Skip to content Skip to footer

Dentist referral programs: How to get new leads from happy patients

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Leverage dentist referral programs to

Dentist referral programs are a great way to increase patient flow. It’s not easy for dentists to build thriving practices. Insurance networks can send a steady stream of patients….in exchange for a steady cut of the revenue, of course. And advertising campaigns can make the phones ring for those who able to afford direct mail campaigns, billboards, or broadcast commercials—but not everyone has this kind of capital.

For those dentists wanting a low-cost, high-reward method for attracting customers, creating a dentist referral program can establish a long-term pipeline.

This guide will walk you through every last thing you need to know about dentist referral programs, what actions to take before launching a program, how to get your first referrals, and how to expand your program once it’s up and running.

The Basics of Dentist Referral Programs

Before attempting to create and deploy a dental patient referral program, it’s important to know the basics of what exactly you’re creating and what kind of return you can expect.

Dental Patient Referral Programs, Defined

Dental referral programs function much like referral programs for any number of different types of businesses.

Essentially, dental practices incentivize their customers to refer friends, family, coworkers, or other people to the practice. To do this, practices need to create systematic referral programs to achieve optimal results.

Among the pluses, there is no direct charge for the referral. In fact, as we’ll cover in a bit, dental practices are prohibited from paying referral fees to third-party agencies.

And, if you ask us, a dentist referral program is practically a must considering the low cost and the fact that even the best practices churn through (aka “lose”) around 20 percent of their customers per year.

Referrals: Great Early Fuel for Your Dental Practice

Sometimes, all it takes are a few happy and talkative customers early on to get a dental practice rolling.

After all, even just a few customers are powerful enough to create a lot of buzz, considering that 1,000 customers can have approximately 500,000 conversations related to brands!

While the average new dental practice won’t have 1,000 patients ready to talk about it anytime soon, even a handful of patients could lead to a few thousand conversations about the office over time. Better, roughly 67 percent of those conversations are likely to be positive.

And referrals matter a lot to the average customer, even if they wouldn’t necessarily term it as such.

In a report by the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, 93 percent of respondents considered “referrals from friends and family who had good results” a factor in choosing which cosmetic dentist to go to—relying on these recommendations more than any other factor.

One of the keys of referral marketing for dentists is, accordingly, to give these family and friends good results so that they have a great experience to talk about!

Got that? Then let’s start building your dentist referral program.

Laying the Groundwork for Your Dental Patient Referral Program

Once you’ve learned the basics about dental patient referral programs, you can begin formulating what your program will look like.

Here are a few basic considerations for anyone in the early stages of generating dental referral program ideas.

Create Referral Benchmarks

Ideally, at least half of the patients at a dental practice should come through referrals, with one marketing specialist stating that “If not, then you’re losing them to other practices.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean dentists must adhere to stress-inducing quotas, kicking themselves for the months where 80 percent of their customers came through traditional advertising campaigns or insurance networks. It just means that a lot of referrals are potentially out there for dentists, provided they know how to get dental referrals.

Figure Out Goals for Your Referral Program

For some new dentists, a patient referral program might be the thing that helps their practice get off the ground with a handful of successful referrals each month.

Other practitioners might look to the age-old marketing adage and deduce that a referral program is not about getting more business but better business.

It’s up to you to determine what you want to achieve with your dentist referral program—otherwise you’ll never know if it’s a success or not!

Whatever you goals, just remember that referral programs have about a 10 percent conversion rate, though this can vary widely depending on the industry and the sales acumen of the particular business.

Know What You Can and Can’t Do

The law can seem a little murky around dental patient referral programs, but that’s nothing to fret too much about.

Section 5.F.4. of the American Dental Association’s Principles of Ethic and Code of Professional Conduct states, “A dentist is allowed to pay for any advertising permitted by the Code, but is generally not permitted to make payments to another person or entity for the referral of a patient for professional services.”

Dentists are also bound by two federal referral laws for doctors, the Stark Law and the Copeland “anti-kickback” Act.

That said, one marketing consultant stressed that these laws don’t apply to dentists rewarding patients for referrals: “I don’t know any dentist sitting in jail for having a patient referral program … It’s a gray area.”

Generally avoid paying third-party services to refer patients and you should be in the clear.

Make Participation Easy

It shouldn’t be difficult or risky for patients to participate in dental referral programs.

Any patient should feel welcome to refer a friend, family member, or coworker to a dental practice—and trust that, when they do, the person will be welcomed and receive competent service.

In addition, any digital or manual steps that a patient has to take to complete a referral should be exceedingly easy, short, and as delightful as possible.

As a general rule, the more difficult it is for patients to participate in a referral program, the lower the conversion rate will be.

