ambassadors. How will your practice be different when you have legions of loyal patients going out of their way to refer to you? You can get there simply by recognizing and rewarding the patients who refer to you.

We prefer after-the-fact rewards over upfront promises or contests, because the former is classier and the latter could be perceived as “paying for referrals.”

So here’s how to reinforce the referral behavior:

  • With the first referral, personally make a brief “thank you” phone call. Dentists who do this routinely realize that it takes no more than two minutes. Plus, you’ll find your patients love this.
  • With every referral, send a brief note of thanks. Simple thank you notes are better than postcards, and consistency is more important than an elaborate format.
  • Consider a small gift item when it’s practical and appropriate. Perhaps a few $1 lottery tickets or something simple and low cost to reinforce the second or third referral.

Get started now

These three near-zero cost tactics are the foundation of any marketing plan. With a little practice and persistence, they are an almost effortless way to generate patient referrals. The only challenge is simply getting started.

Stewart Gandolf, MBA, and Lonnie Hirsch are co-founders of Healthcare Success Strategies, and two of America’s most experienced practice marketers. They have worked with dentists for a combined 30 years, have written numerous articles on practice marketing, and have consulted with more than 3,000 private health-care practices. You may reach them by calling (888) 679-0050, through their Web site at, or via e-mail at [email protected].

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