Marketing -- where to begin

Aug. 19, 2013
My practice was started from scratch five years ago in an area with only one other dental practice in town. The doctor in the other practice is in his 60s and should be close to retirement.

by Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, MBA

Dear Dianne,

My practice was started from scratch five years ago in an area with only one other dental practice in town. The doctor in the other practice is in his 60s and should be close to retirement. I am disappointed in my practice growth, however, as I have only 800 active patients. I have lots of open time in my schedule. I know I need to do some marketing, but I'm torn as to which marketing brings the best results. Also, it's hard for me to allocate money toward marketing when I'm barely paying my bills. What advice would you give a dentist in my position? – Dr. Tom

Dear Dr. Tom,

Obviously, you felt that you could be successful in this locale, as this is where you chose to hang your shingle. However, there are lots of factors that determine whether a business can be successful in a particular area, such as demographics, socioeconomic status, major employers, competition, insurance participation, and demand for services. It is clear that to stay solvent, you have to be able to pay your practice bills and have enough left to service whatever personal debt you have. Unfortunately, many doctors are drowning in personal debt from making unwise choices and attempting to live beyond their means.

For our purposes, I'll assume you are surviving but not really thriving. You want to grow your practice and feel the need to apply some "fertilizer" in the form of marketing, but you don't know which fertilizer to use. I recommend that you start with some very deliberate internal marketing fertilizer.

Since money is tight, internal marketing can be your most cost-effective marketing tool. Marketers agree that good internal marketing can be more effective than costly external marketing. It's easier to keep your present patient base happy than it is to drive strangers to your door. But it's more than just keeping your patients happy. You should want them to be so happy with you and your practice that they willingly refer their friends and family to you. This will involve deliberate effort from you and your staff members. Your customer service should be such that it exceeds the patients' expectations. If you have a reserved personality, you will need to step out of your comfort zone and express friendliness, warmth, and enthusiasm, even when you don't feel like it. Your staff members need to know what excellent customer service means and how to be fully engaged in that effort. They may need training from some outside source.

Here are some wonderful internal marketing methods that are cheap and effective:

  1. Recognition of patient birthdays
  2. Personal phone calls after difficult or extensive procedures
  3. Warm welcome when they walk through the door
  4. A little social chit-chat
  5. A smile and handshake
  6. Regular newsletter
  7. Patient of the month recognition
  8. Ask for Internet testimonials
  9. Recognition and a tangible expression of thanks when you receive referrals (refer to your state board rules)
  10. Recognition of patients when they receive honors that are publicized (One office laminates news articles that appear in the local paper and mails them to the patient.)
  11. Free giveaway once or twice a year for a drawing in your office where patients drop their appointment cards
  12. Anything that is given to the patient to take home has your office's name and website/phone number on it
  13. Condolences in the form of a card and possibly a flower or donation to a charity when a patient experiences a death in the family
  14. Get-well card for any patient with illness, hospitalization, or rehabilitation

As you can see, it's a matter of focusing clearly on your patients. Are you really interested in them? Never forget, your business is not about you but about what you can do to help people. Also, never forget that people generally do not like going to the dentist. So go out of your way to make their visit pleasant and comfortable. Everything you do is marketing your practice, so make it positive!

All the best,

Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, MBA, is a consultant, speaker, and author. She helps good practices become better through practical on-site consulting. Her book, "Manage Your Practice Well," is available at For consulting or speaking inquiries, contact Dianne at [email protected] or call her at (301) 874-5240.

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