Dental internal marketing begets referrals by Howie Horrocks and Mark Dilatush.

For over 20 years we’ve often noted a rather odd dental office statistic. In surveying our client’s patients we always ask, “Would you refer Dr. Jones to your friends and family?” 90% of the time the patients answer in the affirmative, yet only about 10% refer effectively.


There are actually two reasons. Both within your power to do something about.

The first is that, contrary to popular opinion, referrals tend to be a rather weak and vague endorsement. A friend says Dr. Jones is great. Or that Dr. Jones didn’t hurt him. Or that her staff is wonderful. These are all positive comments but they really don’t fully or convincingly answer the real question the person has which is, “should I go to Dr. Jones and if so, why?”

It’s not really the fault of the endorser because they don’t know why you should go to Dr. Jones either. And that’s because they don’t know much about what Dr. Jones can do or offer. They lack a knowledge of the broad scope of the benefits being delivered in Dr. Jones’ practice.

So the friend basically has nothing concrete to say and has to fall back on things like, “she’s so nice” or “they have cookies in the waiting area.”

A patient really only knows what you did on them

They got endo and a crown, ergo, that’s what you do. They are either partially or fully unaware that you could also straighten their teeth, get rid of their husband’s snoring, and stop their teenager from grinding his teeth at night.

We’ve heard this story a hundred times. Have you had this happen to you? A long-time patient shows up in your practice and they walk in with a dazzling new smile courtesy of the dentist down the street. Why didn’t they have you do it? How could they not have known that you’ve done loads of CE and can place veneers with the best of them? Why didn’t they ask?

It’s because you didn’t tell them. You didn’t educate them. You didn’t ask them.

Patient Education Leads to More Referrals

This is why dental internal marketing is so important. If your patients know more about what you can do and how well you can do it, they can tell others more about you and your practice. They will also know more about what you can do for them and their family.

Here is a partial list of dental internal marketing actions you can take to educate your patients about the wonderful, life-changing benefits that you offer.

  1. Printed practice newsletters. Yes, many people still do read and actually prefer something to hold in their hands. Don’t overdo these. Once per quarter is fine and keep it to a single topic and no cookie recipes.
  2. Electronic newsletter. Same information and frequency as paper newsletters.
  3. Electronic reminders. There are a bunch of companies that will do this for you.
  4. In-office signage and posters about accelerated ortho, Cad Cam restorations, veneers and sleep apnea.
  5. Brochures and handouts describing the benefits of treatments available in your office.
  6. Professionally produced video loop describing the benefits of treatments you can do.

That’s just a short list but if the above is all you do you will have taken big steps in educating your patients about just what you can do for them.

We said at the top that there are two reasons that patients who love you don’t or can’t effectively refer. We’ve just described one reason. What’s the second?

Violations of the Social/Economic Norms – Confusing Money with Love

Here’s another odd statistic we’ve observed over the years. Practice A offers a monetary reward for the referring patient, such as $100.00 toward future treatment. Practice B sends referring patients a small gift such as movie tickets, Starbuck’s card, etc.

Which practice gets more referrals? Practice B. Why?

We ran across an explanation that seems to shed light on this. It has to do with the difference between Social norms VS. Economic norms. In his book, Predictably Irrational; The Hidden Forces that Shape our Decisions, Dr. Dan Ariely, Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University, gives an example.

You are at a family Thanksgiving dinner that your mother-in-law has prepared. It’s a wonderful meal. You decide she deserves some kind of acknowledgment that goes beyond a mere “thank you.”

So you reach into your pocket and pull out $300 and attempt to hand it to your mother-in-law. What is her reaction? She’s insulted. She thinks her daughter married a very strange person. You won’t be having dinner at her place next year that’s for sure.

What actually happened here?

There is a difference between social norms and economic norms. Market or economic norms require a monetary exchange of some sort. Social norms do not.

If you have a cordial relationship with a patient and ask that patient to recommend you to her family and friends she ordinarily will do just that whether she’s being bribed or not. But if you then later acknowledge her kindness with a modest gift that she didn’t know she would get then you keep the relationship on the social norm side instead of letting it slip over into an economic situation.

If you fail to acknowledge a referring patient (“He didn’t even thank me for sending my neighbor”) then you’re in trouble with that patient. Yet if you acknowledge them with something that violates the social norm, you will confuse them and they may think you’re desperate.

You don’t want to appear to be paying for referrals. That is illegal in most states. But a nice modest gift of appreciation is not paying for referrals. However, don’t advertise any kind of reward for patient recommendations. Only say thanks afterward.

They refer, expecting nothing but a thank you note, and you surprise them with a nice little something. Just don’t make it about money.

In summary: Use dental internal marketing to tell your patients what you can do for them so they can benefit from your expertise. They will also have something to tell their friends and family about what you do.