An Effective Referral Dialogue

As the most influential medium on earth, word-of-mouth advertising is also the most difficult to create and control. Perhaps that's why it's so potent. Yet word-of-mouth advertising is the primary source of referrals. And, thankfully, it is considerably less expensive to produce and implement than television commercials and other exotic forms of advertising. There are active steps you can take to enhance the kind of referrals you receive and shape the direction of your practice through word-of-mouth advertising. I call this process the referral dialogue.

Hollywood knows better than perhaps any other industry the value of word-of-mouth advertising. With ballooning production budgets, studios cannot afford to actively advertise their latest releases over the weeks and months of a typical first-run showing. Their strategy is to attract only the first weekend's audience. To "prime the pump." Hollywood has learned that no amount of advertising can prop up a poor picture. Word-of-mouth advertising has become an integral part of their marketing efforts.

Similarly, no matter how big the lure of chiropractic advertising, it cannot overcome significant internal management problems, lack of results, staff negativity or other crucial aspects of a professional practice. The fact is, effective word-of-mouth advertising is the marketing foundation for most practices.

Just as a movie must be "good" to sustain a continued screening, so too must you get good clinical results. As a basis for the following concepts, let's assume you get excellent results and your office procedures create a warm, friendly environment with a clear purpose.

It is somewhat of an axiom that the quality of a referral is a reflection of who's doing the referring. Skeptical patients refer fellow skeptics. Personal injury cases refer personal injury victims. Deadbeats refer deadbeats. If you're not happy with aspects of your current patient mix, how do you break this vicious cycle?

Would you like more PI cases or more cash cases? More families and children? Maybe you'd like to work with fewer symptomatic patients. Or maybe you especially enjoy difficult or unusual cases, but can't seem to find them. If members of your current patient mix continue to refer those like themselves, you're trapped. The referral dialogue is one way to begin affecting a change in your practice mix and modifying the kinds of referrals you get.

Don't care what kind of patient is referred? Just want someone warmer than room temperature? Too vague. It's time to bring focus to your efforts to stimulate referrals!

Let Everyone Know

First, you must decide what kind of patients you really want. What are their needs and attitudes? Where do they live? How do they think? What time of the day are they available for care? And on and on. This isn't a 10-minute exercise written on a napkin while you're waiting for your lunch to arrive! If you're sincerely interested in changing the status quo, you must take the time to get "inside" your intended market. While this may be as easy as visualizing a composite picture with the aspects of several of your favorite patients, that's just the beginning. It's crucial that the doctor's vision be shared with the staff so everyone understands the objective and specifics of this new targeted effort. Everyone needs to be able to recognize a new "ideal" patient when they call on the phone or walk in the door! Everyone needs to know what kind of patient, what kind of symptoms and what kind of attitudes are embodied in your ideal patient. It's the only way you can begin filling your practice with the kinds of patients you want.

Your Ideal Patient

Write down the words, concepts and phrases that describe the kind of patient or the kinds of conditions you're hoping to increase in your practice. Share these ideas with the entire staff. When the opportunity presents itself, share these descriptions with patients. Only then will your patients have the words you want used to describe what you do. When a referral opportunity presents itself, there is a better chance that they will be using your words. Like a computer which is "dumb" until software tells it what to do, your patients often need better "software" so they can describe your office and their experience in a more compelling way.

Sowing Ideal Patients

For example, a patient is signing in at the front desk and mentions to the C.A., "I haven't had a headache all week; the doctor has really helped me." The well-trained chiropractic assistant, knowing that one of the doctor's goals is to increase the number of children in the practice responds with, "I'm glad to know you're enjoying the results of chiropractic care. Did you know that the doctor gets even faster results when she works with children?"

For many patients this idea will come as a shock, "You mean you see children with bad backs?" asks the patient. Then the C.A. has the opportunity to explain the birth process and how it sets the stage for problems later in life. "Do you know of any children who should be checked for this problem?" asks the C.A. Regardless of whether the patient can recall any children right then and there, he has a new way of perceiving your practice. Should the opportunity present itself, this patient knows that you see children, and why. So while the payoff may not occur instantaneously, you've planted a seed that can take root at some time in the future. That's why it's so important to be specific.

What if the doctor really enjoys working with difficult cases or patients which the medical community has "given up" on? Let everyone know! Maybe a situation will present itself during a follow-up examination in which the doctor may introduce the referral dialogue like this. "Mrs. Jones, it's personally very rewarding to see your spine respond the way it has. Have I told you about my special Saturday morning clinic where I work with especially troublesome cases? For the last year, I've been reserving Saturday mornings for patients who have some special condition or problem that hasn't been resolved by other means, such as drug therapy, surgery, problem births or other cases the medical community has given up on. Sometimes chiropractic can be a big help. Do you know of anyone who has lost all hope for regaining their health?"

Once again, patients may not know of a specific case, but unless you share your dreams with them, they have no basis for describing the care you provide other than what they have personally experienced.

If this seems too aggressive for you and your staff, at least make the effort to gently correct patients when they refer to aspects of their care with words from the chiropractic past, such as "kinks," "cracks" and the like. If you don't share the contemporary words and concepts you want used, it will only serve to reinforce patients' misconceptions, halting the advancement of chiropractic.

Take the time to determine the way you want your office and the care you provide described. Ask your staff how they describe what's done in the office! Be sure they understand your philosophy, the kinds of patients you want in your practice and how to describe what you do.

Excerpted from A Patient's Point of View