By Jane Schmucker
Dentists on the prowl for more business have tried offering a surprising array of incentives to get current clients to refer others to become new patients.
Movie tickets, VISA gift cards, iPads and iPods are all out there. So are Starbucks cards — even though many of the drinks for which the chain is best known are thought to play a role in staining teeth.
One of the strangest giveaways that Scott Allen, principal of Breakthrough Dental Marketing based in the Kansas City area, recalls is salt water taffy, in an area of the South known for the famous confection. (Since the sweet treat is also known for pulling apart dental work, perhaps the idea was to encourage even more dental visits?)
The incentive remembered as drawing the most industry wrath was a drawing for a new car, according to Justin Morgan, who operates Dental Marketing Guy based in California.
Mr. Morgan is not a fan of paying patients for referrals.
“It’s a bit salesy,” he says, fearing that it can make professional health care offices look “a little more like used car salesmen than like doctors.”
But he says many dentists do it and it often works — even where it is not allowed. Some state dental boards prohibit offering referral gifts.
Mr. Morgan knows of a dentist who holds those rules so close to his heart that he exposes violators on Internet forums. But Mr. Morgan also knows of dentists who flout the rules in their area, doubtlessly confident in the belief that authorities faced with innumerable serious matters are unlikely to find time to go after dentists giving their patients $25 gift cards.*
Offering patients incentives for referrals plays directly into generating positive talk about a practice on the streets, which Mr. Allen calls the golden goose of marketing.
“It’s a very effective method because people love free stuff,” he says of states where such incentives are legal.
Brandie Lamprou, an assistant at DentalMarketing.net, says the number of requests the Utah-based firm gets to print referral cards — complete with incentives for the current patients — appears to be a testament to the success of such marketing efforts.
The group’s core business is direct-mail postcards for dental offices. But it has printed cards to be handed out in dental offices with offers for items such as electric toothbrushes or Fitbits for referring new patients as well as raffles for much bigger gifts.
Mr. Allen, however, cautions against relying on the marketing method for long-term success, predicting that more state dental boards will rule against it.
“That’s not long for this life,” he says.
Mr. Morgan worries that new patients faced with big dental bills might be annoyed to learn that the friend who referred them received an incentive. Even if both the new patient and the referring patient receive an incentive, he thinks most offerings can look too trivial in the face of hundreds or thousands of dollars in dental bills.
Instead, he advocates for gifts such as free teeth whitening offered to patients shortly before a big birthday or anniversary or wedding. Then when party-goers exclaim, “You look great!” Mr. Morgan predicts the dental office will get some of the credit with the honoree telling all about the dentist’s gift.
Dr. Leena Palomo, an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Dental Medicine and a practicing periodontist in the greater Cleveland area, takes a traditionalist stance on incentives in return for referrals.
She hasn’t seen such offers in her area of northern Ohio. But she’s heard fellow practitioners talk about them and believes that it’s largely seen as a short-term strategy.
Patients willing to switch dentists so that either they or their friend can get a discount or a reward strike her as less likely to become long-term patients. There’s always another dentist out there who will offer a better incentive and some patients will make a game of chasing those rewards.
To Dr. Palomo, the most effective marketing is always providing good care at a fair price. In response to compliments, the staff can casually suggest: “Bring a friend.”
*(Editor’s Note: John P. Bitting, regulatory counsel for DOCS Education, cautions against rolling the dice on your dental board being too busy to catch you cheating on its advertising standards. If anyone — a patient, or most commonly a competitor — files a complaint because of your referral incentives, the board MUST open a formal investigation, he warns.)
Author: Contributing writer Jane Schmucker is a veteran journalist who has covered health and business topics. Now freelancing, she reported and edited for more than 22 years at The Blade (Toledo, Ohio). She has also worked on the rewrite desk for USA Today in Arlington, VA.