To advertise or not to advertise...that is the question

Nov. 1, 1998
From the August issue of Dental Economics come the views of Dr. Arthur Labelle, a member of the Dental Economics Editorial Board 25 years ago. He writes about a patient who wants to find a new dentist. And states that "mass advertising in not the place they`ll look. We all are targeted by direct mail (look at all of the junk mail we`re getting and throwing out)."

From the August issue of Dental Economics come the views of Dr. Arthur Labelle, a member of the Dental Economics Editorial Board 25 years ago. He writes about a patient who wants to find a new dentist. And states that "mass advertising in not the place they`ll look. We all are targeted by direct mail (look at all of the junk mail we`re getting and throwing out)."

I think he`s missed the point entirely. Direct-response advertising in the mail is not junk when that reader is interested in the message and the offer! Dr. Labelle had just said that the person wants to find a new dentist. Ads from area dentists contain exactly what this person wants. He/she wants information so that a decision can be made about whom to call.

In a recent review of 16 studies, Hite and Fraser observed that consumers consistently "disagree that advertising by professionals will damage the credibility, image, and dignity of professionals, or confuse or deceive consumers, or benefit quacks and incompetents." They also found that consumers tend to agree that "advertising by professionals will increase awareness of the difference between professionals, reduce prices (fees), increase quality levels, and help consumers make more intelligent choices."

Prospective patients like our advertising. It gives them some needed information to make decent decisions. It`s the dentist who is afraid of honest competition who wants to keep this from them and shamefully masks this attitude under "protecting the profession."

Dr. Labelle continues: "Look at all of the unsubstantiated claims in the Yellow Pages, the newspapers, and on television. How do you know whom to believe? Besides, if a dentist has to advertise so much, so often, in such a pushy way, could there be a reason ... such as maybe some people don`t like this dentist?"

There it is, doctor. There is the distrust of others` success that permeates this profession`s older dentists and many in the national and local societies. And this isn`t just my opinion. In the Summer 1992 issue of the Journal of the Alabama Dental Association is an article by Becker and Kaldenberg titled, "Advertising and the Dental Profession."

By reviewing articles in state and national dental publications, these authors from the Oregon College of Business found "it is clear that statements by those in leadership positions in the dental profession historically have been, and to a large extent remain, hostile to advertising."

These dentists, often older ones, don`t want you to succeed if it is made possible through a means they did not use and do not approve of (and obviously do not understand). Sure, some advertising is blatantly false and misleading and should not be allowed. But advice to avoid all advertising is foolish if you are trying to grow a successful business.

Dr. Labelle says, "...The smart people in your community, the people you really would like to have as your patients, won`t choose a new dentist from a slick advertisement or from an advertisement that appears to offer a cut-rate service."

The people you really would like to have as your patients ...What kind of snobby attitude is that? A cash-paying patient with a toothache may not be my kind of people? Why the heck not? Because he found my office and its special benefits for him through a `slick` advertisement?

I`m sorry, but I find that a repugnant, elitist attitude. But it does fit some "professionals" I know.

I want as many needy, motivated people as possible to come in my doors! They don`t need to pass a social/educational test to qualify for the finest treatment I can give. They just need to show up, need the service, and pay the fee.

Dr. Labelle continues: "One of the earliest lessons that a marketing student learns is embodied in the old saw that `the best source for new business is old business.` Ask any good marketing people and they`ll agree with that idea. In other words, your own patients are the best place to go to find new people for your practice."

You`ve gotten lost again, Dr. Labelle. The old saw is correct, but you`ve misapplied it here. New business may correctly mean new production from recall patients. Sure! These folks are the easiest to motivate to commit to more treatment because they know and trust you. But that`s where the logic ends. The old saw`s new business does not apply to new patients. You say that existing patients are the "best place to go" to find new patients. I think that`s flawed reasoning on many levels.

Let me give you a few stats from my own solo practice in August. We saw 80 new patients. They were from the following four sources: Personal referrals, 32 (by 28 existing patients); Money Mailer coupons, 25; walk-in/sign, 14; and Yellow Pages, 9. The total dollar amount of treatment plans presented to these new patients was over $81,000. I`ve included walk-ins as gained through advertisements.

If I`d never advertised my practice, I would have lost 60 percent of my new patients and two-thirds of my treatment-plan dollars.

In December 1997, I moved my practice to a new, large strip center, anchored by a grocery store, so my practice would be seen by the thousands of daily food shoppers. Incidentally, the average treatment plan of walk-ins was $2,436 per new patient. The other three sources yielded treatment plans in the $650 to $836 per new-patient range.

Of the 28 existing patients who referred others to us, 13 have been our patients for one year or less! In fact, nine referrers were new to our practice within the last three months. In my practice, old patients don`t bring in many new patients. New patients bring in new patients!

Dr. Woody Oakes, in the August issue of The Profitable Dentist, advises dentists to take advantage of the external marketing opportunities available. He writes: "Each new patient comes with several others attached and new patients are more likely to refer than existing patients. When patients become familiar with you and become part of your dental family, they don`t talk about you anymore. Most patients make referrals within the first three months in the practice."

Dr. Labelle`s advice to "forget about 98 percent of that external marketing ... and let the patients do your marketing for you" does not have a ring of truth in my ears. Sure! Do a great job with your patients and encourage them to refer their friends and family. Even reward them nicely when they do. But please don`t close your eyes to all the other ways to attract new patients. I can`t afford to, and I`ll bet you can`t either.

Paul R. Searby, DDS

Spring, Texas