The average Australian dental practice is losing at least 20 per cent of its patient base every year. With the cost of acquiring new patients far exceeding the cost of retention, what are you doing to stop your customers walking out the door? By Amanda Scotland
Doctor Phillip Palmer of Prime Practice says it’s easy to recognise when you’re getting new patients, but if your practice isn’t growing then you’re probably losing patients at least at the same rate. This is churn and, if you’re not addressing it, it could be costing you big bucks.
A customer’s experience of your practice will be drawn from all points of contact with the business, not just their brief contact with the dentist. – Dr Phillip Palmer, Prime Practice
It’s easy to work out if your practice is suffering patient churn. First, work out your active patient load by counting up the number of unique patients who have visited your practice in the past 18 months (for the average practice, this will equate to between 1200 and 1500 active patients). Then if, for example, at the end of 12 months you have acquired 300 new unique patients, your active patient load should have grown by the same number. Almost invariably, however, Dr Palmer says the patient load is the same as it was in the beginning—sometimes even less.
“It’s a very natural blind spot,” says Dr Palmer. “The patients usually don’t tell us why they’re leaving—they just quietly go.”
On the rare occasions that the patients do let on that they’re unsatisfied—in person or perhaps on social media—Dr Palmer says the most common response he hears from dentists is, “I seem to attract all the nutcases.” These dentists, he says, must learn to look within.
Through extensive patient experience surveys and practice benchmarking, Prime Practice has discovered that churn usually boils down to a patient’s perception of how they’ve been treated. “The problem is dentists are trained to be dentists—and dentists think they give good service because their cavities are nicer than someone else’s cavities,” says Dr Palmer. “I’m not saying that the quality of dentistry is not important, but from the patient’s perspective, there’s not much difference between dentists’ treatment quality.”
A customer’s experience of your practice will be drawn from all points of contact with the business, not just their brief contact with the dentist. From the website to the way the phone is answered to how they’re greeted when they enter the door, your patients want to know they’re being looked after. It follows then that all staff need to be well trained in providing excellent customer service.
“At the heart of it all is the relationship. When there is no relationship, the only thing that patients can measure and compare is the price.” – Andy Sheats, CEO of health.com.au
Dr Palmer says that many practice owners baulk at the money, time and effort required to properly train staff, instead clinging to the notion that “I hired her, she’s a receptionist she must know what to do”. While this may be true, all too often the focus from the receptionist will be on what keeps the dentists happy rather than what makes the patients happy. This is where the trouble begins.
Creating “patients for life”, as Dr Palmer puts it, is made up of lots of small things that combine to leave a lasting imprint on customer experience. While the lack of one of these things might not hamper the business, the lack of several may be a sign that you’ve lost the customer connection.
At the most basic level, the practice itself should contribute to a positive experience. Regular coats of fresh paint, updated furniture, fresh magazines and a good tidy several times a day are small touches that will be noticed, and even more so by the infrequent visitors. Dr Palmer says that, while “modern is better than dated” you don’t necessarily need to take on a huge fit-out cost every five years. Keeping things neat, clean, fresh and tidy is usually all that’s required.
In an article for The Sydney Morning Herald in December 2013, Andy Sheats, founder and CEO of health.com.au, said that “established businesses fail when they lose sight of the reason they exist in the first place: to serve the needs of customers”. In the health insurance industry, this myopia has paved the way for “disruptors” to enter the market and overtake the incumbents. In the dental industry, keeping patients waiting has almost become standard practise, and it is exactly this kind of blind acceptance that Dr Palmer says can send some of your patients packing.
The Prime Practice experience surveys have identified this lack of punctuality as one of the most common patient complaints, “Dentists are so afraid that they’ll have five or 10 minutes’ downtime that they’d rather squeeze extra patients in,” he says. Instead, he advocates allocating additional time to each patient so that they feel well cared for and not rushed. The added bonus is that it will give you that much needed time to establish rapport and build loyalty, thus putting the brakes on patient churn.
Unsurprisingly, fees are next on the list of complaints; although Dr Palmer says it’s not the fees themselves but the attached perception of value that makes them a common problem for patients. “Two dentists in the same practice can have the same fees and one has patients who are complaining about the fees and the other doesn’t,” he says.
Key to this discrepancy in the perception of value is clear communication. Patients want to feel as though they have been given a choice about what happens to them. Dentists can easily avoid the fee gripe by explaining in clear language all of the treatment options and their associated benefits and risks.
At the heart of it all is the relationship. When there is no relationship, the only thing that patients can measure and compare is the price. On the other hand, Dr Palmer says if you can build trust by spending time with your patients and demonstrate a genuine interest in them and their health, it will be a lot easier to communicate the advantages of coming to see you every six months. More frequent visits will then make it easier for you to establish rapport, leading to a positive cycle that will further contribute to the growth of your practice and put a stop to that revolving door.