New patients are your strongest marketing tool

Sept. 1, 2000
An investment in what new patients experience in your dental practice is equivalent to investing in a marketing campaign that ensures the growth of your practice. If you enter a relationship with a new patient by focusing on education and communication, you`ll win the patient over, reduce turnover, and make case acceptance much easier. You`ll also be more likely to get referrals.

CAESY proudly sponsors: Dental Economics` three part series, Raising Your Patients` Dental IQ

An investment in what new patients experience in your dental practice is equivalent to investing in a marketing campaign that ensures the growth of your practice. If you enter a relationship with a new patient by focusing on education and communication, you`ll win the patient over, reduce turnover, and make case acceptance much easier. You`ll also be more likely to get referrals.

In fact, a new patient exam can be your very best marketing tool. You can lay the foundation for how new patients can expect to interact with you, as well as build relationships in which you raise their dental IQs. Your new patients will better understand what`s in their best interest and will value the service that you provide.

Before the appointment - the first impression

Your first opportunity to communicate with the new patient is the initial contact. Whether it`s via phone or e-mail, it`s important that your response to new patients is prompt and warm.

Once you`ve scheduled the appointment, you can prepare the patient with information about your practice before she comes in. Invite her to check out your Web site to "meet" the rest of the staff or let her know you`ll be sending some information in the mail. You can also do a combination of the two.

"We invite new patients to visit our Web site to learn more about the practice, and to fill out health history and patient registration forms," says Dr. Tom Hedge of West Chester, Ohio. "We also send out a packet with a map, health history forms, brochure, and a letter explaining what to bring with them."

Dr. Barry Freydberg of Skokie, Ill., adds, "We have just started to e-mail a welcome letter with a link to our Web site. The e-mail invites new patients to learn more about us before they come in, and we`re adding such things as patient registration and pre- and post-treatment instructions."

It doesn`t matter how you reach out before the appointment; just make sure you do reach out. The information given to the new patient increases her comfort level. But how does this simple act become a marketing tool? If you direct the new patient to your Web site, she is more apt to go online to satisfy her curiosity about her new dentist. She`ll remember that you have a Web site and - once you`ve impressed her with your expert dental care - she can easily recommend you by e-mailing a link from your Web site to any friend or colleague who is in need of a new dentist.

Greeting the new patient - the Wow factor

Designate one or two staff members to introduce the new patient to the practice. Greet new patients warmly when they arrive. The welcoming staff members can take patients on a brief tour of the office. They`ll see the treatment rooms, the hygiene rooms, laboratory, sterilization areas, intraoral cameras, or other high-tech equipment. During the tour, the new patient is casually introduced to other staff members.

"We give them a warm hello and offer coffee or juice," says Hedge. "Then we give them a tour of our office - every room and nook and cranny. It`s scripted, and there`s a reason for everything we ask. As they`re walking past the Panorex, we explain what it is and ask, `Have you had one taken in the past five years?` The tour is directed at collecting information."

As with any part of the new patient experience, it is important to impart information and absorb information as well. Make sure the staff member is asking questions and is paying attention to the new patient`s verbal and nonverbal responses during the tour.

This may be the first time the patient has experienced such a thorough introduction to their dentist`s office. If new patients feel welcomed and better understand the technology you use, they`ll feel more comfortable about returning to you for dental care.

Getting to know all about you

After the initial meeting and tour of the office, it`s time to start getting to know as much about your new patient as possible. The more information you can glean about their experiences and attitudes about dentistry, the easier it will be to present cases down the road.

It`s best to have a consultation room or small office for sitting down with the patient for a pre-clinical interview. The purpose of this time is to listen to the patient. Many offices socialize with the patient for several minutes prior to getting into the dental history.

"In our practice, the first question the staff member always asks is, `Tell me a little bit about yourself? We`ll talk about the teeth later,` " says Dr. Les Prasad of North Attleboro, Mass.

The greeter can then go over the patient chart and clarify the medical history. Or this can be the time that the greeter fills out the forms for the patient in an interview-type format. That way, the staff member can take notes and learn the subtleties about the patient`s past experience, including fears, concerns, and goals for dental health. Armed with this information, you`re better able to treat the patient and satisfy her needs.

Dr. Debra King uses this method in her practice in Atlanta. "Immediately, they notice our office is different. We`re not handing them forms. We fill out the forms," she says.

It`s important to jot down notes in the chart, not only to enable other staff members to review, but also to acknowledge the patient`s past experiences. When they see that someone is taking the time to document their story, patients feel that their fears and goals are being affirmed.

Part of the initial meeting can be spent posing questions such as, "If there were anything you could change about your smile, what would it be?" Responses not only help you understand their goals, but also help with potential cosmetic cases. When the patient is taken to the operatory for the next step of the visit, this information can be given to the dentist. This process confirms to the patient that she has been heard, and the trust is transferred from the greeter to the dentist.

Even though patients do most of the talking during the interview, they`re also learning a lot about you and your practice.

"The pre-clinical interview allows you to learn about your patient while they learn about you," says Mary Osborne, a dental communication consultant in Seattle.

The new patient, of course, hasn`t yet learned about the excellent dentistry provided by the practice. But what she has learned so far - and what often is more important in the patient`s mind - is that your practice listens to her needs and cares about her.

"Patients judge us not by the margins of the crowns, or the occlusion, or the contacts. They judge us by what we say and what they feel about us," says Dr. Prasad.

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A special time

Many practices treat the time with new patients as sacred. They know the importance of the first impression.

"From the moment the phone call comes, that person is the most important person in the world," says Dr. Les Prasad. "That person gets the five-star treatment." That five-star treatment can range anywhere from having one or more staff members responsible for taking the new patient through the first few visits, to having special times during the day blocked off for new patient appointments."

Dr. Debra King applies both methods. "We have four business office people, and all are trained to take new patient calls," she says. "And we have three people who are trained to be new patient coordinators.

"We only see our new patients in the afternoon, because we`ve found that if you try to see new patients at the same time as your operative patients, you`ll feel rushed and your patients will notice that. A cosmetic patient has paid me lots of money, and she wants my full attention. And the new patients sense that you`re rushed. Eliminating that `rushed feeling` has accounted for the largest increase in our cosmetic cases."

Consultant Mary Osborne heartily agrees with this approach: "There is no more powerful message you can convey than `I have time for you.`"

Such personal attention will be an unexpected bonus for most new patients, and it will be greatly appreciated. The impact of spending the time and the energy to give your patients the full attention they deserve will ensure that they`ll be loyal to your practice, and more comfortable trusting your treatment recommendations.