When opportunity is pending…

Most dental practices are very good at ensuring a steady stream of patient referrals by maintaining regular contact with their sources of referrals and thanking them for their continuous support.

You may be one of these practices and you might be feeling pretty good about how well you nurture these relationships but, after all that effort, do you manage to convert those hard-won opportunities into sources of revenue?

In my experience many practices fail to take full advantage of the prospects provided to them and very often they aren’t even aware of how successful or otherwise they are.

A systematic approach to follow-up

When I am carrying out a practice assessment one of the first things I ask to see is the pending file. This is the record of patients who have either attended an initial consultation but not returned, or those who were referred but never actually attended.

What I find is often astonishing! Most practices don’t have a systematic approach to follow-up and therefore the opportunities they have nurtured so carefully are wasted.

As an example, a practice I visited recently had over 70 patients (private referrals) that were referred but never came in for their appointments. They were sent a letter of welcome asking them to call for an appointment but they failed to respond to it.

Another practice had over 35 patients that came in for their initial consultation but didn’t make further appointments for one reason or another – these patients were never followed up! What a waste of opportunity and a massive loss of potential revenue and profit.

Good service isn’t a pushy sales approach

A typical attitude of dentists is that they don’t like to follow up these missed opportunities because they perceive them to be a pushy sales technique. However, in actual fact most patients would value a follow-up and perceive it as excellent service, allowing them to discuss the treatments that have been suggested and any prevailing concerns they may have. I know this to be true because I have implemented specific systems in many practices that have proven highly successful with the team and the patients.

When patients are referred or have self-referred to your practice, they should be telephoned by a member of your team to explain why they have been referred and what the next stages of the process are. An appointment is booked and the call is followed up with a welcome pack containing all the relevant information, together with some forms to be completed prior to the appointment.

I strongly advise against sending an initial letter asking referred patients to call for an appointment. I believe this is an ineffective approach and it is the main reason why many practices have such a high percentage of ‘pending patients’.

People are busy, modern life is hectic and although many would like to make ‘that’ phone call, in terms of priorities it never reaches the top of the pile. Every day as I drive past my dentist on the way to the office I am reminded to call to make my six-monthly appointment but by the time I get to the office there are so many other priorities that I either forget or choose to do other tasks. So the appointment never gets made and we both miss out.

In contrast, a friend of mine was telling me that her dental practice sends her a reminder letter and two weeks later, if she hasn’t called to make an appointment, they call her. She loves this approach; it saves her the hassle of finding the time to call and relieves the stress of being constantly reminded of it.

It isn’t a hard sell; it is just great service – after all, who is the customer here?

It isn’t just a reminder call

Your initial phone call has also established a rapport with your new patient that no letter could ever achieve.

The next step is a customer-care call the day before the patient’s appointment and the most successful approach is for the dentist to make the call. Imagine the impact of receiving a call from the practitioner that went something like this, ‘Hello Miss Craven, this is Mr Smith, your dentist. You are coming to see me tomorrow at 10am and I wanted to ensure you had no major concerns at this time.’

Patients are so shocked by the unexpected gesture that most of the time they have nothing to say and if they do, having you overcome their problem is hugely positive. Either way the call generates massive reassurance and shows that you care for your patients.

Do you think your patients will remember this call? You bet! Do you think they will talk about it to their friends and family? I guarantee it!

Managing cancelled appointments

If a patient contacts you to cancel the appointment, what process do you have in place to ensure it is followed up? How do members of your team handle the initial request to cancel?

I always suggest patients are asked if they would like to make an alternative appointment. If they decline, they should be asked if they have any concerns preventing them from making the initial consultation. The person dealing with these calls must be trained to deal with them effectively.

If the patients suggest they will get in contact when they are ready to make an alternative appointment, their files should be placed in a pending area that is followed up one week later (unless the patient has specifically requested not to be contacted). So one week later this patient is telephoned and asked if he/she would like to re-book his/her initial consultation. How you proceed from there depends upon what the answer is.

Some patients are often difficult to get hold of during the day. If this is the case, even after you have contacted the referral source to see if they have other contact details, a well-written follow-up letter should be sent to request they contact you.

If you still haven’t received a telephone call after four weeks I would transfer the file into an inactive area until the patient contacts you.

Committing to treatment

Some patients will attend their initial appointments but will not make a commitment to treatment, preferring to consider the proposal at home.

I would like to emphasise at this stage that during the initial consultation the patient’s concerns should have been discussed and alleviated by the dentist and/or the treatment co-ordinator (TC) so that when they leave they are well informed.

I would also suggest that the treatment co-ordinator reinforces the detailed treatment plan with payment options and patient information literature that the patient has been provided with to help them make an informed decision.

The treatment co-ordinator’s approach should be to suggest that the patient books a start appointment for four to six weeks ahead to avoid disappointment should they decide to go ahead with treatment (as Mr Smith gets very booked up).

The TC can then give the patient a call in an agreed length of time to see what the decision is. If the patient remains undecided the appointment can be easily cancelled at no charge, but if the patient decides to go ahead they have a time booked in and therefore avoid the disappointment of having to wait; a win-win outcome.

The important part is that follow-up must be done at the time that has been agreed.

We all value a complete service

A robust and proactive process for managing your prospective patients should be a fundamental part of your approach. Don’t make assumptions about what you do currently and how effective it is. Set up a formal system that includes a monitoring mechanism and start measuring your success.

Prospective patients will honestly value your interest in them and the comprehensiveness of your approach, and even if they decide not to undertake treatment at that time they will remain firm advocates of your practice and recommend you to their friends.

You have everything to gain and nothing to lose by trialling this approach, so give it a go and let me know how you get on.

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