Keep coming back

dentists

A good re-appointment rate is not only good business, it’s an excellent indicator of how your patients view your practice and your people, reports Chris Sheedy

Think of how difficult it is, when you first open a practice, to build your client base to a healthy level. Once you do get a good number of clients, the last thing you want to do is continue that frantic search for new business. But if re-appointment rates among your current clients are low, that search will never end.

“To go to all that work—the time it takes, the customer service effort and the systems you put in place—then not properly tap into your current clients as your most valuable source of business is criminal,” says Julie Parker, co-founder and educator from Julie Parker Dental Management.

“Re-booking the clients you’ve already got, managing to get them to come back through your doors, is so vitally important. Look at how desperate some practices are to generate a stronger flow of new patients, but a far easier way to build business is through current patients.”

Dr Toni Surace, managing director of Momentum Management, agrees that re-appointment is a vital ingredient in the recipe for business success. It should be the objective of every business to create loyal clients who are proud to refer their friends and colleagues, she says.

Dr Surace says a good rate of re-appointment is 80 to 90 per cent. (“Obviously we’d like to see 100 per cent,” she smiles, “but that’s not realistic.”) When she first consults to a business, those rates are often as low as 20 per cent, but the real issue is that the practice often doesn’t even realise this as they are not tracking this key metric.

Re-appointment figures not only indicate an amount of revenue that is coming back into the business, but also offer an indication of how the practice is performing in other areas.

“Obviously the rates indicate whether patients are happy enough to come back, but they also tell you whether the client feels they are getting value from their visit,” Surace says. “I don’t necessarily mean value for money, I just mean ‘value’. Are they feeling as if they are being educated? Are they feeling as if they were really welcome? Do they feel like their appointment was worth their effort in attending?

“Make an effort to improve your current rates by 10 per cent and you’ll likely begin to see a lot of other improvements around your business, which will each create their own success.”—Julie Parker, Julie Parker Dental Management

“There could be a number of issues in the practice such as communication or patient service, etc. Or it could be the really big one, the fact that the clinician is not making their next appointment important enough.”

Look at what businesses in the hospitality and travel spaces do to increase retention rates, Parker says. Brands such as Mercure, Hilton and Virgin Australia are all constantly communicating with their customers and offering special rates, exclusive membership deals, loyalty bonuses and travel teasers. And this is an industry in which retention is far lower than in dentistry.

“The likelihood in dentistry for clients to return is extremely high,” Parker says. “In fact, medical doctors are probably the only ones that are higher than us.”

“I have always suggested to dental practices that if they boost several areas of their business by just 10 per cent then they’ll find themselves in a very good place, so that is a good place to start with retention rates. Make an effort to improve your current rates by 10 per cent and you’ll likely begin to see a lot of other improvements around your business, which will each create their own success.”

What areas of the business should a dentist look at in order to make this happen? Begin by thinking of the way you present a reason for a re-visit to the patient, Surace says.

“Traditionally as dentists, we have tried to minimise the patient’s problem,” she says. “So we will often say things like, ‘You’ve got a little bit of decay there, but don’t worry. It will be okay. We can put a filling in next time you visit.’ So the patient goes home and thinks, ‘Great, they told me it was just a little bit of decay. I can cancel that appointment.’”

Communication and language is very important. Rather than referring to a ‘six-monthly check-up and clean’, Surace says, consider whether it might be better to call it a ‘preventative care’ or ‘essential oral hygiene’ appointment. Make it sound more important and a cancellation will be less likely.

Rather than referring to a ‘six-monthly check-up and clean’, consider whether it might be better to call it a ‘preventative care’ or ‘essential oral hygiene’ appointment. Make it sound more important and a cancellation will be less likely.

Parker agrees, saying that a low retention rate usually means the patient is not being engaged in the health process whilst in the surgery.

“You have to ask yourself how you can help the patient to see the relevance of the next visit,” Parker says. “Maybe you should take more time describing the issue. Or perhaps you should look in to the barriers that are causing them to avoid their next booking, then address those barriers.”

Speaking of barriers, Surace recommends to her clients that they put their patients into one of the four ‘DISC’ (dominant/influential/steady/ conscientious) behavioural groups in order to identify, even before the patient arrives for each visit, the barriers that they might face.

“A ‘dominant person’ is very focused on time and wants results,” she explains. “So if we want to make their appointment more valuable for them, we appeal to those aspects in the appointment. We make sure we see them first thing in the day so we’re not running late. We make sure they get as much as possible completed in one visit. We let them know we’re doing this because we know it is what they need.”

Skills required to convince a patient to return are not only important for the dentist or business owner. It is vital that they are taught to everybody in the business, ensuring consistency of communication.

Also be sure to remember, Parker says, that patients trust their dentist as a source of advice. If a medical doctor says to a patient that they need a specific treatment within a particular amount of time, the patient will do what they say. The same goes for dentists.

Consistency, clarity and credibility are all important pieces of the re-appointment puzzle. Get it right and your business will thrive.

“Patients are precious,” Surace says. “These days, it’s not easy to find new patients. It’s so much cheaper to keep a patient in your practice than go out and market for a new one. Keep those patients in your practice by building stronger relationships.”

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