What technique is most effective? Nigel Jones says it’s worth the effort to analyse the problem you are trying to solve

It’s a challenge that most dental practices, whether general or specialist, are continually trying to tackle – how to attract the right number of the right type of patients?

It’s very tempting to jump straight to solutions and talk about referrals, signage, websites, advertising, social media, or any number of marketing techniques. However, before too much time and money is invested in such tactics, it’s worth the effort to analyse in some depth, the problem you are trying to solve.

Journey stages

There is a lot of talk these days of the importance of the patient journey and it seems well accepted that patients will go through various stages before taking up treatment from a particular practice.  The route of this journey goes from becoming aware of the practice in the first place all the way through to the post-treatment follow-up appointment and every step in-between. These stages include the first experience of the practice website, the first telephone contact with the practice, the first visit to the practice and the way each member of the practice team interacts with the patient.

Every one of these steps can play a part in helping you attract new patients. This is because it is the experience of the patient as they go through this journey that shapes how they talk about you to friends, relatives and colleagues and in doing so, build your brand.

More than a logo

Don’t make the mistake that many do of thinking of brand as a logo.  Visual imagery has a part to play of course, but brand is so much more than that and can perhaps be thought of as your reputation. Your reputation, which is associated with your logo, is influenced by how you and your team made the patient feel with every interaction.

If every step of the patient journey contributes to your brand and therefore impacts on your ability to attract new patients, how do you identify where to start in terms of trying to improve things?


Well, of course, there are likely to be some steps that are in obvious need of attention.  For example, those that have maybe fallen into disrepair over the years, such as an out-dated website complete with pictures of former members of the team or references to news that is now several months, if not years, out of date.

However, it could be argued that the best place to start is with taking the time to map out the sequence of steps the patient will take and to assess the effectiveness of each step using both subjective and objective measures.  That will help to maximise the chance of choosing the correct priorities for your time, money and effort. Some form of measurement for each step will increase your confidence that you are focusing on improvements that will have the biggest impact.

The concept of measurement is clearly not alien to a dental environment where clinical success can be judged by microns.  However, applying the same rigour to the business aspects of running a dental practice is still far from the norm. Yet this can reduce the stress out of decision-making in so many aspects of practice management.

Patient statistics

As it applies to the patient journey, most practices now recognise the importance of capturing how new patients first heard of the practice and understand how that information could influence how to best direct marketing spend. If referrals from other practices remain high, while there’s a fall in the number of times Google and the internet are being cited as the prompt for the patient’s approach, that’s a reasonable clue of an area worthy of some focus. However, the right measurements can add so much more to that relatively superficial understanding.

For instance, deeper analysis of the statistics about referral numbers could highlight that you are over-dependent on one practice for referrals and, in fact one dentist within that practice.  If that dentist is nearing retirement, that presents a risk to the practice that needs to be addressed and could therefore be deserving of more urgent attention than the website.

And of course, such statistics are potentially flawed as they are based on the responses from patients with whom the front desk team are able to have a conversation. How many practices regularly monitor the number of calls they receive that go unanswered due to the front desk team struggling with the volume of calls and the need to deal with arriving patients?

With each new patient potentially worth thousands of pounds, understanding the number of missed opportunities and the peak times at which they occur is surely essential.  It may transpire that investing in more resource at the front desk at certain times of the day or the separation of the telephone from reception yields far more benefit than investing in ways of generating more enquiries that could be lost without a word spoken.

Alternatively, there may be few calls that are missed and the data captured about the sources of patient enquiries is an accurate reflection of how potential customer hear about you. However, how many go on to contribute financially to the practice?  Does this vary according to whether they heard about you via Google or an advert? And have you armed your front desk team with the knowledge, skills and confidence to be able to handle calls effectively and maximise the chance of the patient choosing your practice for their care?

Talk the talk

There is a real skill involved in having a good conversation with a patient when they first phone the practice; a conversation that leaves the patient feeling as if you have their interests at heart rather than your own self-interest; a conversation that leaves the patient feeling as if someone has taken the time to listen and understand their needs properly; a conversation in which patients can feel reassured that their concern about the cost of the proposed treatment can be addressed through the use of finance options such as interest-free credit.

And such a conversation isn’t just the preserve of reception, it applies equally to the clinicians in surgery. Measuring the success rates of different members of the front desk team when it comes to converting enquiries to appointments or clinicians when it comes to treatment plan uptake, can help identify training needs that could profoundly change the fortunes of the practice.

There is an art to attracting new patients and making them feel so positive about each interaction they have with you that not only will they enthusiastically embrace your clinical recommendations, they will also become powerful advocates for the practice. However, it’s an art that should be underpinned by some science.