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In the first installment of our four-part series on patient referral programs, we examined how to take some easy first steps into incorporating this marketing strategy into your dental, optometry, or health care practice. Put simply, a patient referral program utilizes your existing patient base to recruit new business: Implementing it can be as easy as asking to be recommended to a friend or family member in need of care.

To really maximize the potential of a patient referral program, however, you’re going to need to take a more targeted approach. To isolate what separates a good program from a great one, we consulted with Kevin Tighe, managing director of Cambridge Dental Practice Consultants and a dental business marketing expert. Take a look at some of the best practices—or patient referral program hygiene—your office should maintain in order to make the most of your efforts.

  1. Let the Right Staffer Ask the Question

The first stumbling block encountered by patient referral organizers is deciding who in the office is in the best position to solicit a referral. Is it the hygienist? The doctor? The front office receptionist?

The answer is that it depends on who the patient has the best relationship with. “Some patients bond with their hygienist,” Tighe says. “Others might bond with the person at the front desk. It depends on their personality.”

While doctors might get value out of stepping outside their comfort zone and asking for a referral, Tighe says that they can sometimes make an awkward pitch. Patients often have the best relationships with staff members—that’s why doctors who buy into practices are usually advised not to make any major staff changes right away. Capitalize on those established connections and patients will be more likely to pass your business card on.

  1. Determine What New-Appointment Incentives Will Work in Your Area

Providers can be limited in offering incentives to referring patients, since it could be construed as “fee splitting,” or giving a third party a reward for recruiting new patients. Know that there are legal limits, but it’s generally acceptable to offer that new patient an incentive to come in for a first appointment. Tighe says that $50 off a first visit is a common enticement that works, but your specific region may have more success offering whitening treatments, free x-rays, or other discounted services instead.

There’s also no rule that says you have to stick to just one offer. Try “piloting” a different incentive to different prospective patients to see if one nets a better response than the others.

  1. Get Personal

There’s going to be a significant difference between handing out a generic business card with the hope a patient will pass it along and giving them a card with a name written on it. “Give them the card and then ask if they can think of anyone who would be interested in your services,” Tighe says. The patient now has a responsibility to hand an item of tangible value to their friend or family member as opposed to trying to decide who might be a good candidate. That’s one less barrier to getting your number in the right hands.

  1. Get Creative

Business cards are certainly sufficient, but there are several ways you can create a bigger splash when your patient leaves the office. Handing them an oversized card will help the referral request stand out among their belongings and may prevent a fate of being stuffed in a wallet or purse and forgotten. Some providers order debit cards with their business logo pre-printed on it so it comes to mind when the card is being used. Tighe says businesses like Practice Café can also assist in ways to think outside of the box.

  1. Use Every Opportunity

While your best chance of securing a referral will be a face-to-face with an existing patient, most offices have a paper outflow that makes piggybacking a viable back-up plan. Stick referral cards into hygiene bags or drop one in bills mailed to patients. “Anything that goes out, you can put a referral card on there,” Tighe says, citing patient surveys as another good venue. “Ideally, they’re happy with your service, and that’s when you can hand them a card.” The more outflow, Tighe says, the more inflow that’s possible.

  1. Engage Your Staff

Your practice might be a tight-knit community of employees who want the best for the office. On the other hand, they might be eager to do their job but not totally invested in what they might consider “optional” conversations with patients. One workaround, Tighe says, is to offer incentives to employees who gather the most referrals in a given time frame, provided such incentives are lawful in your state. Regardless, it’s good to have a huddle where a specific employee is tasked with asking a patient (or two, or five) for referrals in a given day. Have a staffer really looking to help? Have them carry cards in their off-hours to hand out if the timing is right.

  1. Know Your Ratios to Form Your Goals

There is no blanket, one-size-fits-all number that practices should be targeting when it comes to recruiting new patients. That goal will likely be a percentage of the number of current patients or chairs your office is trying to fill. “A practice with four chairs probably needs 30 to 40 new patients a month to keep growing,” Tighe says. Figure out your number and you can figure out your goal.

  1. Hold Someone Accountable

While most everyone in the office should be expected to solicit patient referrals at one point or another, Tighe says that it ultimately needs to come down to one staffer who can track the number of referrals requested against the number coming in, as well as other metrics of success. “Most practices don’t have a system in place to make sure it gets done day in and day out,” he says. “You need to assign function of the program to one employee for accountability. Do that and you will have a program that works.”

In part three of our five-part series, we examine how physicians can take advantage of referral programs by using physician liaisons to build provider relationships.

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