The Process of Building Doctor Referrals Is All About Relationships

It may surprise you that clinical competence, while essential, is not enough to differentiate you and earn
you an ongoing source of referrals. Just like you, other professionals refer to people they like, trust, feel are competent and believe are successful. “Like” is important, but “trust” is paramount. They want to be confident that the referral they make will be beneficial to their patients’ care, and reflect well on themselves.

So, the prime secret of doubling your referrals is to focus on relationship building. Professionals will refer with confidence when there is a strong and reliable relationship in place. As we all know, personal relationships require time and attention to maintain and grow. If the notion of relationship building feels uncomfortable or a waste of time, you may be confusing serving with selling. Selling involves a financial transaction where you convince someone to buy what you have to sell. Building relationships involves give and take. You’re taking care of the people who are taking care of you.

Relationship building begins by reaching out to your potential referral sources to learn how and if you can serve their needs. After you’ve listened, you can begin to educate them about your practice and how you can deliver the kind of patient care they value most. Through your experiences working together and regular communication you will naturally build the kind of relationships that makes you a valuable extension of their own work.

Prioritize Your Referral Base

As a specialty practice you most likely already have a base of doctors who refer patients. Not every doctor on that list will be equally valuable to you.

The secret to doubling your doctor referrals is to prioritize your referral base. This will help you maximize the value of the time and effort you spend building the relationships.

Sort your referral list into four categories (A, B, C and D) according to how many patients they currently
refer, how many more they could refer and the quality of their referrals.

A: The A’s are doctors who consistently refer the kind of patients you want to treat. You have already worked with them and established your credibility. Sometimes these doctors are called “loyalists.”

B: B’s are good referrers who could refer more if encouraged. These “splitters” already like and trust you, but may need to be educated about other services and procedures you offer.

C: C’s send you referrals from time to time but they aren’t consistent and don’t yet understand your full capabilities. With some effort they can be nurtured to do more.

D: D’s have the potential to refer patients periodically but probably never will send many because of their location, contractual obligations or specialty.

It’s not uncommon to want to spend too much time on the Cs and Ds, believing that you will build referrals if you simply let more people know you exist. But remember, referral building is about relationships. When you focus on the ones you already have, you will need to spend less time, money and resources maintaining them. You can then invest in the lower priority referral prospects as time and money allows.

Protect What You Have Worked So Hard to Build

Never take your best relationships for granted. When you look at your referring records, you will probably discover that small percentage of practices account for more than 2/3 of your business. You’d really miss these relationships if they ended.

At the same time, competitors are probably eagerly whispering into the ears of your best referrers— after all that’s where they can gain the most. What’s more, most practices vastly overestimate the strength of their referral relationships…until it is too late.

Focus the majority of your Professional Referral Program resources on keeping your “A’s” happy and informed about any new developments in your organization. Let them know how much they are valued and reward them appropriately.

Existing relationships are your best asset. After the fact, it is hard to come back to your former referring doctors because anything you do will look insincere. “Oh, now you want to pay attention to us….”

Staffs Often Drive Referrals in the Real World

Almost everyone underestimates the incredible influence staffs have over the referral process. While the referring doctors may provide a list of “approved providers” to patients, their staffs will point patients to the doctors on that list they think are “really nice.”

Don’t forget to woo the staff. Food, flowers and small gifts are great, especially during the holidays, but treat the staff well at every turn (and train your own staff to do the same). Take a few moments to talk to the office staff and medical assistants when you call their bosses. Ask how their day is going. If they mention children, note that down and mention it the next time you speak with them. Or ask if they have any vacations planned. Any small talk is appreciated. This is an opportunity to give them a snapshot of your bedside manner and a reason to recommend you over another name on the list.

IMPORTANT: Make sure you and everyone in your practice treats referring staffs with dignity and respect. If you do not, rest assured they will get even. They’ll either complain to their boss about you, or worse, simply stop referring to you all together. While referral coordinators may have zero “official” power, they oftentimes yield incredible “unofficial power” to steer referrals wherever they like.

Medical Staff Referral

Communicate Regularly and Consistently

In order to cultivate new referrals from your entire referral base, create an ongoing communication program and put someone in charge to ensure it is implemented on a continuous basis.

The objective of any communications program is to educate professional referral sources about how you can help them. You need to invest time in letting referring doctors know what’s going on as well as in finding out what they want to know, in what form and how often.

Your communications should contain valuable information that is relevant to your referring doctors. Any ongoing program can take the form of a regular newsletter (either print or electronic), professional “alerts” or even personal notes or letters. Assume your professional colleagues are not fully aware of all that you do, but communicate the benefits you provide, not the features.

Consider the ways you can make their (and their patients’) lives easier or better. Case studies make excellent subject matter. Each one can present patient-anonymous (HIPAA compliant) case examples on how a referred patient was effectively tested or treated by your practice and also illustrate the speed and accuracy of the report that was sent back to the referring practice. Updated statistics on protocols you deploy or recent studies in your area of practice with a synopsis that is relevant to successful patient outcomes.

Always include some kind of call to action on everything you send out. Pose a question you’d like them to respond to, perhaps in a survey format, offer to send more detailed information on a case study or simply ask them to call you to learn more about a specific service you’ve highlighted.

