Opening soon?

It’s easy to see why the notion of starting up a new practice can appear so attractive to many dentists. There’s no hefty ‘goodwill’ premium to pay to a retiring practitioner, you can choose your own location and you can put your own mark on the practice from day one.

If you are planning to establish your new venture outside the comfort – or confines, if you prefer – of the NHS, your biggest challenge will be financial, that of having the liquidity to cover the bills and provide money to live on while fee income is growing.

So the quicker you can develop your patient base, the easier this challenge becomes. And, of course, building up a profitable customer base lies at the heart of the marketing plans of every effective business.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. One of your first decisions is the type of practice you want to run. For example, you may want a high-volume, high-turnover practice, offering a good basic service to patients – in essence, a private NHS-style practice.

Or you may prefer to take things at a slower pace and develop a private boutique-style practice. This will allow you to spend a lot of time with a limited number of patients and offer them a range of more complex treatment options. Or, like many of our clients, your ideal may be a mix of both.

Your answer will inevitably lead to a view of the type of customer who would want to be a patient at your practice.

The critical step now is to find a location with enough of this type of person to enable you to achieve your turnover and profit targets. If you want to build your practice around high value-added cosmetic treatments, for example, you will obviously need enough potential patients nearby who will want this type of service and be able to afford it. As part of this evaluation you will also need to look at the local competition – that is, other close by practices trying to attract a similar type of patient.

Long before you open the doors for the first time, you need to think through the entire ‘patient experience’, to ensure it measures up to the expectations of your target patient group.

As a generalisation, if you are offering a general dental service to the widest possible cross-section of patients, you will probably want to adopt a relatively bland, all-encompassing style for the outside and inside of the practice, so that you don’t put anyone off.

But if you are aiming to appeal to a particular patient segment then you need to develop a style of decor that will appeal to that segment, to the exclusion of everyone else. Your target customers will then immediately identify with your service as relevant to them, so don’t be afraid to be bold and stand out from the crowd.

Also, when prospective clients make an initial enquiry, how will it be managed? Can they make contact by email – and, if so, will it be answered? Do you have enough telephone cover to ensure no calls ever go unanswered? Will the person who takes the call be bright, cheerful and friendly? Do you have a professional information pack describing your services to send out after an enquiry?

In our experience, most dentists appreciate that attracting suitable patients is the key to the success of a new practice. But, astonishingly, this is often not backed up by suitable plans and finance. Often it seems that practitioners get so involved in the logistical and staffing issues that go hand in hand with the new business, that attracting patients becomes less of a priority.

In fact, for many, it’s only when the practice has been open for a few weeks or months, and patient numbers are woefully low, that the need for suitable marketing comes to the fore. The most successful practitioners have a marketing plan and set a suitable budget well in advance. When they agree their business plans with the bank manager, the cash that will be needed is simply added onto the set-up loan.

There are no hard and fast rules for the amount of money that should be set aside to attract new patients. Figures can vary enormously, but about £20,000 is a reasonable startng point. This would cover the logo design, professional production of patient literature and other promotional tools, and any extra unexpected expenses such as postage.

You should start promoting your practice a few weeks before it opens, but in reality you need to have your telephone lines up and running, and someone to staff them, before you kick off your marketing campaign.

You also need to ensure your receptionist is well informed about the services you offer, and that they can deal with new enquiries in an efficient, polite and friendly manner. First impressions are vital and if your receptionist is abrupt or unable to help, callers will assume they can expect the same from the rest of the team.

It is well worth employing your receptionist for several weeks before you actually open, simply so they can make appointments for you and deal with enquiries. This will help get your practice off to a flying start and prevent you having to wait around twiddling your thumbs until the diary starts to fill up.

There are several ways to attract patients to a new practice. If you are moving from another practice in the area, you could let your current patients know about your new practice. How you do this may depend on the contract or understanding you had with your previous practice – sometimes dentists are contractually obliged to keep their patients in the dark about their next position.

If you have no such limitations then sending your patients a newsletter and covering letter is a great idea. The newsletter has a dual purpose – it lets people know about your practice and tells them more about the services you offer. Making it informative, for example with articles about general oral healthcare, as well as specific treatments, will heighten its appeal to potential clients.

