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8 Common Patient Referral Program Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them)

If you’ve been following the first three installments of our four-part series on patient referral programs, you know that tapping into your existing patient database for referrals is the most cost-effective and successful practice growth resource available for dentists and other providers. We’ve covered the basics, the best practices, and the role of health care liaisons.

For the last installment, we thought we’d make some big mistakes—namely, highlighting the typical blunders and missteps practices make when trying to get a referral program off the ground. If you’re a provider or office manager who wants to take advantage of referrals but isn’t seeing results, take a look at these eight common errors that might be holding you back and what you can do to resolve them.

Mistake 1: You’re afraid of being perceived as “needy”

No one wants to appear desperate for a date, and no one wants to appear like their practice is in dire need of business. “Some patients will say, ‘I didn’t even know you were looking for new patients,’” says Kevin Nelson, a consultant with Wintersteen dental marketing. “Dentists won’t always bring it up because they think it makes them sound needy.”

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According to Nelson, there’s an easy way of broaching the topic of a referral without being concerned your practice’s image might take a hit. “The fact is, 14 percent of people move every year. If your practice has 1500 patients, you’ll lose 213 just out of normal attrition. So you can say, ‘We sometimes have patients move from the area, and we’re always looking for new faces.’”

Mistake 2: You’re spamming social media

If you’re relying exclusively on social media to spread the referral word, you’ve already got an issue: Face-to-face solicitations are always best. Still, there’s nothing wrong with reminding your Facebook or Instagram followers that you’re on the lookout for new patients. The problem comes when every single update relates to your business needs. “People don’t like offers on social media feeds,” says Kevin Tighe, CEO of Dental Practice Consultants.


Dial it down. “Consider a referral mention once a week or so, but make sure your other 20 posts are informative or educational,” Tighe says.

Mistake 3: Your timing is off

While you may be pursuing a daily or weekly quota for soliciting a referral, aggressively pursuing those numbers without having a little discretion can be a big mistake. A patient fresh out of the chair from a root canal, for example, might not have the endurance to tolerate a sales pitch while being checked out. Ignoring them completely isn’t the answer, either.


Don’t pass up the opportunity—just postpone it. “This would be an excellent time to make a follow-up call,” Nelson says. “A dentist could phone the patient later that day and ask how she’s feeling after she’s had time to relax.” With the most uncomfortable parts of the procedure in the rearview, the patient is far more likely to entertain a referral, especially since the provider went the extra mile with a courtesy call.

Mistake 4. Relying too much on gimmicks

The “rewards” part of patient referral programs are usually subject to state and federal laws that govern financial acknowledgements made to parties that match doctors with patients. Regardless of whether you offer incentives or not, it should never be the focus of a program: According to Nelson, incentives are more of a business transaction. In some cases, perks like a sweepstakes or drawing might even discourage patients, since some might believe the odds of winning are against them.


Keep it personal. “I prefer a more organic approach,” Nelson says. “Make a good, honest request. Program discounts are not as genuine.” If your service is sound, a patient will want to refer you to help a friend or family member out, not just to score free movie tickets.

Mistake 5: Not asking a referral for a referral

Your front desk clerk answers the phone. It’s a new patient who wants to make an appointment—and they were referred by an existing patient. Success! But if all you’ve done is pencil them in, you’ve missed an opportunity.


It’s never too early to ask for a referral. “Ask for that during that very first phone call,” Nelson says. “Ask if anyone else in the household needs an appointment. That way, you’re educating them from the start that you’re a referral-based business.” Providers can also send out confirmation letters with referral copy in between the call and the appointment.

Mistake 6: You’re asking patients, but you’re not listening to them

There’s nothing wrong with having some phrasing on hand that helps office staff communicate their desire for referrals, but generic pitches often sound exactly like that—generic and rehearsed.


Patients give you clues about their lives and habits during virtually every visit. “When you really listen and get to know them, you’ll find things,” Nelson says. “Do they belong to a parent-teacher group? A certain church? Use those facts to verbalize that connection.” If they belong to a garden club, ask if any garden club members might be looking for a new provider. It will demonstrate to the patient you’re listening, and it will give the patient a specific avenue for a possible referral mention.

Mistake 7: You don’t have a plan

Practices that offer only haphazard attempts for referrals will get haphazard results. Unless you’re targeting specific patients with specific services on specific days, your return rate is going to be anemic. And without prepping for that new patient, he or she might feel like too much of an old face.


“Plan on doing daily huddles,” Nelson says. “Review who’s coming in so you know, as an entire team, who the new patient might be.” Rolling out the red carpet for that new referral will help retain them. And by targeting specific existing patients and assigning the most amenable office staff to ask for a referral, you’ll avoid team members brushing it off to the side.

Mistake 8: Your staff isn’t invested

Your team may recognize the need for recruiting patients, but that doesn’t mean they’re comfortable asking. “The biggest road block is always discomfort with it,” Nelson says. “They wind up sabotaging themselves.”


Remind your staff that what you’re doing is genuinely beneficial for all parties involved. “You need to feel like you’re providing a genuine benefit in order for any referral request to feel honest,” Nelson says. “Just be honest with how you feel. The first couple times might be awkward, but you’re providing a service. It is absolutely something worth sharing.”

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