Give Referring Offices Exactly What They Want

Promises are cheap. To develop long-lasting relationships with referring practices, you need to be the provider other doctors want to refer to. This requires establishing goals, communicating them to your staff and doctors, and monitoring achievement regularly. Consider the kind of organization you’d like to refer your patients to and take your cues from there. Here are the benefits that providers with the most successful referral programs offer their referring doctors and patients:

  • High quality care: Being competent at what you do is just one aspect of high quality care. Treating your patients with respect, taking time to answer their questions, and checking up on them after treatment builds your reputation as a provider that cares.
  • Timely appointments: Referring physicians hate to have their patients’ care delayed because the patient can’t get in to see you in a timely way. Make a special effort to accommodate the referred patient as soon as possible (and see them quickly once they arrive at your office). And be sure to let the referring practice know that the appointment has been made.
  • Prompt understandable reports: Let the referring practice know when the patient has been scheduled, that you appreciate the referral and that you will continue to communicate about what follows. If you need to refer the patient to another specialist, consult with the referring office first. Always keep them in control of their patient, and keep them informed with regular progress reports.
  • Hassle-free interactions with office staff: Your staff needs to be responsive and courteous to the doctors and staff members who refer patients to you.
  • Willingness to take their fair share of tough cases: Referring doctors hate when you refuse to take a “lesser” case after they’ve sent you many good-paying cases.
  • Acceptance of the patient’s’ insurance: Many doctors will only refer patients to specialists who accept their patients’ insurance.
  • The assurance that they will send the patient back: One reason doctors are reluctant to send patients to someone they don’t have a strong relationship with is that they are afraid their patient will be stolen from them. So always send the patient back to the referring doctor, with some deliberate process steps and a bit of ceremony, if necessary, to make sure they notice.

Food Still Works

Everybody is busy these days, so it is easy to assume that your referring doctors and administrators won’t make time for a “free lunch.” While that may be true for a minority, the fact remains that everyone has to eat, and most like to be invited to a breakfast or lunch…just make it clear whether this is a “bring in” lunch or an off-site invitation (which will cost more!).

Pharmaceutical companies have had to cut way back on entertainment in recent years, leaving the door open for effective “lunch and learns” on your part. Make sure the education is specific to the level of those invited and holds value for them.

Because dinner is more expensive, it is a good way to thank a referring doctor for the business they’ve sent your way and build on your relationship.

Staff Food

Gifts and Entertainment Work, Too

Gifts and entertainment are still effective ways to nurture relationships and show your appreciation for the referrals your colleagues send your way. (Be sure that all gifts are appropriate to the guest’s tastes, are Stark compliant and stay within the ethical and legal limits of gift-giving. Seek appropriate legal counsel if you are unsure about limits.)

The key to successful gift-giving is to stand out from the crowd, especially during the holidays. The bucket of candied popcorn or box of chocolates may be enjoyed by the staff, but too often they will forget where it came from. If you choose this method, make sure you don’t “cheap” out. Do some research and provide the best in class chocolates or gift foods, especially for your “A’s”. If possible, make sure your logo or clinic name is physically affixed to this type of gift.

When giving gifts, be original. Take the time to learn the interests of your referring doctors. Or if your practice has a particular cause, philosophy or signature branding, make sure it is memorable and likely to be well received. Better avoided in our opinion, but if you choose, be very sure that any alcoholic gift will be welcomed.

If you choose, taking a client out for entertainment, such as to a sports game or the theater, provides a great way to show your appreciation. Entertainment should be carefully considered and based on the referring doctors’ personal interests. Once out, make sure they have a great experience. The key to successful entertaining is to tailor it to the individual and the relationship you’ve established. This level of gift giving is probably best reserved for you “A’s”.

Consider Hiring One Or More Physician Liaisons

Doctors rarely have the time, ability or desire to actively build and manage relationships with other doctors. Meanwhile, competitive practices ARE whispering in your best referrers’ ears.

If you are serious about growing your doctor referrals in today’s competitive marketplace, you almost certainly need one or more physician liaisons (a.k.a. practice representatives) working on your behalf. In fact, each physician liaison can easily deliver more than ten times return on investment, if you hire the right person.

Hire the Right Person: We recommend hiring only seasoned experts who have the knowledge and personality to engage doctors and staff effectively. Anyone can deliver bagels, shake hands and leave. What is needed is the next level of engagement that can secure and maintain your “A” and “B” referral sources.

While hiring someone with both sales and clinical experience can be a “home run,” a clinical person without sales ability often will fail. If you have to choose, it’s far easier to train a professional account manager the clinical knowledge they need, rather than try to turn someone without sales ability into a rep. For example, unemployed pharmaceutical reps are everywhere, but often make mediocre account managers because while they can talk medicine, they rarely have actually sold anything. Marketing communications people are also ill-suited for the job.

When hiring, look for someone naturally good at establishing relationships, who always has a goal for every meeting, looks the part, is self-starting and is not afraid of doctors. Compensation should be competitive with what other practices are offering. Depending on your goals, you should consider whether you need someone full or part time, and whether you want to hire them as an employee or contractor. Work with your bookkeeper or accountant to determine which method works best for your practice. Consider including performance bonuses either way and put in place a method of accountability to validate and assess their activity level on your behalf. Be clear on your expectations and inspect what you expect.

Never Send Your Physician Liaison into Battle Unarmed: Competition for the best cases can be brutal, and it always amazes us when providers send physician liaisons (or new doctors) into referring offices with nothing more than a business card and a smile.

Pharmaceutical reps, manufacturers’ reps and many of your competitors have excellent materials to promote themselves. When your materials look sub-par by comparison, your organization will look sub-par as well. Never send your physician liaison into the field without an impressive brochure, doctor resumes, along with other collateral materials that communicate your brand and the added value you bring to your specialty. Make sure your website is professional and impressive as well. (If you have not yet created any or all of these materials and need assistance, Integrative Practice Solutions has design resources to create customized collateral, update or create new websites and other marketing materials for your practice.)

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