(This article is an 8 minute read)
THREE THINGS YOU’LL GET FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1. The three ways you can attract patients
2. The balance between financial cost and time cost for each method
3. Options to balance the cost of each
The need to attract patients is a more pressing for dentists than for other health professionals. According to BOQ Specialist’s recent Specialists Serving Specialists report, dentists are in oversupply: “Even if the economy were to boom, dentists would still face challenging headwinds,” the report points out.
The combination of many more dental graduates, overseas-trained dentists and the competitive pressures of corporate groups and preferred-provider deals with insurance companies have created a squeeze on your average practice from all sides. Profit margins are slimming. The best solution is to get more patients.
Unfortunately, there’s no one magic button you can press to attract patients to your practice. Because a percentage of the population perceive dentistry to be a discretionary spend (until they try to fix their own dental abscess with a panadol and some pliers), you have to educate them on all you can do. That’s easy when they’re in the chair already—but how do you get them there in the first place?
You have three options, and you can choose some or all of them. Each of them has pros and cons. The difference is some cost a heap of money, but take less time. Others cost less but take more time.
Attract patients through traditional advertising
FINANCIAL COST: 90%
TIME COST: 10 %
Traditional advertising involves buying an advertisement in a newspaper, or on radio or TV or Google or Facebook. The idea is, you find people who are reading or watching or listening to something they like, and you interrupt them with your ad asking them to buy something or book an appointment.
PROS: The great thing about this method is you will reach a large number of people very quickly. A small percentage of those people will want to go to a dentist right now, and a small percentage of them will actually pick up the phone and make an appointment. The theory is, the more people see your ad, the greater number will make up that small percentage.
CONS: What you’re paying for with advertising is reach and cut-through. So traditional advertising can get very expensive before you ever see a return on your investment. The logic of the equation—the more people your ad gets in front of, the greater your returns—works really well for, say, Coca Cola, but doesn’t necessarily work as well for dental practices, whose clients are generally locally based (so to a limited population). And if you are advertising a service that lots of other dentists also advertise—Invisalign, for example—then your ad is competing against all other dentists advertising the same thing. So you get less cut-through.
OPTIONS: It’s tricky finding a sweet spot between minimum reach and maximum cut-through (which equals minimum investment for maximum return). There’s no guaranteed formula for it. But if you can find something about your practice that is completely unique, that no other dentist in the country can offer, then you can potentially get greater cut-through, just because you’re competing against fewer dentists.
Attracting new patients through word-of-mouth
FINANCIAL COST: Minimal
TIME COST: Impossible to measure
Everyone believes word-of-mouth is the best way to get new patients. An existing patient comes into your practice, has a wonderful experience, then tells all their friends to go to you. People trust recommendations from their friends and family more than any other source. Here’s hoping their friends and family all have pressing but non-serious oral health problems.
PROS: People trust people they know. It’s human nature. And sometimes, all it takes to get a recommendation from someone is to ask for one. Sometimes you don’t even have to do that (you just have to keep being awesome, like you always do).
CONS: While it’s nice to think this process will happen with every patient, the truth is, it won’t. Sometimes they just forget. Sometimes their friends don’t need to see a dentist. Sometimes they’re just being polite to you, and have no intention of telling anyone else. The point is, as a marketing strategy you have no control over this. And even if you did—if you could hypnotise patients and convince them to recommend you—you couldn’t measure it to know which ones it was working on. If you can’t measure it, you can’t know for sure it’s happening, and you can’t repeat it.
OPTIONS: Look at this from a patient’s point of view—when you’re sitting in a dental chair with a rubber dam around your mouth, it’s not a natural spot to spark up a conversation and build a relationship. Think of using social media or your own website to have conversations and start relationships with potential customers.
Attract patients through expertise and authority
FINANCIAL COST: 20-to-50% (depending on what you do)
TIME COST: 50-to-80%
There are two types of authority. One comes from studying for years and years and years, publishing papers, gathering higher qualifications. Other dentists treat you with reverence. It’s a good thing. The other type of authority comes from being a trusted source of good information for your patients. You’ve already done the hard yards with this second type of authority—you know more about restorative dentistry and oral health than they do.
PROS: There are some details about dentistry that your patients are not interested in. But there’s an enormous amount they are interested in—more than you suspect. Primarily because they are interested in their own health. If you are a trusted source of information about health, they will be much more likely to want to go to you when they have a need for dental services.
CONS: Building expertise and authority takes time—not just learning, but also teaching. It involves talking to people about the problems they’re having, listening to them and their concerns, and then giving them solutions to those problems. You need to do it over and over, time and again, to more and more people before you are recognised as an expert. And every hour you spend doing it is an hour you’re NOT spending chairside with an existing patient.
OPTIONS: There are public forums where you can regularly interact with people on health issues in a less time consuming way, and still build up your authority. Writing letters to the editor of the local paper, talking to small groups (like school groups or mothers groups) about oral health, or interacting with groups on social media can all help establish expertise. If you’re going to go down that path, make sure you guide them towards your website so you can keep talking with them and maybe capture their details.
Whichever method you choose to grow patient numbers really depends on a number of factors. The life stage your practice is at, how quickly you want tyo grow, and the type of patients you want to attract are all factors that will affect your decision.
Once you've worked those things out, you can get started with some simple marketing plans that will get people ringing up and walking in the door!