Why Few Practices Get Most Referrals

With Thanksgiving just behind us and everybody’s attention still with friends and family, perhaps it’s time to also reflect on how your practice is thankful to its virtual  family: patients, their families, and their loved ones; and how thankful are they to your practice? 

Since patients and their families express their appreciation in the form of positive referrals, how come few practices in your area get most of the referrals? Are you one of them? If not, let’s explore what they do and what you don’t.

As everybody knows, word-of-mouth referrals are the most powerful source of growth, endorsement, and success for a dental practice. Yes, you can spend a lot of money on marketing and get patients in your chairs, but in the long run, patient retention and referrals are highly correlated with your patients’ overall experience with your staff and your practice – perhaps even more so than their clinical outcomes (necessary, but taken for granted)

In the past, all it took was to make sure your office was nicely decorated, had a comfortable waiting room, clean facilities, and friendly staff. In today’s world, while this is still expected and necessary, it’s no longer sufficient as a lot of your patients’ experience with your practice has moved from the physical realm into the digital realm.

Here is what these elite dental practices do (that most don’t) to attract the lion’s share of the current generations’ word-of-mouth referrals, social media reviews, and plain old goodwill:

Put Patients in Control

Sounds scary, right? Aren’t your patients supposed to be “patients”? Show should up on time, be quiet, and do what they’re told by you and your staff.

Well, not so fast. The people who are addicted to online shopping at 2 in the morning, text with their friends while driving (or even while flying), and get instant gratification – whether it’s next-day (or even same-day) shipping, changing their minds three times a day, and getting service with a smile on their terms – not the vendors.

An Interactive Website

Surely your practice has an engaging website – with plenty of before-and-after photos, happy testimonials, videos, educational material, and smiling pictures of you and your friendly staff. It’s got all the forms that new patients can download, print, and fill out at home before coming into the office, right?

Guess what – so does everybody else.

The elite few have gone to the next level and made their website an extension of their practice, allowing new and existing patients to schedule (and reschedule) their appointments at 2 in the morning (all controlled via schedule templates that reserve blocks of time for specific procedures with certain providers at a set capacity for each day, obviously), without having to call and leave a voicemail with your staff.

And remember those forms? They should all be personalized, interactive, and electronically signed. There is no need to print, sign with a pen, or take with you when coming in.

Automatic Patient Notifications

Gone are the days when you can hand out an appointment reminder card and expect your patients to retain it. The norm today is for your system to immediately send a Save the Date email, which also automatically inserts your appointment into the patient’s calendar. They also expect to be able to confirm, cancel, or reschedule the appointment directly from that email, right on their mobile device.

Your email and SMS appointment reminders should also be thoughtful. A reminder email sent more than one week ahead of time is irritating – and useless. One sent 2 hours before the appointment is also useless. Sending more than 1 or 2 reminders for each appointment is an outright outrage; don’t do it.

How about those instances when the patient is running late for their appointment, or when the patient has a quick question? Elite practices have an integrated, secure two-way instant messaging system that allows the patient to communicate with your staff over encrypted channels in real-time. Calling the office only to be put on hold (or worse, having the call dropped after 20 minutes on hold) is no longer acceptable.

When the patient misses an appointment without canceling, your system should send a gentle reminder to have them reschedule (for their benefit, of course). Likewise, when it’s time for a recall, your system should send a reminder (and perhaps one additional follow-up) to let them know to schedule their follow-up appointment if they have not already done so.

Multiple Procedures Per Appointment

Schedule multi-procedure appointments for the convenience of the patient, not your staff. Nothing can be more irritating than coming in for an X-ray at 8 AM, going home, and then returning for a crown placement at the same location in the afternoon.

Elite practices schedule their staff accordingly and use scheduling technology that allows them to group multiple procedures per appointment so that the patient does not have to deal with multiple reminders for back-to-back single-procedure appointments.

Manage Patient Wait-Times

Having the patient wait an hour before they are even seated is a surefire way to lose them to another practice. Be respectful of your patients’ time and plan your schedule accordingly.

