In my opinion, the biggest problem facing optometric practices in the United States is the lack of patient demand. There are exceptions, but the vast majority of practices are not busy enough. Some ODs rationalize that they don't want to see more than 10 to 15 patients per day, but actually in many cases, there are no more to be seen even if they wanted to.
Many of the management challenges we face would go away if we just had more patient demand. The first benefit would be an increase in profit and cash flow, which could then fund many great changes and advancements. Most ODs would love to manage the problems of a practice that has too many patients!
Given this state of the profession, one would think optometrists and managers in private practices would do more marketing, but actually, most do very little. The marketing budget is typically 2 to 3% of gross revenues and much of that is actually for postage on recall notices. Marketing and advertising is the key method that businesses use to find customers, so let's look at your marketing effort and see what you can do.
I always like to begin any discussion on marketing with a review of the vital role of customer service. Doctors in general are getting worse in this area, which may not matter if you are in a specialty that has tons of patients. But if you need more patients, realize that word of mouth referral is the biggest source there is for doctors. You'll get some word of mouth referrals if you simply get most of the eyeglass prescriptions right, but if you treat people really well and if you're super-easy to do business with, you can attract a huge number.
Talk with your staff about the importance of customer service and letting the patient win. Look at everything you do from the patient's point of view.
Director of marketing
As you embark on a new world of marketing campaigns for your practice, decide on who is going to do the work. You would do well to appoint someone on your staff to take on the additional role of Director of Marketing. If your current staff is already overworked and you can't give anyone more assignments, then go ahead and hire a new employee. It will be part-time duty in most practices, but it takes time. The marketing projects will produce a financial return that more than covers the increased payroll cost. Choose a person who understands the business side of the practice and has a creative flair. Appoint someone who has excellent computer skills and uses social media.
Evaluate your practice image and consider the name of the practice and the logo. If it is time to freshen that image, get help from a local advertising professional. Consider your logo colors and a tagline you can use with various media and advertisements.
Your practice website is the cornerstone of your marketing plan. Virtually every patient you see, new or established, will visit your site. It must be impressive. It must be beautiful. Have a custom designed website built for your practice by a company that knows eye care. Be prepared that a great website requires more than just writing a check to the designer; it requires a great deal of your Director of Marketing's time to take photos, write and edit copy and shoot videos. You will want to work with third party plug-in software. You will want to make the site interactive. And you will want to be able to make most changes yourself with user-friendly administrative access.
The major thrust here is Facebook, so even if social media is not your thing, at least have your Director of Marketing administer a business page there. Think of it as free marketing. Most of your patients check Facebook several times per day. Once you get these patients to "Like" your page (easy to do), then all your posts appear on their newsfeed. Unlike your website, which people must actively go to in order to see it, Facebook lets you push your posts out to your followers.
I highly recommend that you sign up with one of the companies that provides email and texting service through integration with your patient database. Companies like Websystem3, Demandforce, Solutionreach and 4PatientCare offer much more than appointment confirmations! They are your vehicle for newsletters; they get you more Facebook likes and they promote more online reviews.
Being active in your community and supporting worthy causes will earn your practice a great reputation. That converts to more patient demand in an indirect way, but still very effective. If the doctor wants to be involved in Rotary Club or other service groups, that is fine, but if not, your Director of Marketing can participate and represent the practice. Chamber of commerce, parks and recreation programs, local school and sports events are all good things to be involved in.
While the marketing projects mentioned here are effective, none of them will result in a huge increase in your patient volume all at once. If you want a larger and faster change, consider something bigger like adding another vision plan or accepting Medicaid. I realize that these programs require a large discount and adding them is a major decision. They are not right for everyone, but they can deliver a large number of patients. This is especially helpful if you have an associate OD. I view the discount provided under these plans as a marketing expense. Many of these patients actually need medical eye care, which improves revenue considerably. Many vision plans allow the provider to balance bill the patient for contact lens fees after a small discount, so we can do well there.
There are many other great marketing ideas available for your practice, including: direct mail, trunk shows, in-office seminars, open houses, telephone reactivation and much more. Embrace marketing for your practice and increase your patient demand.
Best wishes for continued success,
Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Editor, Optometric Management Tip of the Week
Dr. Gailmard's new book, Practice Management in Optometry: A Blueprint for Success Based on the Optometric Management Tip of the Week, is now available on Amazon.