The 4 Phases of Practice Marketing

Ultimately, it is how you manage the business side of the practice that makes the difference between a good practice and a wildly successful practice.

Updated 4/29/19

Think of visiting your practice from the perspective of one of your patients for a moment. When they come in for a procedure, you can bet that they expect you to know exactly what you are doing and that any work you perform will be of the highest quality and competence. You may be the best or worst dentist in town at performing that particular procedure, but as far as the patient knows, the actual work performed is flawless. Otherwise they wouldn’t have come to you in the first place. Therefore, it is not the actual quality of the work you perform that determines your ultimate success. That’s assumed before the patient even arrives at your practice.

The ultimate level of success you achieve is determined by how well you manage the business aspects of your practice. This would include finances, scheduling, insurance claims, employee training, marketing, etc.

I want to focus on marketing. Remember, marketing is the attempt to control perception in order to produce a desired action. Therefore, anything that can influence perception should be thought of as marketing. Additionally, our satisfaction with any product or service is a result of how well our expectations were met.

Every practice will have some natural patient turnover. The goal is to keep a steady influx of new patients to replace the natural attrition and a consistent or increasing number of visits from existing patients. This is a healthy growth curve. This growth pattern can only be achieved through consistent marketing efforts.

At Dental Branding, we help dentists understand the four phases of practice marketing.

  1. Creating Awareness
  2. Building Trust
  3. Retaining Patients
  4. Cultivating Referrals

Ideally, each patient you have should spend time in each of the four phases. By focusing some resources on each phase and understanding how to communicate with current and potential patients in each phase, you can implement a marketing program that attracts new patients and retains existing patients.

Phase 1 – Creating Awareness

You could be the best dentist in the world, but if no one knows you exist it wouldn’t matter. If a patient isn’t aware of you, they will never use your services no matter how great you are. So what are the most effective ways to create awareness, and what is the best message to convey in this phase?

Let’s start with the best ways to create awareness. Far and away the best way for you to create awareness is through patient referrals. Because of the unique effectiveness of patient referrals, however, it has been designated a phase all its own, and we will cover referrals extensively in phase 4. So phase 1 looks at other methods of creating awareness, while not forgetting that ultimately everything you do in each phase should ultimately point to referrals.

Right now you may be asking, well, if referrals work so much better than other methods to generate awareness, why use anything else? For some practices, you shouldn’t, but for many practices there are factors at work either within their control or beyond their control that require other methods of generating awareness outside of patient referrals. Some of these include a naturally high attrition rate, a new startup practice or a practice that isn’t currently generating the kind of growth they desire through their current patient referral efforts.

So, beyond patient referrals, what is the best way? Well, that depends on your particular situation. A practice in a big city might see the best results by focusing on web marketing while a small town dentist or a dentist with a very specific audience might do best with a targeted direct mail campaign. There are four questions that will help you determine the solution that is best for you.

  1. What tools are awareness tools? Some of these tools include direct mail, yellow pages ads, newspaper ads, search engine optimization, billboards, radio, etc. Any tool that acts as the first introduction for your office to a potential patient is an awareness tool.
  2. Who should you target? That depends on a several factors. Where are you located? Do you have multiple practices? What is your specialty? Are there specific types of patients you want to target? It is important you have a clear understanding of your target audience to communicate effectively with them.
  3. How often should I market awareness tools? Again, this depends on several factors. What fits your budget? Who is your audience? How much growth do you want? What other marketing efforts do you have going? The simple answer for this, however, is that the more often you can market a specific tool the more effective it will be. An example of this is with direct mail. A single mailing might bring in a few patients, but a consistent, well-messaged direct mail campaign will generally get more effective with each mailing. The more you can stay top of mind, the better the chance of the potential patient thinking of you when the actual need for dentistry arises.
  4. What should you say? We all make choices based on the differences we see in things, and as we become aware of anything it is the differences we perceive in that thing that dictates our actions. Without a discernible difference, a potential patient will most likely not want to learn more or be interested enough to move to the next phase. Awareness, therefore, should be all about exploiting your differences. It should be all about what you do best or better than anyone else. Take a look at what your competitors are saying and make sure that your message will resonate because it is different than theirs. It may be the same difference that you both highlight, but just make sure you say it differently than they do.

Phase 2 – Building Trust

All of our purchase decisions are based on trust. When we purchase a product or service, it is because we trust that it will fulfill our expectations. Would you go to a dentist that you didn’t trust?

So how do you build the trust necessary to convert a potential patient into a patient? Start by asking what kind of information a patient would need to trust a dentist. The answer to this question actually depends on the patient. Some people may want to know something about the dentist, others may want to know about the services offered and others may want to see what the office looks like. Really, it is all of the benefits and features that are associated with your practice that provide the type of information people look for to build trust in a dental practice. It is a good idea to develop a list of these practice features and benefits. Think about everything that makes your practice worthwhile.

