Patient Referrals by Casey Bull

Categories: Marketing;
Patient Referrals 

The most effective ways to earn them don’t rely on vouchers or incentives


by Casey Bull


All healthy orthodontic practices have referrals coming in from various places and don’t rely too heavily on any one source. The ideal split would be 25% family, 25% dental professional, 25% digital marketing and 25% community word-of-mouth. One of the highest-converting referral sources is patient referrals (which would fall under both community word-of-mouth and family). If every patient referred just one person, family or friend, a practice could fully sustain the current patient load indefinitely—that’s the dream. So how can we maximize our patient referrals? In my opinion, the top three ways are:

  • Delivering exceptional customer service.
  • Properly leveraging family discounts.
  • Sending thoughtful, handwritten notes.

When looking at patient referrals in general, there are two reasons that people are driven to refer: They had an extraordinary experience, or there was a trigger that prompted the referral. Every component of a practice’s patient-referral strategy needs to build upon at least one of these two components.

Delivering exceptional customer service

A great patient experience is at the core of every patient referral. It’s important to deliver exceptional customer service at every step of the way of the new-patient journey because if a patient’s experience is underwhelming (or worse), it’s unlikely they’ll make any referrals even if they’re incentivized to do so.

Ultimately, before implementing any complex or costly referral strategy, it is pivotal to ensure that patient experience is consistently exceptional. The best tool to determine the “quick wins” for customer service improvement is to run a quick SWOT analysis. This simple but effective tool that looks at strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats will shine a light on gaps that practices are already aware of but haven’t put in the time and attention required to improve.

Some foundational areas to keep in mind that affect patient experience are communication and convenience.

Improved communication comes in many forms: phone etiquette, email messaging, practice literature, care calls, appointment reminders and more. Every piece of communication should be:

  • Accurate.
  • Personalized.
  • Proactive.
  • Prompt.
  • Genuine.
  • Friendly.

Similarly, there are many ways to offer your patients convenience, which include:

  • Ways to pay.
  • Opening hours.
  • Parking.
  • Appointment availability.
  • Virtual appointments.

Properly leveraging your family discounts

While most practices consider family referrals separate from general patient referrals, it’s important to understand how properly leveraging family discounts can have a big impact on overall patient-referral totals.

Identifying how to incorporate “family” into all areas of the practice is at the core of this strategy. The first thing to do is identify and specify the full scope of the practice’s family discounts, sometimes called a “family care program.” This can include a combination of:

  • Discount on treatment for siblings in treatment.
  • Discount on treatment for parents of patient in active treatment.
  • Free records or consultation for any member of the family.
  • Extended payment plans for each additional family member in treatment.

Once the complete value proposition for the family care program has been defined, it’s time to promote it through various channels: brochures in the office, featured page on the practice website, email marketing and social media posts.

Promotion of the program isn’t about pushing the financial benefits; it’s about communicating that you understand the importance of care and convenience for the whole family. Post photos or videos of siblings at an appointment together on social media with a caption saying how you make appointment scheduling easier with family scheduling (“Ask us about our family care program”). You can even incorporate a family focus in some of the practice contests or raffles.

Having a focus on family not only reminds parents that you offer adult treatment but also helps the wider community that you serve see this as an area your practice values. Few practices make this one of their unique selling propositions in marketing efforts, so this is a great way to differentiate yourself from the competition.

Mailing handwritten notes

In this technology-focused world, a thoughtful handwritten message sent through the mail really cuts through the noise. A message sent through text or email just doesn’t have the same impact. Sending these kinds of notes adds to the overall patient experience and also acts as a trigger to prompt the referral—not because you’re asking for them to refer to their friends or family but because often a letter like this is placed on the fridge, counter, etc., where for days or weeks it acts as a physical reminder of their experience with your practice. This reminder can be a trigger in conversations with friends about the practice.

These notes should not be written from templates. Rather, be sure to follow these four key elements:

  • Handwritten: It shows you care.
  • Warm: Salutation and signoff should be warm and not corporate.
  • Personal: Relate to something specific about or discussed with the patient.
  • Genuine: This is about building relationships. Do not solicit referrals.

And just like any other sustainable change in the practice, it is important to build a system that provides structure to follow. Here is an example of a system to follow:

  • Allocate time: Five minutes every day (avoid end-of-day).
  • Set expectations: One card per team member, per day.
  • Create process: Write card, address envelope and place in tray. Add note to treatment card.
  • Incentives: Monthly prize or rewards for team members who send the most.

Why no mention of referral vouchers or incentives?

This is a standard in most orthodontic practices and something that practices should continue. But unfortunately, without a phenomenal customer experience with personal touchpoints along the way, the referral voucher won’t be effective.

People aren’t motivated to refer a friend just to get a gift card. They have to be comfortable accepting the social risk that comes with referring friends to a service provider of any kind because that friend will judge them (even if just subconsciously) on the services, experience and pricing for that provider. They won’t accept that risk for a small financial incentive that’s guaranteed only if the person referred actually starts.

The way to think about patient referrals is that there is no quick “Do this now for this immediate result” strategy. The most effective strategy is to think of it as a rising tide. Aim for slow and steady improvements to the patient experience with the goal of creating practice advocates. This has to be done through systematic sustainable changes throughout the practice. And the final cherry on top is to simply ask for referrals.


Author Bio
Casey Bull
Casey Bull, the global director of content and community at The Invisible Orthodontist (TIO), drives TIO’s efforts to provide member practices with marketing and business management expertise. Bull began her career in the orthodontic industry working for Dr. Alexander Waldman in Beverly Hills in 2014. While working for the practice, she developed a range of practice management processes encompassing tracking and reporting, management systems and templates, treatment plans, marketing programs and more.

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