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Chris Barrow talks about how you can increase patient referrals

Chris Barrow Practice Management Leave a Comment

A personal recommendation is a powerful tool in bringing new patients to your door and a cost-effective way of generating additional income. Most practices know this of course, but many still struggle with how to harness the power of patient referrals and maximise this revenue stream.

I, and my colleagues who are visiting dental practices, are often asked how they can improve this side of their business. They recognise the potential it has for the growth and profitability of the practice, but just aren’t sure what the best steps are for increasing their referrals. To shed some light on this topic, I   turned to dental business coach, Chris Barrow, and asked him: What are the most effective ways of building up the patient referral side of my business?

Chris: “Do you remember the good old days?

It’s a term that seems to define any period of history where our perception tells us that things were easier.

Of course, perception and reality are often different – the early 20th century may have been ‘the good old days’ for variety music hall, but I’m sure there would be many working-class folks that would argue that times were hard in industrial Britain.

It’s the same in every walk of life, including dentistry, so my ears prick up when I hear older clients talk about ‘the good old days’ in which dental marketing was a lot simpler.

The conversation usually goes like this:

  1. ‘Do you remember back in the early 90s, when all we had was a brass plaque on the wall outside and a standard sized Yellow Pages advert?’
  2. ‘Do you remember the mid-90s, when all we were able to add to that was a tri-fold patient information leaflet, some business cards and a bigger box in Yellow Pages?’
  3. ‘Do you remember the late 90s, when we were able to add to that a simple website that was basically our patient information leaflet online – with opening times, a price guide, detailed explanations of treatment options and bios of the clinicians?’
  4. ‘Do you remember the early 00s, when Boots Dentalcare exploded onto the market and we all had to up our game because they invested millions in media advertising?’

Throughout all of these iterations, there remained one marketing technique that was true, tested and frequently ignored by the majority of clinicians:

Hand out your business cards at the end of treatment and adapt the following script to your own style:

‘I wonder if I could ask you a small favour. We are currently growing the practice and would love to welcome new patients. I’d like to give you three of my business cards and ask you to pass them on to any family, friends or colleagues who might be interested in visiting the practice.’

I was one of the innovators who suggested that you should include your own portrait photograph on the business card, so that strangers could give you the once-over before calling.

(I recall the outrage of a dentist who argued publicly with me during a marketing workshop that photographs on business cards were a sure sign of desperation and completely unprofessional.)

Surely those were the good old days, when all you had to do was hand out a few business cards?

Apparently not so, because compliance from both principals and associates was poor. Many was the time that those boxes of business cards languished in a surgery cupboard, neglected and then forgotten.

So, let’s now bring the story up to date, 19 years after the first primitive Wi-Fi systems were created, 13 years after a dentist’s son created a private networking site for his university friends that became Facebook, 10 years since the first iPhone.

Now, we have recognised that patients are most likely to ‘tell their friends’ about you when they are at an emotional high-point in their experience, a.k.a. the end of their treatment.

Now, we have an End of Treatment Protocol (EOTP) that my clients remember by using a pneumonic called MR CREST:

M = would you like to discuss the benefits of membership of our dental plan?

R = please may I give you three of my referral business cards

C = if you have an active Facebook profile, could we ask you to check in?

R = if you check in, please would you write a review?

E = can I check that we have your email address and consent to send you our monthly newsletter?

S = if you have an active Instagram account, can we take a selfie?

T = would you have time now or at a later date to help us with a short video testimonial?

I’m not suggesting you ask for every one of these – simply to agree at your daily huddle (you do have a daily huddle, don’t you?) which are most suitable to the patient under discussion and to agree who will do the asking and when.

We live in a digital economy in which Oxford Professor and anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, argues that we all have an average of 150 ‘connections’, either physical or virtual, because that’s how our hunter/gatherer brains are wired.

Yet, even now, compliance is low.

Every week I get reports from clients who tell me they have forgotten their EOTP because they are either too busy or haven’t developed the habit.

Building patient referrals was and is the best way to grow your business. It beats the pants off expensive, time-consuming and ill-focused print media and digital advertising campaigns. It has never been easier, and you have never had so much reach.

The good old days were never that good – we just choose to remember the nice bits.

In patient marketing, the best of days for referrals are with us; right here, right now – you simply have to take part.”


Thanks to Chris for sharing his practical advice via his EOTP, and also exploring the way in which patient referrals have changed over the years, and what it looks like in today’s digital age. For me it has been another reminder of the way dentistry and the business of running a practice continues to evolve, and the need for adaptation in order to thrive.

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