When I speak to practice owners about their new patient growth plans, many cite referral by word of mouth as their most important source of new patients. Most, however, do not have a strategy for amplifying this, instead leaving its success largely to chance.

The general default position is that happy and loyal patients will refer their friends, family, and colleagues. It is interesting to challenge this assumption and consider how true this really is. How many of your patients refer to you? How can you amplify this effect on your business? Also, it is worth considering where else referrals come from and what other sources of referral might add even more value to the practice.

To develop an effective plan for each referral source, first you need to understand what will trigger someone to remember you. Your referral strategy needs to be developed to work in your practice and, like any effective strategy, is best developed by you and your team to ensure buy-in from everyone in the practice.

While it takes work to get the strategy developed, once embedded, the benefits can be felt for years.

Patient referrals are an incredibly effective and cost-effective method of promoting your business. Without doing anything, you would hope that you will find patients referring you to their friends and colleagues when they have experienced a level of service that exceeds their expectations. Whatever that level is can be amplified by considering just a few ideas:

  • A small incentive may be the difference between someone referring and not. You may feel that there is a fine line between incentivising and bribery. Hence, what incentive you offer will need to fit your thinking. Examples that work are vouchers, donations to charity or loyalty points.
  • In this technology-driven age, you can decide to set up a web-based referral system, whereby patients interested in the referral program have a unique link they share with the person they are referring to. This enables you to see who is referring so that you can recognise them.
  • It is essential that your system is sustainable, affordable and still worth the cost if the uptake is higher than expected.

One thing to bear in mind is patients who have been coming to you for years probably no longer view your service as a ‘wow’ experience. Also, they may have already referred everyone relevant that they know.

On the other hand, a new patient, who has been totally blown away by your service may be delighted to refer and bring a fresh community to your practice. New patients are often overlooked when practices are developing their referral strategies – so it is perhaps sensible to note this when developing your strategy.

Who knows your practice better than your employees? Your team knows all your practice’s benefits and they can use their unique knowledge and loyalty to help recruit new patients.

Your strategy for encouraging staff to refer people from their network to you may be different from your patients. Rather than having a straight cash prize, you can have more fun with this, perhaps with an entry into a quarterly prize draw for each referral. Prizes could be dinner at a restaurant, cinema tickets or some other local gift. You could also, for example, ask the team to choose a particular local charity annually and make one of the prizes a donation to that charity.

Employees feel good when they can offer a friends and family discount. If it’s feasible, offering an initial first visit discount for referred patients or an added value benefit can boost employee referrals.

In your career and daily work, you will have built a network of professional relationships. You probably take these relationships for granted so it’s a good idea to brainstorm with your team all of the people you know as you may be surprised how far your network spreads. From local coffee shops and traders, to landlords, doctors, other healthcare professionals, schools and colleges… the list goes on. Once you have your list, look at how you might be able to find ways to help them. Here are a few tried and tested examples:

  • Build a relationship with your local florist. Have your fresh flowers on display together with their business card to give to patients who comment on them. In return ask the florist if they would recommend you to their regular customers.
  • Offer to give a talk to school staff about spotting when a pupil may be having vision problems. Run a lesson on eyes and vision in conjunction with the school or offer to have a stand at a parents evening so parents can talk to you about children’s eye care.
  • Build a list of local healthcare providers to whom you would be confident in referring your patients. Get to know them so that when they have someone who needs your services they will refer to you and vice versa.

As with any marketing activity, understanding how your referral strategy is working is essential if you are to make changes to keep the system working for you. This means having a method of measuring the results against your targets and goals.

When implemented properly, a referral strategy can be an invaluable asset in establishing a steady rate of growth for your practice.