Once you have identified your practice features and benefits, they need to be accessible to potential patents. Take a look at all of the ways that a potential patient might learn about your practice. (Keep in mind that you build trust after creating awareness and also that your differences that you established in creating awareness are also still important in building trust.) Your website is a critical trust building tool, as it can contain a wealth of information and give ample evidence that you should be trusted.

Another important resource for building trust is you staff. Most people will call your office if they have questions or need more information to give them peace of mind about your practice. Is your staff trained to talk about your practice features and benefits in a way that builds trust?

Finally,  set the expectations they will have when they become actual patients. If expectations are set incorrectly, then their trust will not be rewarded and they will be disappointed with their experience. If you ever hope to cultivate referrals, you can’t disappoint your patients. Therefore, build trust by creating realistic expectations. This requires an honest appraisal and definition of who you are as a practice. You need to ensure that all of your contact points are a true representation of the actual practice experience.

Phase 3 – Retaining Patients

This is the most important phase in the customer experience. It is the payoff from your efforts in the first two phases, the catalyst for phase 4, and ultimately the determining factor in the financial health and growth capacity of your practice. You have probably heard the statistic that 9 out of 10 small business fail within the first 5 years. One reason for this is because of a failure to properly retain patients, or in other words, build adequate loyalty.

Why is patient loyalty so important? There are several reasons, but for this newsletter I want to focus on a few primary reasons.

First, and most obvious, is that loyal patients provide the easiest and also most profitable source of income to the dentist. Every dollar earned from a loyal patient will cost less to bring in than a dollar earned from any other type of patient. In other words, you have to put less effort into serving a loyal patient.

Second, loyal patients are easier to keep satisfied. The longer a patient has been seeing you, the more room for error you have with them. Generally one bad experience won’t turn away a patient you have been seeing for years, whereas during the first few visits a single bad experience can quickly end a relationship with your practice. In all businesses, things are bound to go wrong. It’s nice to have a buffer when they do.

Finally, your loyal patients are your single greatest resource in attracting new patients. The key to bringing in referrals is to understand their connection to your loyal patients. A referral will only come from a happy patient. If a patient is not happy, not only will they not want to send a friend or loved one to your office they will more likely tell anyone that will listen that they were not happy with your practice.

So the question becomes; how do I make sure my patients are happy? Our satisfaction with any given product or service is directly related to our expectations prior to the experience we have with that product or service. If my experience in your office does not live up to my expectations, I will not be happy. If they do, I will be happy. We need to make sure that our marketing efforts intended to attract new patients set a realistic picture of what the patient will experience. This is why defining you brand properly is so critical.

At this point you could say, “well lets just set low expectations and we will have a lot of happy patients.” That would be true if setting low expectations could attract new patients. The problem, obviously, is that the higher you set expectations, the more likely you are to attract new patients. So it is important to set high expectations and then ensure that you, your staff, and everything else that influences your patients’ perceptions meets or exceeds the expectations you set.

Phase 4 – Cultivating Referrals

Once you have phases 1 through 3 working properly, you are ready to implement a referral program. A good referral program has 3 parts: A well-trained, proactive staff, an incentive or appreciation program, and a tracking procedure.

  1. A well-trained, proactive staff. If your staff is not proactively asking for referrals, you don’t have a referral program. Make sure they know how to ask and are confident in doing it. You should also implement an ongoing training program to ensure that the staff’s enthusiasm doesn’t wane as time goes by.
  2. An incentive or appreciation program. Wherever possible (this is prohibited in some states) provide an incentive to your clients to send a referral your way. You’d be surprised how proactive someone can be for a $25 or $50 gift certificate. If you live in an area that prohibits incentives, you can still thank the patients who send a referral with a nice card or letter. The best part is that any part of your marketing budget that goes toward an incentive or appreciation program is only spent after the means to pay for it has already been received.
  3. A tracking procedure. As with every other marketing effort you implement, you should carefully track the results. Track both the initial benefit as well as the lifetime value of the patients. Compare the results with the costs to produce the referrals.

An effective referral program starts when a patient first hears about your practice. As a dentist, you must look at your entire marketing effort from front to back and top to bottom. This kind of holistic approach will ensure that you have the most effective marketing possible. It will guarantee the greatest possible return on your investment and help you achieve the highest level of success for your practice.

Learn More

To learn more about practice marketing, visit

For more information about Dental Branding and how to effectively market your practice, call 1-866-375-5511 or visit

By Doug Slighting, Dental Branding

Originally published in the Dentrix eNewsletter, November 2009.