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In these challenging economic times, I’ve noticed that I’m getting more questions about increasing word of mouth referrals. It’s only natural to want to make every marketing dollar count, and considering the cost (or more accurately, lack of cost), you can’t get a better return on investment than you do with good word of mouth.

If you’re not already doing it, start actively pursuing referrals. It sounds simple, but most dentists forget — or are unwilling — to actually ask for referrals. I suggest telling your patients something like this: “If you like the care that we’ve given you here in our practice, we’d love to take care of your friends, family or co-workers, so please tell them about us.” If done right, this can come off as a compliment to the patient. You’re saying that you enjoy treating them and would love to get more people like them in your practice. That’s a very positive and empowering message to give someone, as opposed to saying something like, “Oh, I need new patients. Can you help me find them?” Correctly asking for referrals tells your patients that, although your office is busy, you’d gladly make room in the schedule for friends who need your care.

While you’re at it, actively reward people who refer. If you’re tracking the results of your marketing (and you definitely should be), you’ll know when you get referrals. Whenever it happens, be sure to reward the referrer. This could be as simple as a handwritten thank you note, or it could be something like a $10 coffee card or a gift certificate — whatever seems appropriate to you. It shouldn’t be a big expense, but it can make a huge difference in the long term. One caveat, however. You don’t want to incentivize referrals; in other words, you don’t want to suggest to patients upfront that they’ll be rewarded for each referral. This is actually illegal in many states (check with your state’s Board of Dental Examiners if you ever have a question about the legality of an issue) and it can make you seem like you’re hurting for business. However, if the thank you is after the fact and unexpected, there shouldn’t be a problem.

Think about your practice and make certain it’s a place that patients will want to refer people to. It should go without saying that everyone on your staff needs to treat patients pleasantly and respectfully, but don’t discourage your team from having fun! Humor at the office can really ease a patient’s reluctance to visit the dentist. That said, while you’re working on them, what patients most desire is comfort and consideration of how they’re feeling. Remember to talk them through their procedure. You might also consider giving them some lip balm before you begin work to keep their lips from drying out or cracking, or taking a two-minute “torture break” when you’re performing a long procedure.

Word of mouth is the single most effective way of gaining new patients, but the key to making it work for you is taking great care of the ones you already have. By nurturing your relationship with them, you’ll ensure that your patients have a pleasant experience at your office — one they can fully recommend.

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Comment by Mary Jane RDH BS on January 8, 2010 at 7:56am
Extremely, well put, Fred. I hate jello. Unless you want to grow great fingernails, it is not very nutritious.
Comment by Fred Joyal on December 4, 2009 at 2:10pm
Really good point, and I wholeheartedly agree! Good reviews on websites like Yelp are becoming increasingly important. In fact, the second edition of my book contains a new section on social media, which is a topic I plan to eventually cover here as well.
Comment by Darrell Pruitt on December 4, 2009 at 12:53pm
As always, great article, Fred.

I would add that once a dentist feels comfortable asking patients for referrals, it’s just one more small step to ask patients to post a nice comment on a patient-driven referral source like Angie’s List, Yelp or DR. Oogle.

Good reviews never hurt.

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