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I don't see many articles in the practice management literature offering great new ideas on how to attract new patients. It's rather ironic, since attracting enough patients is the single biggest challenge most practices face. The reason we don't see more written on this topic is that there is no quick and easy answer that's guaranteed to work perfectly. This is especially true in private professional practices where the optimum strategy is not about low prices or discounts.
I'll share my thoughts on building patient demand and I'll present one idea that may be immediately useful, but I'll also appeal to you: if you have a great idea for bringing patients into a practice, please email me with it. I'll provide an overview of the best reader ideas in a future tip article.
The best strategy
The best way to build patient volume in my opinion is through word of mouth referral by the loyal patient. This is not a very fast marketing approach, so it won't provide immediate help for a new practice or a practice that is struggling financially, but it should still be the cornerstone of your marketing plan.
Some eye care practices are extremely successful at stimulating word of mouth referral and some are not. The ones that are really good at it are generally obsessed with customer service. These practice owners get it and, through leadership and example, they build an office culture that sets their practice apart from the crowd. When patients visit these practices, they get it too. They sense the difference; it's in the staff attitude, it's a way of doing business with integrity, and it's in the office policies that have been designed around patient's wants and needs rather than the doctor's.
Most eye care practitioners think they are good at customer service, but most of those have not really stepped up the standard that is needed to create great patient loyalty.
A slow process?
It might be easy to shrug off the word of mouth approach because it seems too slow, but let's look deeper. Once your office starts providing truly great customer service the effect is immediate. The patients that you see today will start to tell others right away. Some of those will schedule appointments. The more enthusiastic the patients are; the more new ones will result. The growth is exponential. As new patients are seen, they tell more people even as the earlier ones are still telling people.
Advertising in some form is the standard approach to attracting new customers. It can be very effective or it can cost so much that the actual net income generated from the ad does not even break even.
Advertising is such a broad topic that it's beyond the scope of this article, but be aware that dabbling in do-it-yourself ad design can convey an image that is not desirable. If you are going to spend money on advertising, be sure the public perception is top notch. Consider hiring an advertising professional for major projects.
There are many ways to promote your practice without advertising, and some have little or no direct cost other than your time. Since we're talking about practices without enough patient demand, we'll assume you can find the time. Here is an idea you could consider: call on other doctors in an effort to cultivate referrals. This approach has been used successfully by many doctors of various specialties, but seems to be underutilized by optometrists.
Making the move to meet other health care providers is the important thing; the exact details less so. Just do it. I would simply drop in unannounced during office hours, armed with business cards, smile and introduce yourself to the receptionist and ask if you could speak to the doctor for a couple minutes. If you make a connection with even a few docs, the effort is a success. A true friendship could result in some cases.
What you should actually say to the practitioner will vary based on his or her specialty and your personality. In the big picture, it doesn't really matter that much and doesn't have to be all that polished. Your effort will be understood and respected. But a good place to start is what you can do for the other practitioner:
Serve as a resource for diagnosis and treatment of red eyes
Evaluation of cataract or glaucoma
Screen for ocular side effect of drugs or rule out conditions before starting systemic medications
Perform eye screenings for school or job applications
Confirm and treat strabismus and amblyopia
Don't forget to ask what the practitioner would like to see from you in the form of referrals. Is she accepting new patients? What kinds of medical issues are treated? What kind of patient would they like to see? Can you call with concerns over drug interactions? Can you have a supply of his business cards?
Sending a brief follow-up letter is a good idea, thanking the practitioner for the time spent, and you can enclose more of your business cards. Follow-up with some referrals of your own and send brief report letters when you see mutual patients.
Consider the approach you might take with the following heath care professionals. What do you have in common and what can you do for them?
Other optometrists in all modes of practice
Dieticians and nutritionists
Have you ever had a physician drop in at your office to meet you? How did that go? Use that experience to help your meet and greet effort.
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.