A cost-effective marketing tool for recruiting new patients to your practice is patient referrals.
The average cost of attracting a new patient through mass marketing is 10 times more than attracting a new patient through a well-conceived patient referral program. Our data also indicates that new patients referred by other patients spend $300 more per hearing aid than those patients who come from traditional advertising. Here’s an example of an intentional patient referral program that works and drives the practice’s growth.
A recent analysis of referral sources within our practice, Professional Hearing Services (PHS) in St Joseph, Mich, revealed that new patients referred by existing patients accounted for almost two thirds of new business in 2014. This is especially significant compared to the cost of attracting new patients through external marketing. This analysis revealed that the cost of gaining a new patient from patient referrals was only 10% of that compared to the cost of bringing in a new patient from other marketing efforts (ie, direct mail, print, television, radio, and social media).
While many hearing healthcare professionals indicate that they have a patient referral program in place, it’s been our observation that many of them are unintentional and don’t produce many new patients. A successful program must be well organized, and it helps to have measurable goals to meet each month. When patients are satisfied, they will be happy to encourage their friends and relatives to choose you as their hearing healthcare provider. However, they are unlikely to do so unless they are asked.
I relate this situation as being similar to inviting a friend for dinner. If you casually say, “Let’s get together sometime,” you probably never will. However, if you suggest, “Let’s get together next Tuesday at 6 PM,” the meeting is more likely to happen. We have found this to be true with our Patient Referral Program at Professional Hearing Services (PHS).
Establishing an Intentional Patient Referral Program
1) Create an oversized referral card. The first step in developing a successful patient referral program is to have printed referral cards that can be distributed to patients. We have learned that it is helpful to have cards that are an odd size—slightly larger than a business card—so patients can’t stick them away in their pocket or wallet and forget them.
2) Develop a system for the regular distribution of the referral card. The next step is to have an organized way of handing out the cards. For instance, at PHS, we instruct each member of the staff to place five referral cards in their pockets every morning with an expiration date 1 month ahead, and then we encourage each staff member to hand those cards out every day. We also include two referral cards in each of the PHS coffee mugs we give to patients who have purchased new hearing aids, and we ask them to share the gift of better hearing with someone they know. In our program, the person that receives the card will receive a free hearing screening and the patient gets our sincere appreciation. (Authors’ note: A colleague recently asked me if it’s legal to give away a screening if you bill third-party payers for testing. It is my understanding that you can’t give away exactly what you bill insurance companies for, but it is legal to give away a screening.)
3) Establish measurement criteria and track progress. When establishing a patient referral program, it is helpful to develop very specific and measureable goals and outcomes that can be easily tracked. For instance, we know how many appointments we need each week to reach the minimum goal for the program. Goals help drive success.
4) Market your referral program. Once the patient referral program is in place, it’s important to have a method to get the word out! We mention the program in all correspondence with our patients and feature a paragraph about the program in each of our newsletters. In addition, some of our advertising features testimonials from patients who came to the practice because another patient referred then. It has been our experience that testimonials don’t have to be lengthy to be effective—a maximum of 250 words works well—and they are more appealing if they include the patient’s picture.
Another possible way to use patient testimonials is to include video testimonials on your website or in your TV commercials. Another suggestion is to post testimonials around the office to promote the program. For example, a plaque that extols, “Ask How You Can Pay it Forward” could prompt patients to inquire about the program. You also may want to consider adding a patient referral program button to your website.
5) Follow up on all referrals and thank the referring patients. Finally, don’t forget to follow up and let your patients know how much you appreciate their referrals. Send hand-written notes, make personal phone calls, and possibly even send special gifts to patients who refer often. Just a caution that when sending the “thank you” card to the referring patient, it’s not recommended to divulge details of the meeting (ie, the patient’s name) as that could violate HIPAA regulations.
Driving Practice Success via Referrals
Patient referrals can be a very cost effective way to recruit new patients. At PHS, the average cost of attracting a new patient through mass marketing costs 10 times more than it does to attract a new patient through our Patient Referral Program. Our tracking data also indicates that new patients referred by other patients spend $300 more per hearing aid than those patients who come from general advertising.
Several focus group meetings were held by PHS in an effort to determine which patients were most likely to participate in the Patient Referral Program. An independent consultant facilitated the focus groups and recommended that we have two separate meetings: one for patients who had referred, and one for patients who hadn’t referred. Each of the groups was comprised of 8-12 current PHS patients, and the meetings occurred offsite at a restaurant over a lunch period. Participants were selected from a diverse group based on age, occupation, insurance coverage, and length of time they had been a PHS patient.
The results of these meetings were consistent between groups but, unfortunately, no common reasons for referring were revealed. However, the lively and interesting discussion in both groups uncovered some recommendations. These suggestions included:
- Continue the “full service” mentality that prevails with clients (such as referral to out-of-town providers that will honor warranties);
- Consider offering an in-house discount or point system to patients that refer other patients;
- Consider redesigning the referral card to include some promotional information about PHS;
- Create a method to phone in referrals for those who do not wish to use the card, and
- Continue the welcoming, warm, friendly culture at PHS.
As a result of these focus groups, a Loyalty Program was created for patients who participate in our Patient Referral Program. Each time a patient refers someone to the practice, a small discount is placed on their account that will apply to future purchases.
The focus groups also revealed that patients who are happy with our services are more than willing to refer their friends and relatives to us, and offering a small incentive did not seem to be a primary motivator for referring. Participants in the meetings also relayed the message that they were happy to support a business and its professionals who they valued and trusted, and none expected any type of “reward” for referrals.
We have found that marketing our Patient Referral Program to our existing patient base a couple of times a year always yields significant numbers of new patients to the practice.
If you are starting a patient referral program and are uncertain what to say to a patient, we offer a sample script that may be helpful.
Thank you, Mrs Jones, for selecting us as your hearing care provider. A large percentage of our business comes from satisfied patients who refer their friends and loved ones to us. If you are satisfied with the service you received from us, we would appreciate your telling your friends and family about us.
I am going to give you two referral cards with your name and my office/clinic information written on them. Many people wait as long as 8 years after they first notice a hearing problem before they make an appointment. I am sure there is someone that you know who needs our services and I would like you to hand out these cards in the next couple of weeks and encourage them to make an appointment. This card entitles someone to a complimentary hearing screening since you referred them to us.
This article was provided to our readers by Gyl A. Kasewurm, AuD, and Julie M. Duensing. Gyl Kasewurm, AuD, is the owner of Professional Hearing Services, a private practice located in St Joseph, Mich. As COO of PHS, Julie M. Duensing is hands-on with the daily operations of the business and promoting PHS in the community.