6 Biggest Dental Professional Referral Marketing Mistakes

Steve Klinghoffer


Some dentists are experts at generating referrals from their colleagues. These dentists, mostly specialists, succeed based on professional referrals. They seem to effortlessly capture a steady stream of referrals from colleagues as well as from patients. But as you know if you’re among these successful dentists who get the lion’s share of professional referrals, it takes a lot of work to make it look easy.

These dentists succeed because they continue to receive consistent patients from existing referral sources, while simultaneously expanding their referral relationships with other dentists. 

But what if you’re not among those dentists who receive the most referrals? Maybe you’ve noticed a decrease in patient referral volume in recent months, or longer. Maybe you no longer receive patients from your one-time top referral sources.

Whether you used to receive a healthy volume of patient referrals or have never been where you’ve wanted to be, you may be making one of the 6 biggest referral marketing mistakes—but you can do something about them. Apply this what-not-to-do advice to you keep your referral relationships in good standing and to build more of them.

A Nebulous “Patient Return Policy”

Dentists commonly fear that some specialists will “keep” patients they refer, and for good reason, as they see it happen. If you want to benefit from excellent and repeat referral relations, you must alleviate that fear. Clearly communicate your process, including how you provide expert care, but then return that patient to the referring dentist. Making your patient return policy clear can make all of the difference.

Ineffective Patient Communication

The return policy is only the beginning of the mandate for excellent communication. Dentists want to be well informed of the treatment plan when they refer patients to a specialist. Those updates should come from you, the dentist, not from your patients when they’re in the office.

Specialists who communicate a treatment plan and schedule build confidence and trust among referring dentists, factors that are critical to receiving future patients. Inform the referring dentist as to when the patient should return for a followup, as well as when your treatment will be completed.

Failing to Communicate on an Ongoing Basis

Just as it is critical to communicate during a patient’s treatment, it’s essential to be in contact with referring dentists on an ongoing basis so your practice stays top-of-mind. Lack of consistency is a significant practice-building mistake.

To be top-of-mind with referring dentists, your communication must be meaningful and relevant. Otherwise, your message will be ignored. Quarterly newsletters are an ideal way to maintain ongoing communications with referring dentists. For patient communications, monthly e-newsletters are ideal.  

Not Making the Dentist Look Good

The better you make referring dentists look in the eyes of your patients, the greater the likelihood that they will continue to send you patients. By making positive and honest comments about the referring doctor and practice, such as how long you’ve worked together, what you know about the practice’s reputation, and more, you’ll build goodwill with the patient and the referring doctors. Negative comments, by contrast, have the opposite effect.

Limiting Outreach

Sometimes specialists have a narrow view of outreach to referring dentists. It’s a mistake to limit marketing efforts to only those dentists already in your network and an even greater mistake to limit marketing to those who are actively sending referrals.

For example, an oral surgeon may receive almost all of her referrals from a few dentists. But if she is serious about growing her practice, she should ask, “How many other possible referral sources are in my community?”

You should be as concerned with the dentists who don’t send referrals as the ones who do. A referral-generating newsletter to dentists who may have little or no awareness of your practice is a proven way to break the proverbial ice in a professional and subtle way.

Appearing to Take Referrals for Granted

It’s important to ensure that referring providers know how much you appreciate the patients they send you. Sometimes in the busyness of patient care and managing an office, dentists fail to show their gratitude through thank you followups, calls, gifts, and other methods. 

Think about the message this sends to referring practices. They may feel as if you are too busy to care for their patients or that you don’t appreciate them. The practice will then look for another specialist who appears more gracious.

That’s why the top referral-generating dentists have established systems for acknowledging their professional colleagues. Build a database of those dentists who refer to you. Send them birthday cards and holiday cards.

Your Turn

But above all, regularly communicate about topics in your field through a newsletter. This doesn’t have to be complicated, and it can be done with ubiquitous software like Excel and Outlook.

To be effective, referral marketing must be consistent and ongoing. Your colleagues, including those who have yet to work with you, need to hear from you on a regular basis.

These mistakes are dangerous to the health of your practice. But the good news is that a solid, repeatable process will eliminate these risks and keep you on the road to a healthy flow of referred patients.

Mr. Klinghoffer is the president and publisher of WPI Communications Inc. He founded WPI Communications with his wife, Lori, in 1984. WPI Communications is a renowned leader in newsletter marketing for dentists and other professional practices. He has helped hundreds of dentists build their practices with newsletters. To start a dental e-newsletter marketing program, or improve yours, contact WPI Communications at 800-323-4995 or info@wpicommunications.com for a free, no-obligation consultation, or visit wpicommunications.com.

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