“Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and you only can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.” Carl Sandburg
How many times in the past few months have you run across articles in dental journals that promise, absolutely and positively, to help you get and keep new patients? How many of these say that the right script is the answer, or that the front desk person has to be smiling, welcoming, and of course, competent? These types of articles abound and, while I am drawn to them, I am always left feeling they haven’t taught me anything I did not already know. It is a bit like a tasty and appealing Chinese meal that initially fills me up, but leaves me hungry an hour later. No matter how attracted I was to the article, it didn’t seem to address the real problem. The problem in a nutshell is the following: “My marketing plan is really working well, and I have lots of new patients, but there is only one problem—most of them don’t show up!”
A NEW RELATIONSHIP: IT STARTS WITH A PHONE CALL
A call from a potential new patient is, in many ways, the most important activity that occurs in our office. It is the start of a relationship and, because we believe that relationships are the basis of our success, this call is the very foundation of our practice.
The following outline, committed to memory, should be an essential skill-set for staff members who answer the phone:
- Opening Line
- Patient History
- Purpose and Attitude
- Follow-Through (Personal)
- Follow-Through (Nonpersonal)
- The Guarantee
- The Reconfirmation
Establish whether this is a patient of record, or a potential new patient. This can be tricky. Sometimes it is awkward to ask the caller if they have previously been treated in your office, and some mechanism should be established to identify whether the caller is a patient of record. If the caller’s name is unfamiliar you might punch up the name into the computer at the beginning of the call. Sometimes, awkward as it might be, you just have to ask.
Purpose and Attitude
The call with the patient of record should be straightforward. Establish the purpose of the call. If there is a specific problem, identify it—area of pain or discomfort, the nature of the pain or sensitivity, how long this has been going on and so forth. Spend some time here—it is well worth it. The key here is to be empathetic. This is important since most times the folks that call us are in some discomfort. They rarely call to discuss the weather. The caller’s chart should be pulled while you are on the phone so that the conversation can be patient-specific. This conveys a powerful sense that you know and remember your patient. The caller should feel taken care of.
When a call comes in from a potential new patient, a good staff person will be excited by this new call, filled with adrenaline, and tempered with skill. After all, this staff person is now responsible for the growth of the practice and we are depending on them to perform. This call is all about possibilities. The new patient script must begin with these questions.
- “Whom might we thank for the referral?” or
- “How did you hear about our office?”
This question is logical, but often times a caller who is rushing or in pain may not want to hear your question. Don’t be deterred; it is an essential question and must be asked at this time. We are operating in the dark without this information. But worse than that, in the absence of this question and the ones that will follow we are abdicating our leadership in the conversation. You are the leader of this conversation, not the caller. People who ask questions are in control, a valuable pearl in all interactions.
Callers will generally give you one of 3 responses:
1. The name of a patient of record—in other words, an internal or personal referral)
2. A specific advertisement, the yellow pages, or some external source—in other words, a nonpersonal referral. At this point we might also ask, “What was it about the advertisement that attracted you?” This is a good way to start a conversation with someone you are meeting for the first time. It is an engaging question.
3. A source somewhere between the 2 categories. “I can’t remember who told me,” the caller may say, “Dr. _______’s name up came in conversation and I heard your office was fantastic.” Treat this as a nonpersonal referral even though the person might have some connection to the practice. It is too vague to be reliable.
The personal referral conversation is fun and easy. The caller will tell you who made the referral, you will say something personal and positive about the referring patient, the caller will agree, and then you go to work on the details of the appointment date and time. Tell him or her to arrive 15 minutes early to fill out the paperwork (possibly it can be sent electronically or by regular mail).
Now you can go on with the details:
- If the caller is in pain, see him or her immediately (same day).
- Get the address (for city dwellers, remember the apartment number will be necessary for delivery), and of course, the Zip code.
- Get all phone numbers: business, home, and cell.
- Be sure to request an email address.
(Repeat all of this information back to the new patient.)
- We have developed a routine after this personal referral call. We send a “new patient” letter to the caller, followed by a thank-you call to the patient who made the referral. In our office, the doctor makes the thank-you call. It is expresses our sincere appreciation for our patient’s recommendation.
In my office these calls go something like this: “Hello, Mary, this is Dr. Goldstein (or Alan). I wanted to thank you for referring Bob to our office; he just called and will be coming in next week. Thanks! Also, and of course without violating any confidences, I want to ask if there is anything you know about Bob that would help us be more welcoming to him—you know, maybe he is super-nervous or there are cosmetic issues. Again I don’t want to cross the confidentiality line, but we want to be really welcoming for Bob.” (I leave a lot of space for a response here.) “Okay, thanks, Mary—and I’ll be seeing you in 3 weeks for your regular checkup!”
The work with the nonpersonal referral is more challenging. It involves the same details as that of the personal referral, except that we don’t know if the caller qualifies for our practice. To use sales language: the notion of a qualified buyer is central to the successful sales process. Everyone would like a BMW, but not everyone qualifies as a BMW buyer.
We do not give appointments to nonpersonal referrals without a credit card guarantee. The reason for this is straightforward. We have found that callers who found us in the yellow pages and the Internet are far less reliable than those who are personally referred. This is not a moral judgment but rather based on our experience during years of practice. We cannot afford the possibility of a lost hour of chair time. The credit card guarantee almost assures us that the person will show up or give us the proper notice for cancellation.
Next you say, “I want to reconfirm your address because I’m sending you a letter [or e-mail] that tells you about our office, a bit about each member of our staff, and a description of the various kinds of technology we employ.” (This is an important sentence since it conveys a commitment to modern and patient-friendly dentistry.) “I look forward to meeting you on ______ at _______am/pm.”
Disclosure: Dr. Goldstein reports no conflicts of interest.