The elite few use technology that allows them to manage the flow of patients within their practice (“Lighting”) and minimize overall and individual patient wait times at any step in the process. Just good is no longer good enough and fast is now the norm.

Personalized Group Communications

Successful practices send out automatic personalized emails with birthday wishes for all patients having birthdays next month, perhaps accompanied by a digital coupon for a free cleaning. Or follow-up care instructions to all patients who had a root canal last month.

How about those times when the office has to close because of a snowstorm, convention, or other event? Having a staff member voice call every affected patient only to leave a voicemail is so passe. Having your system programmed to send a personalized SMS campaign to all affected patients is the way to go today.

Social Media Integration

Whether it’s a Facebook post, an X-tweet, or an Instagram story, nothing speaks louder than positive patient reviews. Surely you can ask your patients to post positive reviews – but will they remember to do it when they get home given all the other distractions they are subjected to?

Some degree of automation helps – but only if it’s done right. Ask for a positive review before you do anything to help them clinically? There is nothing to review yet, so you’ve wasted one chance. Ask for a review mid-treatment, especially when the patient is in a lot of pain and the positive outcome is not visible yet. Well now, we all know what they’ll do instead… And asking for a positive review after each appointment comes across as downright stalking. Don’t do it.

Elite practices have smart, integrated review request technology that matches these requests with times when the patient is the most likely to respond in a highly positive fashion. For example, towards the end of the treatment, when the clinical outcome is obvious. The review request technology is highly personalized to the type of treatment the patient is receiving, including suggested review snippets that the patient can copy and paste, with minor edits, to save time.

Remember, you have to ask to get these reviews today, as few patients will actually volunteer to post, but timing is also important. Don’t ask the wrong patients, at the wrong time. Above all, don’t be a pest – or the results will be the opposite of those you want.

Financial Contract Planner With Auto-Pay

If you offer patient financing for expensive treatments (like orthodontia, maxillofacial surgery, or implants), putting the patient in control of their payment plan can sometimes double or triple your closing ratio – while increasing your patients’ satisfaction as well.

Elite practices have technology that allows them to set financing parameters (amount financed, FICO score-driven interest rate, maximum contract length, and minimum down payment), integrate with their insurance coverage for their estimated insurance portion (if any), and then let the patient (or the responsible party) interact with the tool to choose their most convenient payment plan: down payment amount, monthly payment, contract duration, etc.

A good payment planner tool will even allow the patient to compare several different alternate plans (including a pay-in-full option, perhaps) and view, for each, the total interest paid, the prepayment discount (if any), and other pertinent metrics to allow them to make an informed decision and choose a payment plan that makes the most sense for them.

Once the payment plan is chosen and the contract is signed (electronically, of course), the patient is given the option to put this contract on “auto-pay” by entering the form of payment of their choice (credit or debit card or bank / ACH transfer) to avoid late fees & additional interest, and for their (and your) ultimate convenience.

Secure Patient Portal

Everybody is banking online today, right? Well, why shouldn’t a dental practice offer a secure, HIPAA-compliant patient portal that allows patients and their responsible parties to:

  • View their past appointments and schedule, confirm, cancel, or reschedule future appointments.
  • View and download their requested copies of X-rays, periodontal charts, cephalometric analyses, etc. – right from their secure messaging inbox.
  • View and download all signed onboarding and consent forms.
  • View and download all the insurance claims you made on their behalf.
  • View and download all their active financial contracts.
  • View their charges, payments, and amounts due – including aged receivables.
  • Pay their current or overdue balance, partially or in full, right from the secure portal
  • And much, much more.

In Conclusion:

Patient referrals are the main driver of success for top dental practices today. To maximize these, your practice must offer a superlative experience that rises above the “cookie cutter” level most dental practices offer today, and is highly in sync with the evolving expectations of the new, digitally empowered generations of patients, parents, and loved ones.

Show your thankfulness to them by offering an experience that is at least on par with their current expectations – and more. They’ll be very thankful to you as well 😊

Picture of Victoria Parker

Victoria Parker

Marketing Manager @Visual Practice: Integration. Automation. Simplicity. “Voted best specialty dental + orthodontic software for new and expanding practices”

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