Engaging lost patients
Lis Hughes, managing director of Frank Taylor & Associates, explains more about how you can engage with ‘lost’ patients and get them back into your dental chair by setting up a patient reactivation scheme
As dental agents, we visit and value dental practices across England and Wales and will value between 500 and 600 dental practices every year that vary in size, value and offer a wide range of services. As part of the evaluation we discuss the number of active patients at the practice and it is quite surprising to hear from many principals that they have no idea – or even worse, that the number of patients they think they have bears no resemblance to the reality of patients attending the practice!
Many practices focus almost all of their marketing efforts on trying to attract new patients, but appear to have no robust process in place to re-engage with those ‘lost’ patients already known to them but who aren’t coming back. We’re not talking about patient recall here – all practices have a recall system in place that generates a reminder that a patient’s six monthly check is due. What we’re talking about is re-engaging with those patients who are still sitting in the database and haven’t visited the practice for 12-48 months and should be considered as ‘lost’. Engaging with these patients, talking to them, spending a bit of time with them and arranging an appointment for them to come back is cost effective in terms of marketing spend. If your marketing budget is under pressure, all the more reason to look at what you’ve already got before splashing out on that double-page spread in the county life magazine.
Many practices communicate with these ‘lost’ patients through the practice recall system, in the same way they do their regulars. Consequently the response from this group is anywhere from low to non-existent. Once a patient slips down the timeline into the ‘not visited for 12-48 months’ category, it might be worth considering a few questions: are they still really your patient or have they become someone else’s? Why haven’t they come back to you? Would they come back if you talk to them? Should they still be sitting in your database? A standard recall system won’t give you the answers to these questions, but re-engaging and speaking to them will.
To re-engage with patients you’ve not seen for 12-48 months, there really is no better way than rolling up your sleeves and hitting the phones and I mean really hitting the phones hard. On the face of it, it shouldn’t be too difficult, after all we all use the phone and it’s only a phone call isn’t it? Well not really. The telephone is quite simply the communication medium. The skill and confidence of the caller, the set-up, management and measurement of a solid telephone campaign are key to ensuring success.
We’ve heard stories from many practice owners and managers that have attempted telephone calls to lost patients, usually by utilising their front desk team (after all they use the phone all the time don’t they?) and we’ve heard the difficulties they encountered. One practice owner couldn’t believe the negative impact on the team members tasked with making calls. They were already very busy with day-to-day business so asking them to make what they considered to be sales calls to over 500 lost patients only created stress. Another practice manager reported that team members would find all sorts of reasons not to make a ‘cold call’, so constantly motivating them to do so became a real drain on her time and energy. One other practice was surprised that they’d made over 200 dials and only spoken to 32 people, almost half of which had moved away and most of the remainder had registered with another dentist.
A telephone campaign to re-engage with lost patients, if done properly, is not as simple as asking the front desk to pick up the phone and make a call. We always recommend a specialist patient reactivation partner is used and one that is an expert in dentistry. The company we use is hugely experienced in lost patient reactivation and informs us that on average 4.2 dial attempts are required to make contact with a lost patient. With that in mind the task is actually 4.2 times greater than you might have initially thought. Add in the requirement to manage a call team, keep records of the call activity, measure the conversion percentages, alternate calling times, manage call back activity, understand outbound calling techniques and so on means a practice practically needs to set up an entire new operation, and that does not take into account most successful calls are made early evening or on a Saturday morning when most team members are not at work!
Principals are often put off the idea of outsourcing, particularly in such a sensitive area. However, we know it works and we have seen a number of practices significantly benefit from such a service. We are very wary of recommending external providers, but we are really comfortable with the partner firm we work with and the icing on the cake is they do not charge the principal until the patient actually attends the practice for an initial appointment, which means there is no financial exposure for your business and you’ll be leaving the hard work to the experts whilst keeping your team focused on their core business. Once a patient attends the practice a one-off fee is due and to us it is a win/win situation as you either get ‘lost’ patients back into the practice at very reasonable cost or you will be made aware of the reasons why you have lost patients and can rectify this. This service is not only for practices that are being prepared for sale, but for all practice owners.
Lis Hughes is managing director of Frank Taylor & Associates, the largest independent dental broker in the UK. Lis has worked in the dental sector for many years and offers a depth of understanding in what does and does not work and which pitfalls are best avoided when buying or selling a practice.