Websites, SEO, and the Referral Practice

Jennifer de St. Georges


As I walked the exhibit halls at the Greater New York Dental Meeting last November, I was struck by the growing number of companies offering dental social media/website services. With one or 2 exceptions, I found the booths staffed with sales forces from outside dentistry. I felt I was having a Shark Tank moment as I listened to the sales pitches. (I am not sure I heard the phrase “patient acquisition costs,” but I came close.) Search engine optimization (SEO) services were presented as essential to raising a practice’s Google ranking to increase new patient numbers: A high ranking implied more patients. Poor SEO rankings could potentially doom a practice to Google oblivion on page 5. What I never heard was “Buy our services and enjoy an increase in your patient treatment acceptance rate!”

I could dine out for months on the stories that dentists tell me about their new patient flow numbers. One dentist told me his monthly average new patient flow was 94 patients. My instinct told me this figure did not reflect the whole story. I asked, “How many of the 94 monthly new patients accept and receive treatment?” “Four” was his reply. At the other end of the spectrum, I received a call from a doctor asking for urgent help. “Jenny, I only have 6 new patients per month!” I asked him, “What is your average new patient treatment value?” “Six thousand dollars,” he replied. I asked, “What is your acceptance rate?” His answer was 90% to 95%. “What is your problem?” I asked. He told me that he wanted to test me on my philosophy of quality over quantity—and I had passed his test. He had a staffing issue.

More to Success Than Simply Attracting Patients to Your Practice
Marketing in dentistry is far more complex than just driving people to your website or telephone. “The Marriage of Marketing and Management,” one of my JdSG programs, is based on the premise that marketing may bring potential patients to your practice, but it is outstanding communication skills, married with excellent clinical and management techniques, that opens your practice door and turns a patient’s “hello” into a “yes.” One JdSG idiom is “A doctor is judged by everything but his or her quality of care.” There are 2 things a patient is buying: confidence and trust. When patients feel comfortable with you and your team, money becomes a non-issue. In the whole scheme of things, it is important how the telephone is answered, that the postoperative telephone calls are made, and that we are letting patients know that we listen and are happy to answer questions. I will always believe the future of dentistry specifically, and healthcare in general, is built on the doctor/patient relationship. Building a strong reputation builds practice stability and growth. In my article “How Dentists Are Judged by Patients,” which I wrote for Dentistry Today in 2004, painless injection ranks No. 1 and money/costs ranks No. 20. A painless injection given to a new patient scared of dentists because of a past episode does more to promote confidence and trust in that dentist/practice than a flyer offering discount dentistry to the community. Social media has become a wonderful tool to enable happy patients to spread the word about their dentists of choice.

A unique marketing concept was shared with me by a client. When taking care of emergency patients, he selects certain ones he feels would be great ambassadors for the practice. He hands a patient 6 business cards. Telling the patient there will be no charge for that day’s visit, he instead asks his fee to be paid by the patient referring at least 6 patients to him/his practice. After 2 years, his records show the average number of new patients referred by these emergency patients is 12. Take your average new patient worth and multiply it by 12. This is a marketing approach that costs no or very little money. It is built on providing patients with the most important things a patient is buying—confidence and trust.

I am lucky enough to live 4.2 miles from Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, Calif. I am privileged to experience healthcare at its best. Today, Stanford’s high level of customer service ticks all of my customer service boxes. Five years ago, however, it was a different story. I felt the hospital’s patient management and communication were so poor that I was moved to write a letter to the hospital board offering my help to bring them into the consumer world. While they ignored my letter, they did not ignore my message.

Today, Stanford fully embraces and delivers patient service to the very highest level. One specific example is its new reconfirmation service, which is a change to its confirmation service. Previously, I received an automated robo call, demanding that I contact them to confirm that I will, in fact, keep my appointment! Under their upgraded system, I receive a very well-designed email. I am asked to log into my Stanford account to update my medical history, insurance, and contact information before the visit. What a wonderful time-management tool. It saves doctor/staff time on-site and allows patients to update their medication information at home where the medication is kept. I am also asked if I wish to utilize the appointment reminder service or if I prefer to opt-out of the reconfirmation process (which I have done). This is truly the marriage of marketing and management.

