What are Patients Buying From a Dentist?



Jenny de St. Georges

Marketing Concern 101
Dentists and staff are advised by many marketing gurus and management consultants to grow their practices by asking their current patients for referrals. In theory, this sounds quite easy. One just opens one’s mouth and says “Mrs. Patient, please send us your friends, neighbors, relatives and co-workers.”

In reality, for most doctors and teams, this rather direct approach causes stress, nervousness and a feeling of not being comfortable in one’s own skin. As a result, many practices tend to fall into one of two categories. They are a practice, which avoids this approach completely, thereby missing a potential marketing opportunity.

Or, they make the effort, but their inability to feel confident and relaxed with this approach has some unfortunate and not always realized consequences. Firstly, the practice can come across as looking a little desperate for new patients. Secondly, the asker’s insecurity does not inspire confidence. As confidence is the No. 1 thing patients are buying from a dentist, this less-than-confident approach may well not inspire the patient to actively refer.

JdSG Approach

I believe in taking the proactive approach to management. In this case, I suggest clients set up and follow a very structured, low-key, and positive approach to how to ask current happy patients to share their happiness with the doctor and the practice with their family/friend base.

The whole focus on this system begins by educating the new patient contacting the practice that you are running a referral practice. This is a 6-step, process—4 action steps at the beginning of the relationship and the fifth and sixth steps taken at end of completing the initial diagnosed treatment.

1. The New Patient Telephone Call
Within the opening few sentences the following 2 questions should be asked by staff of the caller.

Question 1—“Which of our patients referred you to Dr. Brown?” (about us, practice, your choice of words/phrases.)

Goal—This one question educates patients that so many patients join your practice because they have heard such good things about the doctor/practice, it is assumed this is why they contacted you. If referred, this approach reconfirms to the caller that they made the correct choice in their choice of your practice.

If they were not referred to you by one of your patients, and they are reaching out to you because your practice is located conveniently close to their office/home, etc., the question will give them a sense of confidence they did not have before they contacted you. So this is a win-win approach and is much more personalized than the usual ‘how did you hear about us?’ so many team members currently use.

Question 2—“What did Mrs. Smith, your next door neighbor say about Dr. Brown?” (about us, practice, your choice of words/phrases.)

Goal—Forget the patient evaluation forms the experts tell us to give patients for feedback about how they feel about our practice. Let’s hear it from the horse’s mouth. What is the word in town about the practice/doctor? What is the gossip?

This second question becomes one of your best marketing tools as you learn what it is that your patients like about your practice/doctor. Is it the painless injection? The helpful staff? The doctor who listens? Listen to your patients and they will tell you what your reputation is in town!

2. Patient Registration Forms

Include the question, “which of our patients referred you to our practice?” on your patient registration form. Reinforcement of the referral practice concept continues to build patient confidence that they have come to the right place!

3. Administrative Staff Expand on the Patient Referral as They Scan the Paperwork With New Patient

“Oh, I see you were referred by Mrs. Smith—we really enjoy her as a patient and she has been so kind in sending several of her friends and relatives to us…welcome.”

4. Clinical Staff, While Seating the Patient, and Then Doctor in the Get-Acquainted Phase Continue

“Referred by Mrs. Smith! She was just here last month—is her son still playing soccer?” By now, the new patient has a strong sense that this is a practice where doctor/team care about their patients.

5. Doctor at Chairside at the Final Treatment Appointment

Doctor advises patient of any clinical home care instructions, ensures prebooking hygiene is part of the program (specialists adjust procedure/need) and doctor closes the appointment with words/sentiments that reflect the following concepts. “Mrs. Patient. It has been my pleasure to work with you to restore your mouth to (fill in the blank). Our practice is based on working with patients who have been referred by other patients. It gets a little hectic on the phone sometimes. Do be sure to ask your friends and relatives you might refer to us to specifically mention your name to Jenny when calling in. This ensures we give them priority service in scheduling their initial appointment.”

6. The “End of Initial Treatment” Letter Received by All New Patients

The letter is sent to confirm the points made at the last visit by doctor about necessary home care, visiting the hygienist and your referral protocol as laid out above.


This 6-step system is very simple to implement, follow and monitor the results. It moves asking for referrals to a much more understated and customized level than the standard “please send us patients.”

Some years ago I saw a yellow page ad in a Chicago phonebook that certainly caught my attention. We Need Patients was printed in huge red letters in an arc across the top of the half page ad over a picture of the practice building. The practice did not sound desperate, they sounded suicidal! No one wants to go to a health provider who appears to have an empty schedule. Patients want to go to dentists and physicians who are popular, and popular means the practice must give the sense of being full and busy. Full and busy means successful, which translates into an outstanding provider giving patients outstanding service in a timely manner.