A professionally produced newsletter will also give an excellent first impression of your practice. Recipients will realise that your practice intends to keep them informed about dental procedures and what is happening in your practice. They will appreciate joining a practice that so obviously cares about its patients too. The covering letter helps to personalise your approach to the recipient, which again emphasises the level of personal and caring service your practice will (presumably) provide.

Make the most of your location, especially if you are likely to have a lot of passers-by or through traffic. Put your signage up as soon as possible, and keep it sparkling clean – not easy if building work is going on, but vitally important if you want to make the right impression.

You might also want to invest in a banner telling people about your practice and when it is opening. This does not mean a straightforward list of your services – it needs to be exciting. For example, ‘Confident smiles, coming soon – call 012 345 6789 now to find out how we can help you smile with confidence’. If possible, have a practice leaflet available in a ‘Take One’ leaflet box by your entrance for passers-by to pick up.

When promoting a new practice, many dentists immediately think of advertising, but this can be quite expensive, especially when compared with other marketing methods. It also tends to work only over a longer period of time – unless you have an introductory promotional offer, which is just too good to refuse.

Once enquiries start coming in, make sure you take and keep a note of people’s contact details – names, addresses and telephone numbers. From these you can develop a database that you can use to keep in touch with the people who have shown an interest in your practice but have not yet joined. If they receive regular information from you, they are quite likely to join the practice sooner or later.

You can further boost this database, and patient numbers, by running a free-to-enter competition, offering, for example, a free smile makeover or tooth whitening. The bigger the prize, the greater your chances of gaining coverage in the local press.

For any practice, referrals from existing patients make up a large percentage of their new clients. But for a new practice, stimulating referrals from the patients you have so far is an important area to focus on.

Encourage patients to tell their friends and family about you – let them know you are still taking on new patients and would be happy to hear from anyone they know. Some of our clients offer a small incentive, such as free cinema tickets or a bottle of champagne, for each new referral they receive. Opinion is divided, however, over whether such incentives should be openly promoted before referral or simply given as a ‘Thank You’ after the event.

Delighting and surprising your patients is the most effective method of stimulating referrals, as discussed in our previous article. It requires that you go the extra mile for your patients, and need not be a huge expense.

It could include offering tea and coffee to patients on arrival, having a PlayStation (with headphones) in the waiting room or offering patients the chance to watch DVDs while you treat them. You could also call them at home a few hours after a procedure to make sure they are recovering well. Such gestures make a huge impact on patients and will encourage them to talk to friends and family about their wonderful new dental practice.

For a new practice, it is important to have a number of key marketing tools in place from the very start. As I’ve said before, it is vital to make the right first impression on potential patients. Do this, and they will become patients – fail and they become lost opportunities.

The first stage is to decide on a name and logo or brand image for your practice. These don’t have to be expensive or flashy, they simply need to reflect the image you want patients to have of your practice. For example, a modern, boutique-style practice would probably be best served by a modern yet classy name and logo; a country-house style practice would benefit from something more traditional.

At all costs, avoid anything that involves smiling molars. They may look cute and appropriate to you but to many customers they look cheap and outdated. Once you have decided on a suitable logo, you can move on to developing your stationery and promotional items.

Properly designed and printed business stationery is vital and relatively inexpensive, and instantly gives your practice an air of professionalism. If the budget is tight, you can save money by printing in only one or two colours rather than four. Your logo designer will be able to provide you with an appropriate version of your logo.

A website is also pretty much vital for any modern practice these days. It is a great opportunity to give your current and prospective patients a wealth of information, from opening hours and emergency cover to advice on treatments, oral healthcare issues and the latest copy of your patient newsletter. Don’t forget, however, that even the most brilliant new website is useless if prospective patients cannot find it when using their favourite search engine.

Put together a patient welcome pack as well. Not only does it give an excellent first impression of your practice, but it also provides prospective clients with information about you and your team, the practice and the services you offer. You can also include items such as a ‘Dental Wishes’ form that asks patients what they would like to change about their smile. This opens up a line of communication for you to discuss cosmetic dentistry without appearing to be overtly selling your services to patients.

Remember that most of us are useless at taking in information aurally, especially when faced with distractions such as wondering what treatment we might have to undergo and how much it will cost. As you may know, only about 7% of the information we are given in this way is absorbed, so it makes sense to provide current and potential patients with printed information that they can take away and read at a time that suits them – and of course pass on to someone else once they have signed up with you.

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