What Does Your Website Say About You?
Current research shows that when you and I visit any website, we make up our minds to either stay and explore the site or beat a hasty retreat within 4.5 seconds. For a potential patient to absorb a practice’s philosophy and benefits of offered services in 4.5 seconds is virtually impossible. Dental websites, to my eye, look very similar. Light blue seems to be the predominant color. I appreciate that dentists have always been in love with blue. May I invite the profession to move onto other colors?

The graphics are very similar as well. How many happy (extracted) teeth do we need to see? The patients’ smiling faces seem to have been taken straight from Central Casting. The written descriptions seem to be written by the same copywriter service. Welcome to the world of SEO. Each site is loaded with all the keywords patients use when searching the internet for dental services. Thus, most dental websites are basically carrying the same copy, message, and promised outcomes.

I remember years ago (for the readers old enough to remember), when the first yellow pages telephone book was published. In dentistry, we nearly died. We thought it was the end of “ethical dentistry” as we knew it. I told my audiences, “Don’t worry. In time every dentist will have a yellow pages ad, putting everyone on the same footing. The real issue will then become how a practice represents itself.” I was proved correct. Slowly, “We Cater to Cowards” and “Happy Extracted Teeth” made way for a more sophisticated approach. I feel we are at this point again with dental websites.

I understand that approximately 60% of dental practices have a website, and 5% of concierge-type physicians and dentists choose not to have one (it is an approach that works very well for their client base). I suggest the other 35% get a site up and running in the next 30 days. The challenge for today’s dental practice is how to have its website stand out in this crowded, noisy internet world.

Marketing Words That Might Influence Potential Patient Choices
We buy emotionally, using 95% of our right brains and just 5% of our left brains to justify our emotional 95% right-brain decisions. That’s why the following 3 words give me cause for concern in building a reputation in one’s community:

There is no stated value, no listed benefits, and no potential problems raised for which the practice is offering the solution—just an inference of “low cost.” Dentists who choose to go to their marketplaces with this approach should be ready to accept that patients who are attracted by the offer of “cost savings” logically become the patients who question the cost of dentistry at every turn, on every procedure. They judge the practice standard by cost. It is a slippery slope. I have always educated dentists and teams that the answer to a patient’s complaint of “Your fees are too high” is “We are very proud of the fees we charge in our practice. They reflect our very high quality of care and commitment to service!”

I have coached professional speakers for years on the business of being a professional speaker. I tell my clients there is one sure way to tell that one is developing a great speaking reputation: After being booked for a speaking event, the meeting planner who booked you calls a few days later to say, “By the way, I forgot to ask you what your fee is!” His or her reaction upon hearing the fee is to say, “That seems very fair.”

I hate “Free”! My personal feeling is this word creates a perception of a practice being seen as desperate, not proud, of its service. This is not a concept of the referral practice.

A patient who comes in because it is convenient will leave the practice when it becomes inconvenient unless a relationship has been established and the patient perceives the benefits (outside convenience) of staying. I appreciate that this may sound glib; it is not.

For example, are you working Saturdays and want to stop? No-shows tend to be highest on Saturdays. Close on Saturday and offer at least one evening. Patients who appreciate you and the team move into the practice’s adjusted schedule. An exception to the rule: When Saturdays are your most productive day, logic says Saturday works for you.

In Summary
Referred patients have bought before they contact the practice. They have bought before they walk in your door and sit in your dental chair. Doctors and their teams just need to learn one thing regarding referred patients: Listen for and accept the “yes” when it is offered! The greatest gift a new patient gives a dentist is when he or she says, “My next-door neighbor thinks you are wonderful. Whatever you recommend I need to do to save my teeth, I need it done.” Acceptance is given before the financial investment is discussed.

Ms. de St. Georges earned her reputation by delivering strong management solutions with her common sense and logical approach, supported by her individual style and distinctive sense of humor. She was the first non-dentist appointed to Dentistry Today’s Contributing Editors Board. She can be reached at

Disclosure: Ms. de St. Georges reports no disclosures.

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