Ready. Set. Go!
Market your new practice for the long term.
By Eric Cardin, PT
You have opened your brand-new practice after years of hard work, dedication, sacrifice, and the last bit of faith to finally go your own way. The morning of the first day of business you throw open the doors and the crowds rival Walmart on Black Friday. Even the well patients are getting injured in your parking lot trying to get in! Or you lie awake the night before your big day and wonder if you will have enough patients to survive.
Reality is somewhere in the middle for most private practice therapists. Hopefully on the first day of your own gig there are already a few patients on the books waiting to be treated. The difficulty lies in where to start, and how to keep the practice growing. There are some simple steps that can be generally low cost and high reward.
Prior to opening your own clinic you have looked at the market and thought about location, distance from your target referral sources, and competition. Maybe you have identified a niche, or you have realized the community’s needs have changed or grown. No business plan is complete without a marketing plan, and the plan should cover the startup phase and what to do as the clinic matures. The plan has to be flexible as well. After all, what are the chances you had it all figured out day one?
Marketing your practice is about creating relationships. To build these relationships we need an understanding of who our targets are and how to reach them cost effectively. There are several ways to identify “targets,” but it is easy to break them down into two groups: the doctors and the patients. Both will determine your success, but in the beginning, unless you are already well known in the community, you will need the doctors more.
For some therapists, asking for a referral or reaching out to individual physicians or large group practices can be daunting. Doctors’ offices are some of the most solicited, and the gatekeeper can spot you—bright eyed and bushy tailed, business cards in hand—before you even get out of your car. The key is to be prepared. Your “pitch” has to be quick and genuine. Practice alone, practice in the mirror, practice with your loved ones. Understand that you might get cut off halfway through. Believe in yourself enough to take a breath and remember the key is to establish the first contact. You may have to make as many as six to eight contacts (depending on who you read/listen to) before you establish a relationship. Dedicate at least one day per week for the first few months you are open (or start before you open if you can) to visit physicians. Choose your targets based on proximity, practice size, or specialty. Keep track of those you have met (not just the doctor but each person you meet; scribble it down as soon as you get back in the car!) and make notes of anything personal that will help you remember. Nothing will sink your efforts faster than coming off as a robot. Be personable, kind, polite, and memorable for good reasons. Read the audience and be cognizant of lunchtime and whether or not the office waiting area is crowded. Whatever you do, and this is very important: Do not bring bagels (at least not at first).
Build your reputationIt is very important to establish yourself, over time, as a colleague. An expert. A health care provider. Not a lunch cart or a breakfast buffet. Marketing yourself is about building your reputation as someone who can add value and expertise to the patient’s health. Primary care physicians and orthopedists are concerned with their outcomes and their reputations. The referral relationship between the therapist and doctor is strengthened with each positive outcome. A happy patient is an excellent way to initiate or strengthen the referral relationship, and often it can be as easy as asking the patient to “put in a good word.” You will find that certain folks are more than happy to talk about you or your practice, and the steady stream of positive feedback will help establish your practice.
Patients with complex needs can become a vehicle for making contact with the physician. A quick call to the doctor to check in on a patient or update their progress can also help the relationship progress, and having the opportunity to speak about patient care builds your credentials as the expert and helps you avoid the bagel drop. A steady pattern of making contacts, follow-up, thank-you notes, and creating opportunities to demonstrate your expertise doctor by doctor, practice by practice, will seed the referral pool for the future. As time passes, and you can track monthly referral patterns, your targets will become more clear.
Provide a Positive Patient ExperienceThe patients are, of course, just as important as the doctor referral group. Nothing is more important than the person already in your office. Providing them with a positive customer service experience from the first point of contact through discharge can create a lifelong client. Marketing to the patient is the long play. Your approach is to person by person create well-satisfied patients who will tell their neighbors, coworkers, and loved ones where they should go for physical therapy. As your clinic matures, you should carefully track the number and percentage of referrals that are coming directly from physicians and those who are returning as former patients or were referred by a former patient. These percentages should grow with time. While the number of local physicians who will refer can be finite, it is important to see the growth of returning clients as well. Friends and neighbors can open doors to additional referral sources, and the process of establishing relationships begins again.
Marketing is one of those parts of the business that everyone knows is important, but we can easily decide we do not have time for it or that we should devote time to treating, especially in the early days when revenue is slow. The reality is that marketing is the long play. It is a constant effort that takes time. An organized approach built on establishing genuine relationships can help grow a strong pool of referral sources. With time the practice can adjust to the realities of its specific market and meet the needs of the community. Remember, you are an expert in your field and a valued and important member of the health care continuum. Putting yourself in a position to share your expertise is the key to future growth and the longevity of your practice.Eric Cardin, PT, is the executive director of South County Physical Therapy, Inc., in Auburn, Massachusetts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.