Don’t Skimp on Rewards

Few things can kill a dental referral rewards program faster than skinflint prizes. This means you must provide goods and services of actual value to customers—such as free or heavily discounted dental services.

Getting Your First Dental Referrals

If you’ve learned the basics of dental patient referral programs and made at least some preliminary preparations, you’re ready to begin getting the first leads from your program.

Here’s what to do to ensure a smooth launch of your dental referral program.

Script Your Program’s Rollout

For an optimal conversion rate, leave nothing to chance. Be sure to have scripts ready for the rollout of your referral program.

Having scripts at the ready means your staff knows which questions to ask when patients call in so they can verify who’s coming in off of a referral. This can also help guarantee that your patient who did the referring will get their reward. In addition, scripts will help keep your staff on the same page about the programs.

These scripts don’t have to be overly complex. They can even just be a few lines on Post-it Note that remind staff to ask prospective patients how they heard about your practice and the name of whoever referred them.

Invite The Best First

There’s nothing wrong with encouraging any and all of your customers to refer anyone they know to your practice.

That said, dentists can get plenty of customers by approaching their best customers first.

A 2016 study found that, on average, every customer of a business will refer 2.68 of their friends. And that’s just the average customer. Think about how many people an enthusiastic and excited customer might refer.

Deploy Referral Cards

The front desk of your dental office is ground zero for providing referral cards that patients can take with them after their appointment.

Referral cards are fairly easy to deploy. All you’ll need are some business card-sized referral cards, perhaps printed with an offer for a discount or free service when they refer a new customer. Have these cards in a spot where they’ll quickly catch the eye of a patient while they’re making their next appointment or settling their bill.

Encourage patients to take more than one card if they seem especially excited. You can even encourage them to contribute to patient referral program ideas.

Use Social Media for Soft Launch of Advertising

Traditional advertising campaigns can be understandably cost-prohibitive for a lot of dental practices. That said, social media can be a great tool for the soft launch of an advertising campaign related to a new referral program.

Social media can provide powerful channels for driving referrals. A marketing study found that 81 percent of consumers get “influenced by social media posts from their friends.”

As far as which social channel to target, while the vast majority of referral offers are shared by copy-and-paste or email, 3.9 percent are shared via Facebook and 0.7 percent are shared via Twitter. With how quickly social media sites can rise and fall in popularity, there’s also nothing wrong with dabbling in sponsored posts on a few different platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to see what works best.

Involve Your Staff

It goes without saying that dentists will need their staff’s help to fully capitalize on referrals. This means being courteous to every current or potential customer and making sure everyone gets the service they need. After all, with the internet, everyone’s a potential referrer these days.

5 Tips to Expand Your Dental Referral Program

Once a dental referral program is up and running, it can quickly start bringing in more business and making a difference in a dental office’s bottom line.

Here are five things to do to expand a thriving program.

1. If at First Your Referral Program Doesn’t Succeed, Keep Fine Tuning

While Thomas Edison was inventing the lightbulb, he famously said, “I haven’t failed—I’ve just found 10,000 that won’t work.”

And so it might be for anyone attempting to create a dental referral program.

A myriad of factors can keep a dental referral program from succeeding at first. These can include lackluster reward incentives or a weaker-than-normal economy. There’s also the sobering possibility that the dental services being provided aren’t being provided at sufficient quality to merit referrals.

The good news is that there’s always room for improvement, both in business and in life. The key is to keep trying until the lightbulb goes on.

2. Take Your Advertising Beyond Social Media

Referral prompts that work on Facebook or another social media platform can very likely be scaled to other platforms.

Perhaps a brilliant display ad from Twitter might make a great billboard for anyone willing to drop a few thousand dollars. Or perhaps the ad could be fodder for a glossy mailer to several thousand households, at costs as low as 30 cents per person.

Whatever the case, your next big ad could be right behind an affordable social media test run.

3. Incorporate Your Program into Your Email Marketing

The word on dental referral programs often gets out on a piecemeal basis by word-of-mouth.

That said, there’s nothing keeping dentists from blasting out incentives to their entire digital customer bases. Email marketing programs such as Constant Contact and MailChimp make it easier than ever for dentists to encourage their best customers to refer others.

4. Ensure Quality Via Survey

One easy way to pre-qualify patients to give referrals is by conducting a short, informal survey at the end of every visit. Ask patients if they were happy with the service they just received. If so, encourage them to give a referral.

5. Say Thanks

It’s amazing how many businesses can still botch this. It’s pretty simple. Whenever your office staff learns that a customer has referred someone, don’t just give them the reward that they’re entitled to. Be sure to either call them or send a thank-you note for the referral. It might even lead to more referrals.