How to beat the summer blues

Every month I spend a full day on the telephone with my clients – that’s 15 minutes with each of them – asking ‘how can I help?’ and coaching them live. I listen for trends during each of these days, and in July there were noticeable examples of the appointment book becoming a bit ‘gappy’ – patients either not turning up in sufficient numbers or cancelling more frequently.

In previous years, it has been all too easy to blame the summer as a time of year when dental health is not a priority and many patients are far too busy thinking about holidays. However, I’m hearing another sub-plot this year that I feel we have to consider. The sub-plot is along the lines of ‘I went private in April (or have been moving towards private since April) and my fear is that patients are either looking for cheaper dental maintenance elsewhere or shopping around with my treatment plan for a better price.’ If that’s true, and I believe there is some truth in it, then we must take action.

Firstly, recognise that it’s not just you. Your business has not lost its allure, there is nothing wrong, so don’t blame anyone. Don’t start whining about what a lousy team you have or what lousy patients you’ve been landed with. This is a national phenomenon – I’m hearing it from all over the UK.

It’s also worth considering that the ‘summer months’ syndrome is true. Parents up and down the country are preparing to go, or going, on holiday – a major source of stress. They are also busy preparing to accommodate the needs of bored children who have six weeks of idle time to fill up.

So, if your appointment book is looking a little thinner than normal, here’s an easily digestible list of what to do:

1. Write to all your patients explaining that this would be a good time to ‘entertain’ their little blighters by bringing them in for a dental check-up. Seriously, why not organise some ‘children days’ where you can see them all in one go? It’s a very popular strategy with many of my clients. Put away all the fine china, glossy magazines and the flat plasma screen and just fill the place with Playstations, Gameboys, comics and show cartoons or sci-fi movies on the TV.

Recruit all the team in to spend the day seeing the children, including the hygienist as a dental health educator. Many of you who have gone private are either seeing the children free of charge for check-ups or selling them a junior membership scheme. Use this time to market those services and maybe announce that in future you will offer these ‘children days’ at every school holiday.

2. Give your patients a special summer offer on tooth whitening. Imagine how much nicer they will look under the strobes of Ibiza with a beautiful set of gleaming white gnashers, and maybe offer a discount voucher for treatment delivered before September. Make sure the voucher clearly states that treatment must commence before a cut-off date and that it’s one voucher per patient.

3. Write to all your patients telling the truth (that it’s quiet in August) and ask them to invite any family, friends or colleagues they think would like to visit a new practice. Maybe offer another discount voucher on the cost of a first appointment (with the same conditions mentioned above).

4. It’s not only patients who are in holiday mode over the summer. Many dentists themselves take holidays (nothing wrong with that) but then allow their own recall system to get messed up as a result. So my moral here is, rather than complain about the good weather and the holiday season, make sure your recall systems are robust and still in operation.

5. Now that many practices are going private, some patients are either delaying treatment or shopping around for cheaper deals, often abroad. It’s often best to answer an objection before the customer thinks of it. So you might consider some dialogue when the treatment plan is being discussed, along the lines of: ‘If you are the kind of person who likes to shop around, you will find that this treatment can be offered at lower prices elsewhere – especially overseas.’

Then it’s worth reminding them of the quote from Victorian entrepreneur John Ruskin, made in 1890, which said: ‘It is unwise to pay too much but it’s worse to pay too little.’ After all, if you pay too much, you can lose a little money. If you pay too little, you can lose everything. Dealing with the lowest bidder increases the risk factor and it’s worth letting such patients ponder that.

6. Here’s a thought for NHS practices. In an attempt to keep pace with UDA targets, make sure you are not piling all the treatment into current appointments. Remember to spread the work out as much as possible.

7. Do you have a robust cancellation policy? Patients cancel appointments when they know they can. It is essential that your dental team is well trained in communicating your policy to patients who are tempted to mess you about. Receptionists are the front-line troops in this process and the more investment you make in their communication skills the better.

8. Let’s now take a look at your overall marketing. Do you have:

• a good quality business card?

• a great patient welcome pack?

• a smile check?

• a good referral system?

• a great website that attracts those who Google for a dentist in your area? There are over 100,000 people a month doing that in the UK right now.

9. Use this spare summer time to get out and about in your community. People in business are becoming more aware of the fact that a healthy and good-looking smile is part of their own appearance and marketing. The potential for cosmetic dentistry to people in sales and marketing is growing. Many of my dental clients are giving presentations that you can give to local affluent special interest groups (the tennis club etc) on ‘how to create a lovely smile’. If you can rustle up a 30-minute PowerPoint slideshow you are set to go, and if you have any public-speaking fears, get trained.

10. Finally, research a number of useful strategic alliance partners with whom you can swap clients and share marketing. Ask your team to take a look at the local business directories online and identify those who are providing ‘well-being’ services. Discuss with them ways in which you can add value to each of your existing client bases – or invest in some joint external marketing to find new clients.

There will never be a better time than a quiet summer to get started.

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