In marketing, the best source of a new patient is word-of-mouth. Period. A personal referral is typically the most reliable marketing tactic: people trust the word of a friend, acquaintance, or even a social media peer far more than traditional advertising. This is especially true when the service sought out is related to healthcare, and right now, healthcare is the topic of endless conversation.
This means that there’s an incredible window of opportunity to maximize your word-of-mouth referrals and acquire new patients with high lifetime value (LTV). Established dental practices know word-of-mouth can be their most powerful tool, but the rules have evolved when it comes to using word-of-mouth effectively. In this unique situation, you only have one chance to get it right.
It’s time to revisit your approach to word-of-mouth referrals and pivot to meet this unique new marketing challenge. What does this mean for your practice? Taking a few small steps to show your patients how much their safety and peace of mind means to you.
What if all your dental patients were like Christine?
Let me tell you a true story. My sister is a bartender. She was telling me about going back to work as things reopen and how her smile was hidden behind her mask, making it difficult to connect with patrons in the way she preferred.
Her shift suddenly got interesting when Christine walked into the bar, ordered quickly and politely, and then said (as if she couldn’t contain herself), “I can’t help it, I’m celebrating! I just got to go to my dentist!”
Everyone knows bartenders get used as a confidant for good news and bad, but this was the first time anyone had ever come in bursting with the good news about a dental visit. As it turned out, Christine’s dentist had personally called her that morning, letting her know the offices had reopened. He said he’d love to see her that day if she had any free time.
Christine had jumped at the chance to get her “money-maker all shined up,” but told my sister the best part was getting to catch up with her dentist about their lives and families. She was so glad she had answered her phone even though she had no idea why her dentist might have been calling. A two-minute phone call converted Christine from a patient into an ambassador, organically!
Is word-of-mouth actually sending you high-value patients?
My sister’s experience with Christine showcases how much word-of-mouth is evolving right now. Historically, people didn’t just bring up their dental care in casual conversation. A successful dental cleaning or a periodontal appointment just didn’t come up as a topic during brunch!
The typical setting for word-of-mouth was previously restricted to three scenarios:
When someone’s tooth hurts, their need is urgent. A patient in pain will literally ask anyone for a referral in hopes of finding a good dentist. While there is a chance that you can retain them as a long term patient, there is a higher chance that they will be a one-off, since they only seek care when they are in crisis. As a dentist, a better goal would be to attract those patients BEFORE they experience pain.
When someone feels they must go through their dental insurance provider’s network, they ask their friends and social media contacts, “Who takes my dental plan?” You certainly don’t want dental insurance to be a driving factor in new patient acquisition. Their oral health decisions are likely to be motivated by their insurance provider, not by what is best for their dental health long term. There is a reason that many fee-for-service dentists have found that in-network participation doesn’t make sense for their model.
Cosmetic dental work can transform a person’s look, leading to people asking what is different. “Did you have work done? Botox? A lift?” No, it’s just a new smile – proving once again that the quality of a smile can make a huge first impression. While the new patients you might gain from this type of word of mouth referral have the potential for a higher return on investment (ROI), they are more likely to be few and far between. You aren’t going to do significant anterior work on every patient, and you still need to attract patients with high lifetime value (LTV).
The Original Rules for Word of Mouth
The key in the past has been to focus on four “rules” (first made famous by Andy Sernovitz) to help make your practice memorable and encourage patients to share their experiences. Now, it’s time to pivot using those same rules to guide us In creating bold new ways to interact. Ask yourself:
· Is my practice interesting?
Dentistry is traditionally seen as boring.
THEN: Many dental practices used funny videos to capture interest.
NOW: Pivot into the new normal. Make a funny video about personal protection equipment (PPE). Break out the colored markers and face paint, and join your team members is making masks into animal faces for a day.
· Is my practice making people happy?
Patient experience can be enhanced by outreach.
THEN: Many practices focused on patient recognition in the form of thank-you cards and birthday cards, or by spotlighting a patient-of-the-week, holding drawings and contests, participating in local community events, and doubling down on social media engagement.
NOW: Implement simple one to five-star rating surveys to follow up with patients as they leave your office, targeting one question at a time. Ask questions like, “How safe did you feel in our office?” “Did you notice our newest cleaning protocols?” or “Will you recommend our practice to friends and family?”
· Do people trust and respect my practice?
Build strong patient-doctor relationships.
THEN: Build strong patient-doctor relationships by listening to their concerns and questions, and include them in the development of their dental care plan.
NOW: Add personalized outreach. If a patient canceled an appointment, spend two minutes to reach out and check on them, and personally let them know it’s safe to return to your office.
· Is my practice easy to talk about?
THEN: Practice recognition focused on simply hammering home the practice name, location, and doctor name(s).
NOW: Add creation of a simple topic that will be incredibly easy for people to repeat when talking about your practice with others. This should be a single sentence that conveys a strong reason for people to choose your dental practice over other options. What makes you stand out? (Hint: make it related to your role as an essential health care provider BEFORE you make safety-related.)
Post-COVID – Take Advantage of the New Word-Of-Mouth Opportunity
The struggle to make your practice organically memorable and worth talking about is real. However, things may have just gotten a little easier. In a post-COVID environment, people are now talking about dentistry and bringing it up in conversation as relevant to current events. Instead of talking about the new restaurant they tried, they are discussing how their most recent visit with or letter from their dentist made them feel.
There is a tremendous opportunity to build trust, earn respect, and make people HAPPY and EXCITED about your practice.
What people are saying about dental experiences
In the wake of temporary dental practice closures and slow, careful reopening, people are asking their friends, “Hey, have you been to the dentist?”
They are discussing in detail their dental practice experiences.
- “I went to the dentist, and they had turned the parking area into their waiting area! I was able to sit safely in my car, text that I had arrived, and got a private escort to my treatment room.”
- “My dentist sent out a letter telling us how they were working hard to keep everyone safe during treatment. I didn’t even know they had already been using air purifiers!”
- “I’m so glad I didn’t cancel my cleaning appointment. My dental hygienist was completely covered and wore a face shield to protect us both. I felt completely safe.”
By communicating with your patients about the steps your practice is taking to provide safe treatment (even if many of the safeguards were already “invisibly” in place before!), you can build confidence and trust that will naturally come up on social media and in casual conversations.
People are asking, “Is it safe to go see the dentist?” Make it your mission to help your patients be able to confidently say, “If you go to my dentist, then yes!” Follow up with a stellar patient experience, and you’ll see new patient retention increase dramatically.
It’s all about the right word-of-mouth – done RIGHT.