by Sally McKenzie, CMC
You're brilliant! What else can I say? Sponsoring the purchase of mouth guards for the entire second-grade soccer team at the neighborhood school was simply a stroke of genius. The moms who, as you obviously know, make the majority of the household health-care decisions are calling you! Then there was the wise move to link up with 1-800-DENTIST,® and now your practice phone is ringing nonstop! You wanted to market your practice to boost your new patient numbers — and boost them you are doing!
You focused on something that matters to prospective patients — protecting their children's teeth — and immediately increased traffic to your office. But attracting new patients is only the first step in marketing your practice. The challenge now is managing the influx. You don't want patients walking in the front door and running out the back.
Many dentists and their teams forget that they are "marketing" the practice — for better or worse — in every patient interaction. In fact, 80 percent of dental practices are losing more patients than they are bringing in. Why? Because when the phone rings, practices often are so caught up in being "busy" that they lose sight of what matters ... and what matters to the patients is what should matter to the practice.
New patients are calling because they want your services now, not next month. Be prepared to handle the demand. First, determine how much time you need to allocate in the schedule to accommodate new patients. Look at new-patient activity over the last six months. If you saw 60 new patients, that would be 10 per month and 2.5 per week. Reserve at least that much time in your schedule to handle immediate new-patient demand. Next, monitor new-patient activity each week while you are conducting an external marketing program. If demand increases, block additional new- patient time in your schedule, even if it means extending hours for awhile. Finally, reserve slots for new patients during prime-time hours. These are the hours when your practice experiences the greatest demand for appointments, and, typically, they are in the late afternoons, evenings, and on Saturdays.
First impressions matter
Never underestimate the expectations of prospective patients. New patients are sizing up the professionalism of the doctor and the staff with their first phone call. Consciously or subconsciously, they are determining whether or not this practice deserves their ongoing business. Patients expect to be treated with respect and professionalism. They expect their concerns and needs to be addressed expeditiously. They also expect the doctor and staff to have their acts together. Like it or not, the quality of the doctor is judged by the quality of his or her staff.
Manage the new patient's expectations through excellent phone communication and even better written information. Make sure that the first point of contact prospective patients have with your office — the phone call — is not their last. Develop a script for the scheduling coordinator to use when handling new-patient calls. The coordinator's voice should convey warmth and understanding. She should come across as unhurried and cheerful. Patients calling the office for the first time will be either discouraged or encouraged to make an appointment, depending on how well the call is handled. If the receptionist answers the phone with a curt , hurried, or exasperated tone, the caller is immediately put off. If the receptionist is sincere and empathetic, the caller responds accordingly.
Send new patients a "welcome packet" on the same day they call to schedule the first appointment. This packet should include a brief welcome letter from the doctor indicating his commitment to providing the best possible care for patients. The letter also should emphasize one or two specific qualities about the practice that set it apart from others. For example, you might want to emphasize the office's extremely high infection-control standards, that dentistry is available for the entire family, painless dentistry techniques, cosmetic dentistry procedures, and/or your commitment to never making the patient wait more than 5 to 10 minutes in the reception area. Also include a practice brochure, business card, a new-patient information form, and a map to your practice with the office phone number on it. Your printed materials should reflect the quality of your practice. If you appear to cut corners in your written communication with patients, the underlying message is that you cut corners elsewhere, too.
Before your receptionist says, "Hello Mrs. Jones, and welcome to the office!" Mrs. Jones is forming judgments about the quality of your practice. How was she treated when she made the initial phone call? Was the overall message in the welcome packet inviting and informative or did it contain a litany of rules, regulations, and policies? Does the location of your building and the appearance of your reception area send a message that is consistent with your marketing? If you claim that your practice is state-of-the-art, but everything in it indicates vintage "Mod Squad" (the 1960s version, that is!), you're sending conflicting messages to prospective patients.
When new patients arrive, they should feel like the most important person in your office. Politely explain to patients precisely what needs to be completed on their paperwork. Direct them to a comfortable place to sit in the waiting area. When they have completed the new-patient forms, don't make them wait more than five minutes. If possible, the treatment coordinator should escort new patients into a consulting room. The paperwork then can be reviewed to ensure everything has been completed and, more importantly, the coordinator can take this opportunity to discuss the excellent quality of care available in the practice.
The dental assistant then comes in and introduces herself to the patient. She seats the patient in a treatment room, with the doctor coming in immediately afterwards.The doctor asks the patient a series of questions beginning with, "What brings you to our office today, Mrs. Jones?" The objective is to learn what is motivating the patient to seek dental care ... to determine the patient's wants, needs, and expectations for dental care. The focus should be on what you and your office can do for the patient, not to the patient.
The dentist's diagnosis should include as much quality dentistry as possible and it should educate the patient about the need for ongoing care. Everyone on the team "markets" the practice with every patient interaction. If you handle this correctly, the patient will understand and appreciate the value of what the practice has to offer and will want to purchase your "product." The key is to make treatment financially viable. Chances are pretty good that your services are competing against car payments, the college fund, the big screen TV, etc. At this point, the financial coordinator steps in to "market" a viable financial arrangement with the patient, which encourages the patient to pursue treatment and enables the practice to receive payment promptly. I recommend partnering with a patient-financing company such as CareCredit®. These firms provide excellent financing options that benefit both doctor and patient.
Now that you have thoroughly wowed your new patients and they have told you how impressed they are with you and your practice, ask them to tell their friends and family. Hand them a referral card, business card, or practice brochure that they can share. Patients enjoy telling others about positive experiences, just as they tell others about negative experiences.
Thank patients who refer. Send a personal handwritten message, rather than a canned letter spit from the computer. Patients who refer more than once should receive a small token of appreciation, such as a coffee mug with your practice name and number on it. Send flowers or a fruit basket to the workplaces of patients who refer more frequently. Everyone in that patient's office will want to know who sent this fabulous gift. Patronize your patients' businesses. There are hundreds of ways to thank your referring patients! Not only will they appreciate your acknowledgement, but this outward expression of appreciation will encourage more referrals.
Maintain regular communication with your patients through thank-you letters, phone calls to check on how they are doing after major treatment, a quarterly letter/email updating them on continuing-education courses you and your staff have taken, and advances in care offered by your practice, etc. Through regular contact, you establish a relationship that goes well beyond the few hours patients may spend in your office annually.
Remember, what matters to the patient is what matters to the practice, and marketing is simply the fact of "the matter." In dentistry, it all matters!