Pass it on: word-of-mouth recommendations

word-of-mouth recommendations

With most word-of-mouth recommendations now happening online, you need to be part of the process while fully understanding your obligations. By Kerryn Ramsey

A prospective patient moves to a new city. Someone’s usual dentist retires. Another person is unhappy with their current dentist. A parent is taking their children to the dentist for the first time. How do they choose a dentist?

It’s a no-brainer—through word of mouth. In the pre-internet days, recommendations came from friends, family, neighbours, colleagues, associates and other kids’ parents at school. These connections occur organically and that makes them easy to trust. These days, however, most word-of-mouth recommendations happen online.

There is no doubt that it would improve your business if patients sang your praises—online and in person—more often. However, dental practitioners must be aware of their legal obligations when advertising or promoting a regulated health service, including the use of testimonials, which are prohibited.

“Word of mouth has always been and always will be the number-one way that people get to hear about a practice,” says Caroline S. Dean, a marketing consultant who wrote Fully Booked and runs the My Dental Marketing and Wellsites businesses. “In the good old days, word of mouth and referrals used to be verbal, from casual conversations with friends, family and colleagues. Now word of mouth is very much online.”

Online community groups around the country provide forums and discussion pages where the community shares information. Reviews and ratings are written by locals and through positive feedback, local businesses and professionals get recommended.

“This is a really good indicator of how word of mouth is still happening, even though it’s online,” says Dean. For instance, the Willoughby Living site—located in Sydney’s upper North Shore—has 10,000 people on its Facebook page. This is one of hundreds of local groups talking about local things. It’s where members ask: ‘Can anybody recommend a good dentist?’ ‘I’m very scared of the dentist, who can you recommend?’ ‘We’ve just moved to this suburb, who’s the best dentist for kids?’

“Word of mouth has always been and always will be the number-one way that people get to hear about a practice.”—Caroline S. Dean, marketing consultant, My Dental Marketing

“For dental practices, it’s worth being aware of local groups,” continues Dean. “They should be up to date on the forums, just to be aware of local people’s comments about your practice.”

However, before a dental practitioner is tempted to join online forums with the idea of providing their contact details or offering to perform a service, they should first make sure they understand the National Law’s advertising provisions and other Australian legislation that may apply. This includes the Australian Consumer Law (ACL) and the expectations of other Australian regulators such as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

Guidelines for advertising regulated health services are published on the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) website at www.ahpra.gov.au. These guidelines were jointly developed by AHPRA and the National Boards regulating 14 health professions. A summary of a health practitioner’s regulatory obligations when advertising a regulated health service is also available.

The Dental Board of Australia’s Social Media Policy and Code of Conduct outline what the Board expects of registered dental practitioners regarding their practice. The Australian Dental Association (ADA) also has social media guidelines that it recommends members follow and specifically advises against dental practitioners approaching people they don’t know online and trying to sell their services.

When monitoring online forums or developing online content, be aware of your professional and legal responsibilities. You can’t ask your patients to write reviews or testimonials and you must remove any unsolicited testimonials that may appear in online platforms that you control, such as a Facebook page or website about your practice. While you are not responsible for the removal of testimonials or reviews from online forums or platforms that you do not control, you can’t ask patients to write reviews or testimonials on these sites.

Despite your use of testimonials being prohibited under the National Law, patient referrals or word-of-mouth recommendations can still be used to help build your practice. According to the American Dental Association, 70 to 80 per cent of new business in a typical dental practice is referred by current patients. This can be encouraged by telling people that you appreciate referrals, or thanking people for the referrals they give.

“It’s a mindset change,” says Dean. “Some dentists don’t like referral programs because they think of it as begging; but rather than begging, it’s thanking. If Mrs Jones has referred five people in the past year, you should be phoning her and thanking her.” But again, when you’re thinking about how you’re thanking your patients, you need to adhere to the Dental Board’s Code of Conduct and to the National Law’s advertising requirements.

“Some dentists don’t like referral programs because they think of it as begging; but rather than begging, it’s thanking.”—Caroline S. Dean, marketing consultant, My Dental Marketing

Dean suggests formalising the acknowledgement system. Touching base with loyal patients and saying thank you helps build the practice. It’s a chance to acknowledge their actions. Furthermore, this patient is likely to mention the kind comment to friends and family.

Few practices know exactly how many of their new patients come to them through word of mouth. When a new patient arrives, it’s important to find out if they were referred by a friend, family, colleague or online. Rather than the dentist prying, it’s up to the team to build this relationship. “This needs to be part of a formalised program or it will be forgotten,” says Dean. “After asking these questions, it’s also important to thank the person who referred.”

The reality is that it’s much easier to get patients through word of mouth, and much cheaper than having to go out and advertise on Google, in newspapers or on the radio. Posters, postcards, badges and sending out thank-you cards are much cheaper options compared to the cost of running a print ad.

However, if you are advertising or promoting a referral program as part of your health service, any marketing collateral must meet the National Law’s advertising requirements. For example, when advertising offers a gift, discount or other inducement, it must be accompanied by the terms and conditions of the offer.

While word of mouth is a low-cost piece of marketing, you still need to have goals. If you run a referral program, instituting the full range of promotions and thank-you cards, you need to know how many patients you want to add because of this program. You may want to increase the word-of-mouth patients by 10 per cent.

“Set your goals, and if you achieve them, take the staff out for dinner or bowling or for a day on the harbour,” suggests Dean.

To make this work effectively, she suggests making it part of your practice management software. “It’s essential that all staff understand the APHRA guidelines. They also need to understand why it’s important to get word of mouth out there—it’s an extremely effective way of bringing in new patients and income streams.”


Advertising and the National Law

Section 133 of the National Law states that a person must not advertise a regulated health service or a business that provides a regulated health service, in a way that:

a) is false, misleading or deceptive or is likely to be misleading or deceptive, or

b) offers a gift, discount or other inducement to attract a person to use the service or the business, unless the advertisement also states the terms and conditions of the offer, or

c) uses testimonials or purported testimonials about the service or business, or

d) creates an unreasonable expectation of beneficial treatment, or

e) directly or indirectly encourages the indiscriminate or unnecessary use of regulated health services.

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