Install a Referral System–and Track Your Growth

Referrals are a key driver of practice growth. At our practice, our five ODs and support staff of 18 conduct about 7,500 comprehensive exams annually.
When new patients come in, we ask how they came to us, and an average of 50 percent are friends of patients, and 65 percent are family of patients. Surprisingly, about 25 percent come from search engines, and the remaining from insurance lists, and passersby. Before the advent of search engines and social media, our second-largest source of referrals were insurance provider lists.
Tracking referrals from patients to friends and family, and delivering service that impresses patients enough for them to spread the word about us, continues to bring new patients into the practice.
We started our practice cold 28 years ago. We started with the referral of our very first patient by a friend of a friend. Since then, we have always placed a high value on referrals. I believe it is the best way to bring in patients who are most likely to be loyal over time. We make a concerted effort to treat each patient like our only patient and try to make everyone feel like family.

The patient intake form Dr. Smith makes available for patients on her practice web site. Dr. Smith says it’s important to ask new patients how they found your practice, and to encourage those who had a positive experience to let their friends and family know about your services.
Many patients make comments like, “I should bring my husband/wife in” or “I should bring my kids in.” This reassures us that we did a good job of marketing our practice during their visit because they want their family and friends to have the same experience.

When a new or existing patient calls for an appointment, our front office staff asks if there is anyone else in the family we could help make an appointment for. If a patient expresses appreciation for a job well done, then our staff says, “Thank you! It has been our pleasure, and if you or any of your family or friends need our services, we would be happy to help them as well.”

To increase the likelihood of people wanting to tell their friends and family about a business, that business should excel and stand apart from the norm. People vary in what things and experiences may impress them most. However, If you look at the most successful businesses, especially service-oriented businesses such as restaurants, hotels, and healthcare practices, it is undoubtedly the service that drives the most referrals.

Our practice mission statement is “Focused on your needs. Committed to excellence.” Our goal is to have our patients tell others that they had excellent, thorough care and that we provided great service.

We e-mail thank you notes and surveys to every patient after their exam. We currently have a 95 percent satisfaction rate with a “yes” when asked if they would refer others.

For the past 23 years, we have tracked where our patients come from. We have a Welcome Sheet, which we ask every new patient to fill out. If the answer to the question of how the patient found us is left blank, the front office staff is responsible for asking the patient directly. On the rare occasion that the response to that question is still blank by the time the patient reaches the exam room, I ask the patient directly myself. It is really a pleasure to hear that most of them are referred by friends, work colleagues and family members.

In California, where our practice is based, it is illegal for any healthcare professional to offer incentives for referrals. However, we make sure our patients are thanked and appreciated verbally for their referrals.

By focusing our efforts on providing exceptional care and service to our patients, we hope to earn their loyalty and the referrals of their friends and family. You can’t put a price on service and building relationships with patients. It is like putting a price on friendships. I believe that as old fashioned as this may seem, building a practice based on loyalty and referrals is far less expensive and time consuming than the cost of any type of ad marketing or media advertising. Our practice has not had much response from paid advertisements. It may be that the public does not respond to objective ads anymore with the advent of more subjective, personal internet ratings.

We used to have a large ad in the yellow pages, which was astronomically expensive. It was a big book of large ads for businesses, which made it difficult for consumers to decide where to go for services. Now, with internet reviews that are free for consumers to use, we virtually have free advertising by the reviews placed by our patients.

Approximately 25 percent of our new patients find us directly through internet search engines and reviews.That is a lot more than the number of patients who came in after seeing our yellow page ad, which was only about 5 percent.

The majority of patient referrals are from happy, satisfied patients who report having had the most thorough exam, or best service, ever. We also receive many referrals from long-time patients. Other popular referral sources are patients who have not received successful contact lens fits elsewhere. Many refer their friends, colleagues and family members simply because our staff has shown them great customer service, and were able to develop a strong rapport with them.

I cannot over emphasize the value of a well trained staff in order for patients to want to refer others. The staff actually spends more total time with our patients than the doctors, so it is imperative that our staff is on board with our goals and objectives for growing the practice. Patients will stay with a practice or leave a practice very easily because of their interactions with the staff.

When a patient compliments our office, a front office staff member might give them a business card and say, “Thank you so much! We appreciate your compliment! Please take a business card in case you know someone who may need our services.” Most of the time patients take business cards, or ask us for our business cards, without any prompting, and this is really the best compliment they can give us!


Beverly Jue-Smith, OD, MBA, is the owner of San Ramon Family Optometry, Inc., in San Ramon, Calif. Dr. Jue-Smith also is owner of Optometric Consultants, a private practice consulting firm. To contact her:


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