Why internal marketing is more important than ever before

April 1, 2011
In the 2010 Dental Economics®/Levin Group Annual Practice Survey, the data pointed to an improvement in practice performance over previous years. While growth was slight for the majority of practices, it was a reversal from the significant declines of 2009.

Roger P. Levin, DDS

For more on this topic, go to www.dentaleconomics.com and search using the following key words: advertising, internal marketing, interpersonal relations, Dr. Roger P. Levin.

In the 2010 Dental Economics®/Levin Group Annual Practice Survey, the data pointed to an improvement in practice performance over previous years. While growth was slight for the majority of practices, it was a reversal from the significant declines of 2009. As practices focus on increasing productivity and production, one of the key opportunities is internal marketing.

Before practices embark on expensive advertising and external marketing campaigns, they should try internal marketing programs. An internal marketing program represents not only the least expensive, but also the most effective option. External marketing focuses on engaging potential patients through media such as direct mail, radio, and Yellow Pages ads.

All these activities occur outside the practice. Internal marketing, on the other hand, occurs inside the practice and focuses on current patients and their willingness to recommend friends, family, and neighbors through word-of-mouth referrals.

Interpersonal relations

Believe it or not, the first step for internal marketing does not start with marketing. In fact, it begins with interpersonal relations. I have seen many practices attempt to implement internal marketing strategies, only to be stymied at every turn because the dental team lacked sufficient interpersonal skills. One of the first areas that should be addressed before implementing an internal marketing program is training the team in interpersonal relations.

Internal marketing relies on team members motivating patients to refer friends and family. If the team lacks sufficient verbal skills, provides only average customer service, or does not build strong relationships with patients, then any attempts at internal marketing will likely fail.

Many team members today do not possess exceptional interpersonal skills. This is an area not taught in school or any type of training programs. In fact, it is my belief that today's focus on technical education has de-emphasized the important role interpersonal skills play in a health-care facility. While a dental assistant may be excellent at setting up a crown and bridge tray, she or he may not have the skills to necessarily relate to his or her patients in a positive way.

Interpersonal relations are skills that can be measured using customer satisfaction surveys. Levin Group has noted that once staff members receive interpersonal training, it requires approximately 90 days for customer satisfaction surveys to improve dramatically.

Assessing your team from an interpersonal relations standpoint includes evaluating:

  • How the phone is answered
  • How patients are greeted
  • How often assistants check in with patients to see if they are comfortable during procedures
  • What assistants say to patients every time the dentist leaves the treatment room
  • The way that hygienists relate to and educate patients
  • How the front desk personnel interact with patients during check-in and check-out
  • How new patients are treated during orientation and the initial consultations
Developing internal marketing strategies

When a practices provides a uniquely positive patient experience based on strong interpersonal skills, patients feel comfortable referring their friends and family. Effective interpersonal skills set the foundation for a strong internal marketing system. Levin Group recommends that practices set a target of at least 15 ongoing internal marketing strategies that focus on motivating patients to refer. This process is referred to as critical mass. Doing a little bit is not much better than doing nothing at all. However, implementing at least 15 customized strategies that target patient referrals can have a dramatic effect.

For example, simply asking every patient for referrals following procedures is usually ineffective. Conversely, if practices implement a variety of strategies based on strong interpersonal relations, they can grow patient referrals.

Strategies include:

  • Asking patients to refer after they have had an exceptional customer service experience
  • Educating staff and patients on the importance of referrals
  • Handing out referral brochures to every patient
  • Calling patients in the evening after treatment to build trust and confidence
  • Sending out monthly e-mails with updates on dentistry and new information about the practice which keeps patients informed and in touch with the practice
These all go to the heart of creating a powerful internal marketing program. Remember, less than 15 ongoing strategies at all times will not be as effective. A structured internal marketing program can consistently hit growth targets, such as increasing:
  1. Patient referrals by 20%
  2. The number of new patients by 20% to 25%
  3. New patient production by 25% to 30%
  4. Overall production by at least 15%
The internal marketing coordinator

Most practices will not be able to implement an effective internal marketing program because they lack the necessary manpower. Doctors typically take on this role and often fail because they simply do not have time to maintain a consistent, long-term internal marketing program.

To help dentists better market their practices, Levin Group pioneered the concept of the Internal Marketing Coordinator (IMC). The IMC is a part-time employee who spends approximately eight to 10 hours each week implementing, tracking, and reviewing the internal marketing program to ensure positive results. This staff member can be trained quickly to handle this job with great expertise.

It is not necessary that this team member initially know a lot about the dental field or dental services, as this can be easily communicated. The IMC handles 95% of the internal marketing program with other staff members participating on a patient-by-patient basis.

I believe the IMC position is so important that most internal marketing programs cannot reach their full potential without one. When practices use a minimum of 15 ongoing strategies supported by an IMC, they are able to dramatically grow their practices through patient referrals.

The new patient experience

Each new patient is a gift to the practice. Almost all of these patients have been referred and have the potential to refer. One of Levin Group's targets is that 40% to 60% of patients will refer at least one other patient each year. To make this happen, the internal marketing program must include a powerful and exciting new patient experience.

Unfortunately, many practices simply bring in new patients, have them fill out forms, and move them through the process. It is essential that a new patient orientation take place prior to the patient ever meeting a clinical team member or the doctor.

This orientation sets the stage for developing a quality relationship with the practice. It includes a warm welcome from the front-desk staff, who anticipates the arrival of the new patient, greets him or her outside of the front desk, shakes hands, makes eye contact, smiles, and uses key scripting to introduce the patient to the practice. As always, scripting is a critical system for a successful new patient experience.

From there, the new patient orientation begins. This includes a practice overview, background on the doctor and team, and recent office communication including contests, events, e-mail updates, continuity of care, tracking of any referrals to specialists, etc.

With the appropriate scripting, the staff member explains why the practice is an advanced office using state-of-the-art technologies to provide the highest quality of oral health care.

During all of this, patients typically enjoy a beverage that allows them to relax and become comfortable with their new "dental home." As the orientation continues, it focuses on building a strong relationship and indoctrinates the patients into all the positive attributes of the practice.

The new patient orientation creates value and confidence about the practice in the mind of the patient. Both are essential to ultimate case acceptance. This is the first step to achieving a 90% case-acceptance target, which leads to satisfied patients who refer others.

It is also critical to survey patients regularly for customer satisfaction. A short survey to determine the level of customer service will give the practice necessary feedback. An important question to include is:

Would you refer other patients to the practice?

This question gets a yes or no answer, but once again contributes to the patient's understanding that referrals are appreciated and desired.

Increasing patient referrals

Internal marketing is a powerful method to increase patient referrals. The target is for 40% to 60% of patients to refer at least one patient a year. Go back and review your records to determine the percentage of patients who have referred another patient in the last 12 months. If you fall below the 40% mark, then it is probably time to implement a structured internal marketing program. Keep in mind that this is probably one of the best investments a dental practice can ever make!

Visit Levin Group's Dental Resource Center at www.levingroupgp.com for a wide range of educational materials, including tips, newsletters, and white papers. You can also connect with Levin Group on Facebook and Twitter (@Levin_Group) for tips, news, and sharing ideas.

Roger P. Levin, DDS, is chairman and CEO of Levin Group, a leading dental management consulting firm that is dedicated to improving the lives of dentists through a diverse portfolio of lifetime services and solutions. Since the company's inception in 1985, Dr. Levin has worked to bring the business world to dentistry. You can reach Levin Group at (888) 973-0000 or www.levingroupgp.com.

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