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 By Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO, Editor October 8, 2008 - Tip #349 
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Readers Respond: Tips for Attracting New Patients

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My topic two weeks ago was about attracting new patients and I asked readers to share any strategies they have found to be successful. I received quite a few emails and I extend my sincere thanks to those readers who took the time to help their colleagues through this venue. As promised, I will share your tips on this somewhat difficult management challenge.

Echoing my thoughts

Many reader emails agreed with the premise I expressed in tip # 347, that the best way to attract new patients is through word of mouth referral from happy, loyal patients. To that end, some readers went on to describe the tactics they use in their practice to build loyalty and stimulate more word of mouth action. Those efforts are the very core of practice building.

Many of you also shared your success with cultivating referrals from other health care practitioners, which was another focus of the article. Your emails do much more than simply confirm the concepts I present, although that alone is valuable, but they also provide nuances and twists that improve on the strategy. I'll share your best ideas below.

Readers' marketing tips

Here are some of the ideas you presented. All of these tips won't appeal to everyone, but see if there are some that will work in your practice.

  • One way we encourage word of mouth referrals is to spoil our patients.  When patients pick up their eyewear at our office, we give them a "goodie bag" with rope handles and our logo imprinted largely on the outside.  Inside is a screwdriver kit which we tell them is only for minor repairs and to leave any accidents to us, a microfiber cloth, a card explaining how to care for their lenses, a bottle of cleaner which we refill for free, a logo imprinted pen, a magnet and a thank you asking for referrals.  The total cost on the bag is around $6 but the impression is priceless.  It is amusing to see people reuse the bags around town or send the kids' lunches in it at school.
  • Rather than cold-calling other health practitioners, send a personalized letter first or take one with you. Always include business cards and an office brochure. Send letters to new practitioners who open in your area as well. Keep in touch with doctors who send you referrals by informing them about new developments in your practice.
  • If you don't have a website, build one. It's not expensive. People who know about you will look for you in the phone book. People who are trying to research you or your practice will look online. If they don't find you, they may find someone else in the process. Your site doesn't have to be elaborate but it should look attractive, the buttons and links should work and it should be up-to-date. Yellow page ads only change once per year, yet you pay for it every month. You can have a website for less money per month and have it updated monthly. Make sure your website address is listed in your yellow page ad.
  • Vision screenings are a successful practice builder for our office.  I do pre-K screenings as a free service to all our local, non-public schools (all children entering kindergarten are required to have a vision screening).  The students must come to my office for the free screening, so the big bonus for us is that the parents come and see our clean, state of the art facility.  Also, my polite, professional staff actually performs the majority of the screening, while I check the results and have a few minutes of one-on-one time with the parents to discuss them, and promote my practice.  We generate immediate appointments for those who fail the screening, and also garner many later appointments from parents and other family members who come along.  It costs me about six hours per year of my time and generates a significant number of new patients for my practice.  I'm careful not to "over promote" the office during this time, and even encourage patients to visit their own eye doctor if they fail the screening, but it's amazing how many of those patients don't have a "regular" OD.
  • Come right out and ask for referrals. "Mr. Jones it was such a pleasure working with you today, and we are constantly looking for wonderful patients such as yourself in our new patient acceptance program, if you know anyone that is need or wants to have great service we would be honored to provide their medical and vision health care"
  • Incentivize your patients to refer others by offering them rewards in advance. One doctor has success with an innovative program that includes asking people to identify potential friends, providing attractive discounts to the new patients and giving the referring party chances to enter a drawing for prizes.
  • I have worked with a doctor who considered being on vision insurance plans as part of his advertising.  His rationale is that the discount given to the insurance company for reimbursement and the insurance-related discount given to the patient on non-covered services and materials was a form of payment in exchange for being listed as a provider on the insurance company's website and printed materials.  I'm curious to know what you think about this.
  • I know of one doctor who offers coupons for two pairs of plastic lenses with frames for $69 with a free exam.  His frame selection is limited of course, but he is able to do it.  I was informed that he is very busy.  He can see as many as 20-30 patients per day.  He doesn't take any vision insurance at all.  How is he able to make any money with this deal?  Maybe this is a bait and switch strategy to get the patient in. Would you advise a private office to do such a thing to get through the slow times?  Would this degrade the practice and make patients perceive the practice in a negative way?  I am not sure if I can afford to do this because I would have to also increase staff in order to compensate for the volume of patients.  This could have a long term damaging effect because patients might perceive it as false advertising and not come back.  Could this compete with the commercial settings?

Making the extra effort

An OD who opened his practice just three years ago shared his approach to practice building. This is an excellent review of the little things that make a difference.

I have two staff members that give great customer service. We take pride in treating our patients well, from the phone encounter when they schedule an appointment to smiles and greetings when patients walk in the door. During their experience we get to know their lifestyle needs to make appropriate recommendations. It's also very important for the doctor to talk about PALS, AR and other lens options (in the exam room) as this transitions well when I hand patients off to the optician.

Every new patient receives a "Welcome to Our Practice" card in the mail and we also mail a "Thank You for Referring" letter to those that referred a patient to us. Some patients that have referred us many patients receive gift cards and even fruit baskets delivered to their office so their co-workers are aware how well we treat our VIPs.

I also participate in various health fairs and work with companies that are doing open enrollments for health plans. The doctor should make time to go with an assistant. People are very impressed when I'm there and take the time to chat with them; this alone has brought me many patients. I may even do a quick screening at my booth as well, nothing fancy but enough to encourage them to come in for a full eye exam.

We encourage patients to bring in their family members and we offer discounts to family members without insurance. We also have visited local businesses in the area to let them know where we are, what we do and give out discount cards for our products.

I have been part of a local networking group for the past couple years that meets once a week. We have about 50 members who are business owners. I send my assistant to represent me, but I also make an appearance from time to time as well and give presentations to the group about my business.

Best wishes for continued success,

Read Past Tips Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Editor, Optometric Management Tip of the Week

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Send questions and comments to neil@gailmard.com.

Dr. Gailmard offers consulting services to eye care professionals through Prima Eye Group; information is available at www.primaeyegroup.com.
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