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Practice Management includes a wide range of business and administrative topics, but the most basic concern of all is how to increase patient demand. New and established eye care practitioners (ECPs) alike are looking for ways to increase the number of people who want their services. Typically, the word that comes to mind when we think of increasing the number of customers for any business is marketing.
Marketing in this context conjures up ideas such as advertising and other promotional efforts like newsletters, frame trunk shows and special discount offers. These ideas can all work to some extent and I believe in external marketing projects if they are true to the desired image of the practice. Marketing is complex and the specific promotional tasks should be continuously tested for effectiveness. Consider these marketing strategies:
- Advertising campaigns. They can be effective at bringing people in the door, but in many cases the cost of the campaign equals or exceeds any increase in profit. This is especially true if the ad is centered on a discount of some kind. There are many forms of advertising media in use for eye care, including direct mail, newspaper, magazines, radio, television, and billboards. Using the services of a professional ad agency is usually a smart way to go, but that adds to the cost basis.
- Direct mail to the patient base. This is a very large category that can include many different projects and most of them will be effective. One approach is a special communication with patients to inform them of new services or products. A good example of this might be a new contact lens design that targets dry eye symptoms or correction of presbyopia. A letter from the doctor printed on practice letterhead announcing the new thing is the basic premise and you may offer a special screening exam or free consultation. These special mailings can be targeted to a subgroup of patients who are good candidates based on age, lens prescription or previous diagnosis. Another idea is a special recall letter targeting all patients who have not been into the office in three to five years. This reactivation letter tells patients about the need for eye health care and that the practice welcomes them. It may include a special incentive to act now.
- Newsletters. While newsletters are not usually expected to create immediate calls for appointments, they are very effective at generating good will and general awareness of the practice. The more personalized the newsletter, the better, so I would avoid generic, canned products produced by third parties. Include lots of photos and keep the text short. E-newsletters sent via email are a very cost effective way to go.
- Hosting an event. This could be a frame fashion trunk show, a seminar on an eye topic of interest or a vision screening of some kind. The good thing is that you made something happen! In addition to subsequent sales that occur, any publicity that results is good for the practice and that could come from invitations by mail or newspaper ads
- News coverage. Don't forget to send press releases to the local papers when the practice hosts an event, acquires new technology or has any honor or achievement.
- Discounts. It's easy to look toward discounts as part of any marketing campaign. They can be effective, but use them sparingly and don't forget how deeply they cut into your bottom line. Most discounts do not increase sales; they simply cut the profit on sales that would have occurred anyway, even without the discount.
The best way to build your practice
The biggest factor in growing a successful private practice is word of mouth referral. To that end, the best marketing strategy is to thoroughly impress each patient you see. This goes way beyond having high tech clinical instruments or a great selection of frames; it's really about how you treat people. That may sound a bit boring to some, but ask ECPs with million dollar practices if they think it's boring! Evaluate your practice with regard to the following personal service factors. Do you have doctors and staff members who...
- ... smile a lot - virtually all the time!?
- ... exhibit excellent manners toward patients and fellow workers and frequently say please and thank you?
- ... explain everything they're doing and speak clearly?
- ... listen to patients and make eye contact and nod?
- ... call patients by name?
- ... are on schedule with virtually no waiting time in the reception room or exam room?
Remember that the true definition of marketing is: identifying and satisfying customers' wants and needs. Many office policies and procedures in use today, however, are designed to meet the doctor's wants and needs or the staff's. If you and your staff look at everything you do from the patient's point of view, you will dramatically increase your referral base. That referral base grows exponentially, so it may take a few years to reach a critical mass but you will create a referral machine that is stronger than any other marketing tactic. Excellent personal service is the one marketing gem that always works and is always cost-effective.
Best wishes for continued success,
Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Editor, Optometric Management Tip of the Week
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Dr. Gailmard offers consulting services to eye care professionals through Prima Eye Group; information is available at www.primaeyegroup.com.
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