by Roger P. Levin, DDS
The Great Recession has altered the way people make purchasing decisions. Prior to the downturn, most consumers were what economists refer to as impulse shoppers. In essence, consumers saw something they wanted to buy and simply bought it. They didn’t give the purchase a great deal of thought. If they liked it, they bought it.
Today that behavior has changed. Based on consumer purchasing studies, including one reported by the Wall Street Journal1 l buying habits have changed dramatically. The impulse shopper is all but gone, and consumers are taking more time to decide what to purchase, when to purchase, and where to purchase. Studies indicate that dental patients, like all consumers, are asking these critical questions before accepting dental treatment:
- Do I really want it?
- Do I want it now?
- Do I want to buy it here?
These questions reflect the changed buying habits of dental patients. They are now taking longer to make decisions and, when they finally do decide, it results in less spending. They are rejecting treatment recommendations more frequently than in the recent past. In addition, they are canceling appointments and shopping around for dental care.
The new consumer mindset
To address changes in consumer psychology, practices need to reengineer their systems, especially the case presentation process. For patients to accept treatment, they obviously need to show up for their appointments, like and trust the practice, and be sufficiently motivated to move forward with recommended treatment. These patient behaviors used to occur almost automatically. That is no longer the case today.
According to the Levin Group Data Center™, 75% of dental practices experienced production declines in the last three years. In addition, average doctor production dropped 9.6% during 2011, according to this year’s Dental Economics / Levin Group Annual Practice Survey.
Today, new patients are harder to come by. Hygiene patients are more likely to cancel or fail to show for their six-month recare appointments. Patients are also increasingly likely to turn down treatment recommendations, even for need-based procedures. To succeed in the new economy, dentists have to operate differently than before. The following strategies will help practices rapidly increase production in today’s economy:
1. Create value during the first call — People want more value for their money. Too many potential patients feel no sense of value when they call the office, so they search elsewhere. When value isn’t created, new patients aren’t motivated to schedule an appointment. The first phone call sets the stage for getting the practice-patient relationship off to a great start. Practices should develop powerful scripting that motivates callers to make an appointment. Scripts should include:
- Letting potential patients know that the practice is delighted they called
- Giving patients at least two scheduling options within the first two minutes of the phone call
- Learning something personal about a patient
- Finding out who referred a patient
- Answering any questions or concerns
2. Build stronger relationships with patients — Make your practice a destination for new patients by creating a unique experience and systemizing the entire new patient experience — from the first phone call, to the first visit, to future appointments. Each interaction in the new patient experience should be documented and scripted for maximum effectiveness. Practices need to treat every patient like a VIP. The practices that exceed expectations during patient interactions will be the ones to receive more patient referrals, achieve greater case acceptance, and experience continual increases in practice production.
3. Implement an ongoing patient referral program — Levin Group recommends using 15 custom marketing strategies directed at current patients and the community. Scripting effectively trains your team to ask patients for referrals of friends, neighbors, and family members. During checkout, team members should seek opportunities to ask for patient referrals. Many patients are unaware that the practice is accepting new patients. Appropriate signage helps remind patients about referring.
Patients who make a successful referral should receive a phone call and a handwritten letter from the dentist thanking them for thinking so highly of the practice. This kind of attention shows that the practice truly appreciates the referral, and often leads to more referrals from the same patient.
4. Bring back inactive patients — Patients who have become inactive represent an excellent opportunity to inject added revenue into your practice while delivering much needed oral health care. Levin Group recommends contacting every patient who has been inactive for the past 18 to 48 months. The process begins with a series of three phone calls over three weeks. The target is to speak with inactive patients and reschedule them within the next month.
If you are unable to reach these patients by phone, send them three emails, followed by three letters. These communications should emphasize the practice’s concern for the patient’s oral health, the value of regular dental appointments, and the availability of convenient appointments. Using these techniques, practices have had tremendous success in bringing inactive patients back into the practice.
5. Promote comprehensive dentistry — Practices should present every patient with a comprehensive oral health treatment plan that includes both need-based and esthetic services. Most patients are potential candidates for any number of traditional and cosmetic procedures, yet too many practices focus exclusively on the patient’s current needs and treatment. While practices should address a patient’s immediate concerns, there also should be a focus on lifelong dentistry that takes a comprehensive view of the patient’s future dental needs and wants. Offering comprehensive care to all patients can result in a significant increase in production and profitability.
6. Ask The Commitment Question during every case presentation — The Commitment Question can help dramatically increase the number of patients who accept treatment. Too many dentists present treatment without asking patients directly whether they want to accept the recommended care.
Levin Group recommends dentists ask this question during every case presentation:
“Mrs. Jones, would you like to have this done?”
On the surface, The Commitment Question does not seem all that powerful. But once asked, The Commitment Question compels patients to consider the full benefits of treatment and its positive impact on their oral health.
7. Offer outside financing — Money is tight for most patients in the post-recession. Insurance doesn’t cover as much as it did in the past. The only way many patients can accept treatment is through outside financing offered by a recognized provider such as CareCredit™. Instead of trying to come up with a large payment at once, patients can restructure the fee through patient financing into small monthly increments, which is easier for those on tight budgets. Practices should offer this option to every patient during case presentation. When patients are aware of outside financing, they are more likely to accept treatment.
8. Implement a comprehensive follow-up system — Patients often need a second or even third opportunity to say “yes” to scheduling an appointment or accepting treatment. Following up with patients shows the practice cares about their oral health and often results in increased case acceptance for recommended treatment. The steps below should be part of a practice’s follow-up system:
- Call all prospective patients who do not schedule within 48 hours to determine if they would like to make an appointment.
- Call all patients the next morning when they don’t schedule treatment following a case presentation. This can be set up by saying, “Mrs. Jones, what time would it be convenient for me to call you tomorrow morning?”
- Call all patients who are overdue for hygiene appointments. This ensures that all hygiene patients remain active in the practice.
- Call any patient who refers a new patient to say “thank you” within 48 hours.
A great patient experience
Consumer purchasing habits have dramatically changed and will not go back to where they were. To address a more deliberate patient decision-making process, practices must create value for services and build stronger relationships with all patients. Providing a great patient experience is a must for practices that want to increase production in the new economy.
To learn how to run a more profitable, efficient, and satisfying practice, visit the Levin Group Resource Center at www.levingroup.com/gp. This is a free online resource with tips, videos, and other valuable information. You can also connect with Levin Group on Facebook and Twitter (@Levin_Group) to learn strategies and share ideas.
1References available upon request.
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