By: Christine Alfano —
Most dental practice owners are on the lookout for ways to keep their waiting rooms busy, their treatment chairs full, and their office phones ringing from new patients, as well as continue top-notch treatment for their existing patients. While dentists want to build their patient populations, they need to beware of gimmicks and marketing ploys that can erode the integrity of their brands.
Instead, practice owners should focus on building a pattern of repeatable, long-term behavior that invites patients into their practices. The strategies used to grow new-patient numbers can also help engage current patients.
Acquiring new patients starts with examining how you interact with your patients—the first time and ever afterward. You can never assume that just because you’ve seen a patient before that they will return to your office. With so much competition in the market, this has never been truer.
Make a great first impression
What’s the first encounter that most prospective new patients have with your dental practice? At a recent conference, dental professionals who were asked this question shared a multitude of answers: phone calls, front desk receptionist, or the building and office appearance from the street. If you think it’s any of these, you’re likely wrong. The first impression your practice provides is often through your website or an online search. If you’re not actively working on these two items for your practice yet are looking for ways to grow your patient base, these are the places you need to start.
If you have a website, you need to ask: Is it up-to-date? Is it relevant? Does it look like it’s 10 years old? Is the copyright five years old? Does it feature information or events from many years ago? Is it responsive? Responsive means, does it respond to the screen size and device being used to access it, and does it look good on mobile devices? What impression are you making? An outdated, ill-conceived (but functional) website might give the impression that you don’t care about patient experiences. At the very least, update your website annually with fresh images and content. If you can make monthly or even weekly updates—providing blogs with useful information such as dental tips—even better!
Finally, don’t forget the importance of search engine optimization (SEO). This can be tricky, but it sounds harder than it is. There are many online resources to help you optimize your website, and there are also many partners and services available to manage this for you. If you decide that you need the assistance of an outside firm, which could be helpful for developing a responsive website maximized for SEO, invest your marketing dollars wisely and measure the results and you should see a good return on your investment. As a side note, search engines such as Google reward responsive sites more highly in search results than sites that are not responsive. This should be a key concern when evaluating your current website.
Hire friendly people and greet your patients
This should really go without saying, but you need to hire friendly and sincere people for your practice. Once a prospective patient has visited your website and made an appointment, your people are up to the plate. Your team members’ attitudes are the thing that leave the most lasting impression on patients, especially new patients.
Employees must be properly trained in office etiquette, including offering sincere greetings and how to meet patient expectations from the moment the door opens. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, worse for patients than walking into an office for their appointments and not being greeted immediately by the staff.
Here’s an example of something that happened to me recently. I walked into my dentist’s office for a 1 p.m. appointment. Four women were behind the front desk. Only one was on the phone, and there were no other patients in the waiting room. To my surprise, no one said a word to me. I went ahead and scribbled my name on the sign-in sheet and sat down and listened to them discuss what to order for lunch. Not a single member of the staff acknowledged me until the hygienist called me back for my cleaning.
I usually have a great customer experience at this practice, and I love my doctor, but that day I was disappointed by my invisibility. The appointment itself went great, as usual, but that initial experience left me with a sour taste in my mouth. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and go back, but I wonder whether I’d be so forgiving if I was a new patient with no good past experiences with the office?
Solicit feedback and referrals from your patients
Every business needs to know how it’s doing, and asking patients is the best way to find out. Whether you ask them on their way out as they schedule their next appointment, send them an email survey or text message, or call them a day or two after their appointments, the best thing you can do is ask your patients how things went, what they thought of their patient experience, and if there’s anything your team could improve for their next visit. The last one is important because if they have any suggestions, you need to know. Most people like to be heard, and while not everyone may be willing to complete a survey, you won’t know unless you ask.
If you have a patient referral program, let patients know about this when you ask them how their appointments were. You can even offer incentives for them to participate. For example, for any referrals gained through your patients, you could reward those patients with a gift card or a discount on your services to show your appreciation.
Use patient feedback to shape your practice
If you ask for feedback, take it to heart . . . seriously. Otherwise, you’re wasting everyone’s time. Share feedback with your team. If, for example, you discover that your staff is not as welcoming as they should be, bring this to their attention at the next staff huddle. Encourage them to be mindful of patients and carrying on private conversations in the office’s public spaces.
Conversely, if you receive stellar feedback about your team, be sure to acknowledge and reward that behavior. Consider rewarding these top-notch employees with free lunches or gift cards for excellent service. Recognizing and encouraging positive performance is more important than you may realize because your staff are what will keep patients coming back.
As you stay on the lookout for new patients and work hard to keep your chairs full, start with quality interactions with patients both online and in person, hire and nurture exceptional employees, ask for feedback, and act on that feedback. Doing this should help set you apart from the competition and let patients know that you care. If they know that you care, they’ll reward you with repeat appointments, and they just might tell their friends about you as well.
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