The Silver Words of a Visiting Rich Dentist

by Ankur A Gupta, DDS

While in residency at MetroHealth hospital in downtown Cleveland, my class of GPRs were visited by a very successful dentist from a nearby suburb. He felt it tremendously necessary to emphasize how lucrative his private practice was. He was, in our eyes, the picture of success, and he welcomed our admiration.

During his presentation, he mentioned something that stayed with me the following year as my wife and I opened the doors to our from-scratch private practice. He told us to “never advertise, as word of mouth is the best, and only way to market to new patients.” He suggested that advertising was for the inferior, more desperate professionals and entrepreneurs, and encouraged us to “let our work speak for itself.”

His advice, I realize after nearly 15 years as an entrepreneur, was legitimate. Word of mouth not only recruits patients who already have a personal connection to you and your office, but also a decent amount of trust. These are undoubtedly the most valuable new patients; however, this visiting dentist could have served us so much better if only he temporarily lifted his air of superiority and condescension. We trusted him and attempted to stay true to his advice as my wife and I opened our office in a new city where we had no contacts. Our hope was to hang up an open sign, and impress the the heck out of each patient to walk through our doors, leveraging heavily on “letting our work speak for itself.” A few years later, with sputtering growth and unpredictable daily production, we realized that the dependence on service and quality as an engine for new patients may have been incomplete.

For the first time in our careers, we made the decision to step outside of our comfort zones, and actually put in practice the many free, but uncomfortable techniques to personally market our small business. In this article I would like to share the ones that really worked.

Call people after you’ve done something painful to them. This includes the obvious stuff, like surgeries and root canals, but should also include procedures that last more than 90 minutes. Often, the person answering the phone is not the patient. While the follow-up call provides you with a amazing good-will from your patient, it also impresses the person answering the phone.

Every time you are served by someone in your community (a librarian, a salesperson at Best Buy, the teachers at your kid’s school), give them a toothbrush. At first, they will stare at you and think you are weird, because, let’s face it, handing a toothbrush to a stranger is pretty weird. There are ways to minimize the awkwardness here, and in the end, people really like getting free toothbrushes. When we ask new patients how they heard about our office, often they will shrug, not able to recall, but then tell us that they had this toothbrush in their work drawer for months. When a patient expresses his or her happiness with their experience at your office, look at them in the eye, and ask them to do you a favor. When they say yes, you ask them to give your business card or a toothbrush to one of their friends/co-workers/neighbors/family members. Doing so in such a way serves two purposes. First, it gets patients to commit to helping your office during the moment that they are happiest with you. Second, by giving them an actual tangible item that they are charged to give away, the tendency to forget about you and their commitment to you is minimized.

When a person refers one of their people, write them a personal note (the kind that gets a stamp and goes in the mail). Thanks to our ability to communicate through our phones and computers, personal handwritten mail has become rare, but has not eliminated the need for all of us to regularly check the US mailbox. Receiving a letter from a dentist may seem trivial to us as the senders, but could serve as a truly special and memorable sentiment for the recipient.

Get on your computer, open powerpoint or keynote, and put together a picture-heavy, ultra-simple, one-hour presentation about health, teeth, smiles, periodontal disease, implants, or whatever most interests you. This is not the kind of powerpoint you would put together to be evaluated by peers, with cited references like Tarnow et al. The goal is to seem likable and kind, rather than knowledgeable and highly skilled. Do a similar presentation for children from preschool to third grade. Then, whenever a patient comes in who is a teacher, nurse, librarian, member of rotary, member of a senior group, manager of a company, etc., ask them if you could provide a one-hour lunch and learn. This, of the five strategies in this article, is the most effective means of acquiring numerous high quality new patients. It also happens to require the most effort.

For those of you who feel nauseous, you are not alone. For years, I despised this. I would have rather done a DOB composite on tooth #16. It is so far outside my comfort zone to ask these favors, to look desperate, or to be met with an awkward exchange. The reality, inconvenient for me, is that when my staff and I committed to confidently asking for referrals, writing letters, handing out toothbrushes, and presenting to the community, the phone rang more, and high quality new patient numbers increased. Amazingly, this type of marketing required very little money and no outside help, but was more effective than anything else that I have tried.

New patients, in my opinion, make dentistry fun. They are a clean slate. They represent an opportunity to do better and be better than I have in the past. When new patient numbers are high, dentistry is more fun and my office is more profitable. If you feel the same way, challenge yourself to step out of your comfort zone and be creative.