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Better than a mug: How to give your dental patients gifts they'll really appreciate

Jan. 16, 2017
Gifts for people we hardly know tend to be duds, and the same holds true for dental patient gifts. Don't give your patients something else to clutter their junk drawers—use the principle of reciprocity.

Every year during the holiday season, I run across articles that analyze the economics of gift giving. The consensus is that gifts for people you hardly know tend to be duds.1 We're poor judges of what other people want. Unless the giver is close to us and the gift has sentimental value, it's better to give cash or a gift card.

What does this have to do with your dental practice? Well, if you're trying to persuade patients to refer a friend, leave a review, or schedule their next appointment, it helps to activate the principle of reciprocity.

What is reciprocity?

Reciprocity is when someone gives you a gift or does you a favor, spurring you to give a gift or do a favor in return. For instance, when one of my children has a birthday, my wife hands out party favors to the guests. They've come and given my child a gift, so we feel an obligation to give a gift in return. Human society is based on this concept. Throughout history, we have records of people giving, receiving, and reciprocating gifts and favors. One of the most powerful ways to motivate someone to help you is to help him or her first.

However, this principle is only activated when the recipient will value the gift. If I give you a new sports car, you'll probably feel like you're in my debt and want to pay me back with an equivalent gift. If I give you an ugly lamp that was left over after the neighborhood rummage sale, you're not going to want to help me. You'll resent me because I've just saddled you with a worthless piece of junk that will clutter up your garage instead of mine.

Reciprocity and patient swag

So, this brings me back to your dental office. What kind of gifts are you giving your patients? Most dentists give out toothbrushes and floss, and that's become the baseline for our profession. If you get your teeth cleaned and don't get a toothbrush, you're going to think there's something wrong with the practice. Some dentists try to up their game and give patients branded items like mugs, Frisbees, and tote bags.

If your patient really needed a tote bag, this might activate the principle of reciprocity. But let's be honest. Most American families already have too many mugs, Frisbees, and tote bags. They're looking for ways to get rid of this stuff, not acquire more of it. Typical "business swag'" isn't an effective way to activate the principle of reciprocity, because we're lousy judges of how much someone will want a mug with our office logo on it, even if it's otherwise a really great mug.

So how can you, as a dentist, give your patients gifts they actually want? I suggest following the advice of economists and going with a gift card. Worried about cost? I've found a way to make these work for a cost of 24 cents each.

Three steps to gift cards for your patients

I've begun giving my patients food and drink gift cards to local businesses. My practice, my patients, and the business owners all come away happy, yet I'm only spending about a quarter a card. How is that possible?

1. Approach local businesses that sell really great products. In order for gift cards to be valuable, they actually have to be usable at great local businesses. Approach cafés, coffee shops, and ice cream parlors that you patronize yourself. Stick with local small businesses, not chains. Aim for the sort of places that your patients have been looking for an excuse to try.

2. Ask the owner about advertising. I ask the owners, "How much would you be willing to pay for an ad that would bring you a new customer, guaranteed?" Most are willing to spend between $5–$10 for each new customer. Right now, they're usually spending large amounts on advertising campaigns that only bring in a few people. I'm offering them a solution where they'll only pay for actual new customers. They agree to honor the gift cards that my patients will bring to their store, and save them for me so I can collect them and track how they're being used.

3. Create branded gift cards and everyone wins. Your gift cards should have your name, the local business' name and address, and a dollar amount. Suddenly, you've created something of value to give your patients.

You're giving them $5 or $10 at a local café or coffee shop, which means they get to treat themselves to anything on the menu that they find appealing. You get the persuasion boost that comes from giving an appreciated gift. Now is the time to ask for a referral, review, or the next appointment. If you've chosen good businesses that you'd recommend to family and friends, your patients are likely to go back again and again after the initial gift card. The business has just gained a loyal customer.

A few key points

I've been running this gift card incentive program for a while, and here are a few things to keep in mind if you want to make it run smoothly:

  • Stick with local businesses, not chains or franchises. This makes it easier to get owner approval and keeps the program running smoothly.
  • Offer a variety of cards. Some of your patients may not want coffee. Others may be anti-ice cream or not enjoy diners. Offering a choice makes the gift more valuable. You can even add cards that cover additional dental services to encourage patients to make the jump from preventative to cosmetic services. For instance, many of my patients choose cards for services like Zoom tooth-whitening treatments (figure 1).
  • Track the cards to see how many are getting used and where. If they're not showing up "in the wild," you may need to tweak the program to provide a better value.

Figure 1: Example of patient card

Reciprocity is such a basic part of human relationships that we often overlook it. However, when we use it in our marketing and use it well, it becomes a great tool for growing our practices and building better relationships with our patients and communities.


1. Klein E. An economist's guide to gift-giving. The Washington Post website. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/12/25/an-economists-guide-to-gift-giving/?utm_term=.ba61cfa1d51c. Published December 25, 2013. Accessed December 9, 2016.

Christopher Phelps, DMD, is an entrepreneur and general dentist who owns multiple practices in the Charlotte, North Carolina, region. His passion for business and marketing helped him increase the revenue of his practices by 10 times in six years. He is also a certified trainer in Dr. Cialdini's method of influence.

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