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
- 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:
Similarly, there are many ways to offer
your patients convenience, which include:
- Ways to pay.
- Opening hours.
- 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
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
- 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
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
- 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.
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.