The Four Rules of Patient Referrals

Steve Klinghoffer
Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Family Dentistry.


Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Family Dentistry.

All dentists value word-of-mouth patient referrals. Unfortunately, many practices don’t have a sustained and well-supported program in place to generate a steady flow of these coveted recommendations. 

Placing a sign at the check-in desk is a start, but these notices often get lost amid brochures and other materials. This is not what we consider to be “sustained and well supported.” An effective program has 2 components:

  • It grabs your patients’ attention.
  • It gives them good reasons to send you referrals.

To help ensure that your referral program is well supported and its impact enduring, here are 4 rules of referral marketing. We use dental patient e-newsletters to illustrate an effective way to obtain more and better referrals. Dental e-newsletters can create a multiplying effect and help satisfy each of these 4 rules while increasing patient loyalty.

Rule 1: Make Referrals Easy

It’s one thing to tell patients that you value their referrals and ask them to send referrals your way. But it’s quite another thing to guide them through the process. Let’s say your patient, Sally, is in your office and tells you that her friend Susie has been looking for a dentist. You can respond in several ways.

You can tell Sally to have Susie contact you directly. Or, you can tell her to go to your website, if you’re set up to capture referrals, and enter Susie’s information.

But there is a more effective way to actually increase the likelihood of Susie becoming your patient. Does Sally have her friend’s contact information with her? It’s probably in her mobile phone. Ask her to provide that information to your front desk, and tell her they will be in touch with Susie to schedule an introductory appointment. If Sally isn’t willing to do that, see Rule 2.

We recommend that dentists have a link in their e-newsletter to make submitting referrals easy. This link can direct the reader either to the practice website or a contact form so that patients can easily make referrals. It must work on desktops and all popular mobile devices.

Rule 2: Give Patients an Incentive to Refer

Certainly, some patients will refer individuals to you because they trust you and believe in your practice. And that’s the best and most important reason!

But the reality is that the practices that benefit most from patient referrals do so because they offer incentives, from gift certificates to a local restaurant to entering into a drawing for a high-value prize.

One colleague of mine has a terrific approach. He has a wheel in his office. When patients send him a referral that turns into a patient, or come in on their birthday, he has them spin the wheel to get a gift or discounted treatment. It’s a fun and memorable way to remind his patients that he values them and their business.

Plus, the wheel is located in a visible spot in the office, so it serves as a constant reminder of the referral program. It’s not at all unusual for patients to be present when one lucky person gets to spin the wheel, reinforcing the message that the dentist values and appreciates referrals! That takes us to our next rule.

Rule 3: Promote the Referral Program Consistently

As mentioned earlier, it’s not enough to just have a referral program or to tell your patients about it once or twice when they are in your office. To truly benefit, you should regularly remind patients that you value their referrals—and that you offer incentives they’ll care about.

Your e-newsletter is an ideal place to include a short, noninvasive link to prompt readers to refer patients, as well as a reminder of your referral incentives. This doesn’t need to be a sales pitch, especially when it’s part of an educational newsletter your reader will value.

Ask yourself: How can your referral program highlight your practice’s desire to help more patients?

Rule 4: Say “Thank You”

While an incentive gift is an ideal way to encourage your patients to send you referrals, remember to express your gratitude as well. We’ve seen dentists very effectively send old-fashioned thank-you notes to patients for sending referrals. Others take the time to make a personal phone call. These are best when they are written or made personally by the dentist, but a thank-you call from a familiar face and voice from your front desk is also welcome.

Your Turn

If you want to increase the quality and quantity of your patient referrals, you must have a fully supported program—and it must be sustained. Follow these 4 rules to increase the potential of your referral program exponentially.

How well is your practice following the rules?

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 for a free, no-obligation consultation, or visit

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