Marketing from the inside out

By Greg Holden

March 5, 2008 -- All too often, dentists automatically assume they need to spend big bucks on glossy magazine ads and Yellow Pages listings to get their name before the public. But the most effective marketing is also the least expensive -- and it's literally right under your nose.

For Dr. Andy Doerfler, word of mouth is everything

The best way to market your practice is an oldie but a goodie: Focus on what's going on in your office. Cultivate your staff, create a positive experience for your patients, and while you're at it, find some balance in your own life, says Andy Doerfler, D.D.S., a Houston, Texas dentist who held a session recently at the Chicago Dental Association's 143rd Midwinter Meeting.

"Instead of throwing money away on ads, throw it back at your patients," said Doerfler. "Building trust and good relationships in the office are the most important marketing tools you have."

Doerfler, a general dentist practicing since 1978, didn't start his talk by exploring high-tech tools like search engine optimization or high-profile venues like TV ads, but by describing his personal beliefs and mission.

"Marketing from the inside out is not rocket science," he said. "But sometimes you have to remind yourself what is really important."

First, come up with a mission statement for your business and post it in your office so patients and staff can see it. Second -- and this needn't be public -- consider your personal philosophy and belief system and how you want to balance your work with other areas of your life. Doerfler likens this to the four-way "cross of life" used as the logo of the Pankey Institute, in which the points stand for work, play, worship, and love.

"Promoting yourself in your practice is a matter of clinging to relationships with many groups -- the people you live and work with and your colleagues in your field. If you treat people like family, you will get referrals."

"Trust and relationships are the most important marketing tools you have"

Don't just pay attention to your own mission and work; educate the people who work for you. Attend dental conferences as a team, and invite speakers to your office for instructional sessions on new tools and techniques. Promote cooperation by holding morning huddles with staff and communicating clearly throughout the week, whether by Post-it notes or wireless communicators.

Be careful with using traditional external marketing techniques to promote your practice, says Doerfler. Traditional advertising is like fishing with a net. "Some of what you catch will be good, some won't, and you can't always predict what you'll get."

The pitfalls of high-priced advertising were illustrated by Doerfler's interviews with several dentists who were listed in a city magazine's "top dentists" article. The dentists were chosen only because they paid $5000 to $6000 per page to be profiled in the magazine. Did the big bucks pay off? According to Doerfler, one dentist said she only got five or six calls as a result of the article, and only half of the callers made an appointment. Said another, "I wouldn't do it again. You're throwing a big net out there and you don't know what you're going to catch."

Even if you try traditional advertising, don't expect to compete with high-profile dentists like Guy Lewis, D.D.S., of Houston, who typically spends as much as $40,000 per month on advertising and employs two full-time marketing specialists. Lewis frequently advertises in in-flight magazines and has even sponsored the "kiss cam" at Houston Astros baseball games.

If you spend $40,000 a month like Guy Lewis, you can reach a lot of potential customers. But there are cheaper and very efficient ways to grow your base.

Doerfler showed the audience a traditional Yellow Pages ad that used a logo created by a professional designer. Not only was the ad expensive, but the logo had a "usage fee" of $150 per year.

Although Yellow Pages ads do reach the local community, don't overspend on them, says Doerfler. "When everyone else is taking out full page ads, focus on the things that set you apart." Focus on looks, too. "I think a good ad has minimal verbiage and shows an attractive male or female smiling -- not an image of an extracted tooth. And don't use old phrases like 'we cater to cowards.'" Provide the basics, says Doerfler. Your location, possibly directions to your office, the URL for your Web site, if you accept insurance, whether you specialize in cosmetic dentistry, and so on.

Other cost-saving, but effective approaches include sponsoring local school sports teams, volunteering at local churches, and sponsoring neighborhood and local school events. According to Doerfler, these are far more effective than taking out an ad in the local newspaper.

Building word of mouth

What builds word of mouth referrals? You got it: Local, repeat patients. Here's how to buff your reputation and keep those referrals coming, says Doerfler:

  • Reduce patient pain. Swab thoroughly, use the smallest possible needle, and deliver the anesthetic slowly. Patients really appreciate it when they feel little or no pain.
  • Use the latest, appropriate technology. Patients want to see what's going on, and new intraoral cameras give them a bird's eye view. Others are keen on the latest non-invasive diagnostics, like the laser-based Diagnodent probe used for detecting caries.
  • Give out goodies. Lip balm, pens, coffee cups, floss, bottled water, and other chotchkes leave a good impression. So do heated towels provided at the end of an exam. "It's not an expense; it's an investment," he says.
  • Build a good impression from the start, with a tasteful, clean reception area stocked with current magazines. Doerfler recommends Ebsco, a publications clearing house that only requires him to write one check per year.
  • Go the extra mile: Pronounce patients' names correctly and write down the phonetic spelling if necessary. If it's raining, have a staffer walk the patient to the car with an umbrella. Help the patient on with his or her coat.
  • Ask every new patient how they found you. "If they were referred by an existing patient, we send them a thank you card within 24 hours of the new patient's appointment," says Doerfler
  • Be positive. Instead of saying "No Problem," be more positive: "It would be our pleasure."
  • Build a team. Give bonuses and designate an employee of the month. Take your staff to lunch or hold "shopping parties" at local stores. The payoff: a happier, more productive staff.

The bottom line: Rather than trying to reach as many eyeballs as possible with costly ads, focus on growing your practice by building relationships. Word of mouth, it turns out, is key. Promote loyalty among your patients and watch the referrals roll in.

"Systems make you money," Doerfler concludes. "But it's the people who make you successful."

Copyright © 2008

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