Article Date: 6/1/2008

Marketing Your Practice on a Shoestring

Marketing Your Practice on a Shoestring

Here's how to promote your practice successfully without breaking the bank.

By Beverly Jue-Smith, O.D., M.B.A., San Ramon, Calif.

MARKETING YOUR practice can be expensive—but it doesn't have to be. The best marketing strategy begins with the approach that you and your staff take to patient care. If you strive to anticipate your patients' eyecare needs, go above and beyond what they expect from you, and show them you genuinely care, then you'll make an everlasting impression that will inspire loyalty and generate word-of-mouth referrals. On this firm foundation, you can build everything else, such as advertising and outreach efforts. And it doesn't have to cost you.

In this article, I'll discuss how you can successfully market your practice and promote your services internally and externally on a tight budget.

Start With Today's Patients

It's much easier—and cheaper—to keep a patient than it is to find a new one. From the first phone call to the moment they exit your office, you and your staff must show patients that you care about them, and that you want them to receive optimal eye care. In every conversation, whether it's about the patient's history, symptoms or everyday chitchat, you and your staff should listen attentively and discern their needs and preferences.

These customer service pearls don't cost a penny, and they're essential for practice building. You want to give patients a personal, memorable experience. When they get superior customer service, they feel special. It's the Nordstrom department store model: Win at reaching the highest level of service, not the lowest prices.

In my practice, we treat patients like guests. We cater to them by offering water and gourmet coffee in the waiting area. We may provide snacks at busy times or on holidays. We even have a sign that lets patients know they can access our wireless Internet service if they want to bring a laptop. All these things make the wait more comfortable. And front desk staff always thank patients for coming in—a fundamental but much appreciated part of customer service.

Reward People

We all love perks and presents. The best part is, most perks and presents are free! So give out stickers and little toys to kids after their eye exams. They'll leave your office smiling.

Grownups like perks, too. While patients are waiting in the reception area before or after their exams, we always ask if they'd like to have their eyeglasses or sunglasses cleaned with our ultrasonic cleaner. Some patients really enjoy that service.

We treat patients like guests. We cater to them by offering water and gourmet coffee … [and] they can access our wireless Internet service if they want to bring a laptop.

Presents make adults happy, too. During our exams, we give patients a bag and fill it with literature, vitamin samples, contact lens cases, cleaning cloths and other goodies that promote eye health and help them take care of their lenses. Because we buy cleaning kits in bulk at about $1 per 150 kits, we can give them to patients if they need them.

Patients like prizes, too, so we have monthly business card raffles for inexpensive items like sunglasses. We also keep track of the patients who generate word-of-mouth referrals. Throughout the year, we send gift baskets to patients who refer three or more new patients. Staff members get rewards, too, such as bonuses or gift certificates if patients specifically compliment them.

None of the rewards have to be expensive. The gesture is what's important. People like recognition, and they love to get things for free.

Use Literature to Your Advantage

Most brochures and handouts are free from manufacturers or available for a minimal cost (for the price of paper and ink) through professional organizations. In the exam room, we always have lots of handouts and brochures to educate patients about their eye conditions and the treatments or products that may help. And when we check our patients' charts for family history, we remember to offer them literature for their family as well.

We also print a quarterly newsletter about our practice, using a free template from a manufacturer. We print it at a copy center for a very low price and make it available for patients in the office, although we'll mail it to new patients making appointments over the phone to familiarize them with our practice before they arrive for their first visit.

In addition, we hang posters and play videos to educate patients about ocular health and the products we offer. Vendors offer free posters on topics such as UV damage, which encourages patients to consider prescription sunglasses.

We purchased a video loop about eye conditions and services that we play continuously in the reception area. A TV and VCR aren't free, but you don't need to buy a giant flat screen. A regular television will suffice. The video helps keep patients occupied while they wait, and it can prompt a discussion with the doctor.

Reach Out

Now that you've got some internal marketing strategies covered, it's time to get more patients outside your practice doors. Outreach is the most affordable way to start—and you can start small.

For instance, we buy simple, inexpensive business cards for all of our doctors and staff. Whether we meet someone at the store or while getting our car fixed, we all have cards ready to invite people to visit our practice. You may want to offer discounts or free gifts to people who bring in a business card signed by a staff member.

Other outreach efforts usually start with just a few phone calls. Think of some ways to craft a presentation about your practice, and then check around to see who might be receptive. Here are some possibilities in your own community:

Another way to reach out is to introduce yourself to LASIK surgeons and other specialists in your area who need your referrals. Go online or use the local phone book to search for surgeons in your region. Introduce yourself via email and try to arrange lunch meetings or phone calls to chat. Sometimes we ask surgeons to speak at our practice, and we invite the public to attend. It's a great way to grow your practice—and it's free.

Senior centers, assisted living facilities and retirement homes may host speakers who can provide practical information on cataracts, glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration.

Get Your Name Out There

What springs to everyone's mind when we think of the word "marketing" are advertisements, direct mailings and Web sites. We're in the yellow pages, alongside all the other optometrists and their lists of services. But it's not what you do; it's how you do it that matters. You need to set yourself apart.

Free opportunities such as writing for your local newspaper and agreeing to radio interviews are great options. Approach editors or radio producers with ideas for articles and segments on eye protection at the start of a sports season or ocular conditions that correspond to an upcoming public health awareness month. I write articles occasionally for my community newspaper. They get my name and face in front of potential patients in my area.

Our practice also buys low-cost items like magnetic calendars, pens and hats to give away in the office and during outreach activities. We also bundle cleaning kits for eyeglasses that include our name and business card.

All of these marketing strategies can lead patients to your Web site if you have one. If you don't, think seriously about developing one. It can cost very little if you create it yourself or with the help of a knowledgeable friend. Your site should reflect your philosophy, expertise and exceptional customer service.

Nurture Relationships

When you capitalize on patients who are already in your office, you're taking advantage of the best opportunity for growth. So nurture those relationships. Our staff members always ask patients before they leave the office if they have any additional questions, and they hand out their business cards in case they need to contact us later.

Patient satisfaction is high, and we take advantage of that to grow our patient base. When patients schedule appointments, we always ask if they'd like to make an appointment for a family member as well. And when patients send us letters and cards of appreciation, we ask to publish their comments in our newsletter, on our Web site or in one of our brochures. These testimonials about our practice are more effective than anything we could ever pay someone to write—more evidence that you don't need to spend a lot of money to market your practice. nOD

Dr. Smith received her optometry degree from the University of Houston. She practices at San Ramon Family Optometry, P.C., in San Ramon, Calif., and puts her M.B.A. in healthcare management to work as a practice development consultant. You can reach her at focusedoptometricconsultants@yahoo.com; sanramonfamilyoptometry@yahoo.com or visit her Web site at focusedoptometricconsultants.com.


Optometric Management, Issue: June 2008