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With the current recession expected to last through 2021, it may be more important to prioritise retaining existing clients over chasing new ones. By John Burfitt
Retention of patients is paramount at any time, but with Australia officially in recession and bracing for more economic contractions in the coming months, it’s an issue many dental practice owners are taking a renewed interest in.
While many dental clinics reported strong business throughout 2020, boosted by such factors as JobKeeper payments and less discretionary spending on lifestyle items like travel, there were some sobering figures pertaining to dental trends mid-year from the Australian Dental Association.
In August, the Adult Oral Health Tracker progress report offered some red flag insights about the way Australians approach their oral health, that could become more concerning through 2021.
The survey claimed just under half (48.8 per cent) of Australian adults had visited a dentist for a check-up in the past 12 months, a drop of 6.7 per cent since 2018. With the economy anticipated to constrict through 2021, and with higher unemployment rates possibly resulting in reduced spending on personal healthcare, it’s possible those figures for visits to the dentist could worsen.
Which is why the issue of retention should be front and centre right now in any dental practice owner’s business plan, industry consultant Carolyn Dean says.
“It is absolutely critical to know what is going on with your customers, and what is going on with your own numbers,” Dean, author of Fully Booked: Dental marketing secrets for a full appointment book, says. “If you’re serious about retaining good clients, then you need to know the numbers of the patients you have coming in, what treatment plans you have, how you are managing those plans and how you are staying in contact.”
Dean says exploring what those numbers reveal about your business is the vital first step to retaining patients in the longer term.
“Before you begin thinking about any new marketing strategies or special deals in the hope of getting clients in, you must understand your numbers as they can reveal all the information about your existing clients you need to know,” she says.
That information might disclose the specific treatments that are in big demand, and the demographics of the patients opting for them. It could also highlight the clients who are missing regular check-ups and whether or not they are being followed up for new appointments.
Exploring the spreadsheet numbers could also reveal whether it is regular clients or indeed new patients who have been keeping the appointment books busy.
“In a recession, or any time for that matter, these are the numbers you need to get close to,” Dean says. “Once you know them, you will know what you need to do more of, as it will be clear what is already working and what will keep the practice doing well.”
When looking into retention, it’s also worth remembering the adage: it costs five times as much to attract one new client as it does to retain one you already have. Some business analysts insist that figure is way off, and the cost can actually be 20 or even 30 times the cost of retaining a current client.
Julie Parker of the dental consultancy Julie Parker Practice Success claims it’s far easier to market to existing clients and hold onto their business as a result, than attract new ones.
“With some practices I have worked with, if the money spent on marketing to new clients was instead dedicated to team training, improving customer services and updating clinic technology, it would have paid for itself in spades in return business,” she says.
Parker also warns to be wary of turning to special deal strategies in a desperate bid to attract new clients in tougher times.
“What you are possibly doing is getting transient patients delivered and the moment that incentive is gone—be it a half-price clean or fast check-up—then the patient is gone as well,” she says. “Never take loyalty for granted, no matter how long your clients have been coming to see you.
“It might be a far smarter approach to encourage your existing patients with something like a referral program to their family and friends.”
The significant value of the networks of existing clients should never be underestimated, Parker explains.
“Consider this—if one patient refers three friends, their value to your practice has increased three times. If you ensure the service provided to all those patients is excellent, they all have a compelling reason to come back in six months’ time.”
According to Dr Stephen Liew, ADA Federal vice-president and partner in Melbourne’s Camberwell Dental Group, paying attention to retention is also an ideal opportunity for a practice to analyse how it engages with its patients.
“I more broadly define retention as loyalty,” Dr Liew says. “We believe in the concept that a patient sees our practice as their dental home. We aim to look after people so well, they independently elect to come back. If you do the opposite and focus only on generating business, patients see straight through it and your busyness will decrease.”
Dr Liew follows three basic strategies when it comes to retention. “The first one is respect, which extends from looking after a child during a parent’s examination to wheeling an elderly person to their car after a treatment. In between, you should be offering every available treatment option at a time that suits that patient.”
The other two are setting a clear line between oral health and aesthetic issues—“Unless a patient raises an aesthetic issue, I never offer a treatment option,”— and spending minimal time devising new marketing schemes. “You’re far better off devoting that time to your patients, your team and on your CPD. Positive words will then be spread about the way you practise due to your constant ethical, high-quality dentistry.”
Doing some extensive housekeeping on the way your business operates could also prove essential to understanding why some patients do not return, Carolyn Dean adds.
“It could be you are always running late, or you barely talk to them as you always seem to be rushed or you have a receptionist who’s grumpy. It could also be your communication methods, when you’ve bombarded patients with too many special deal emails, when a simple phone call or SMS to book in their next appointment would have been far more effective. Those are the things that need to be fixed— and fast.”