6 ways a potential new patient evaluates your practice

I was recently busy packing and moving the belongings of my family of four into a new home (an ordeal that makes running a marathon feel like a vacation, by the way). We're now mostly unpacked and feeling settled--within our four walls, that is. As soon as we venture outside the driveway, everything is new. Thanks to the wonders of GPS navigation, we quickly found our way to grocery stores, playgrounds, pizza joints, and other necessities. More daunting, though, is identifying new childcare providers, dentists, and, yes, physicians. Listings for all of these services abound, but where do we start? Who do we trust? Where do we find the critical information that's going to put any particular service providers on the long or short list?

I bring this up not just to gain your sympathy (though it is rather stressful), but because it relates to an article I read recently in the Los Angeles Times about how dentists are ramping up their marketing efforts in an attempt to draw more patients into getting services they've been putting off during tough financial times. While one dentist interviewed said achieving a return on his marketing investment was still a struggle, another said that enhanced attention to amenities, such as warm towels and offering promotions online, has saved his business.

Given my current circumstance as someone in a new town, I'm more tuned into local businesses' marketing efforts now than ever. Although I may or may not represent the type of patient your practice is trying to reach through its marketing, I thought I'd share how various companies' strategies have struck me as a potential consumer. Though we haven't quite gotten to the new-doctors search yet, as the old ones are less than an hour away, here are the steps I've followed in finding other important services:

1. Asking near-strangers in person. I brought up our search for a nearby, trustworthy, credible, affordable preschool with the first mom I met at the playground. She gave me a name and a short, compelling list of reasons the school benefited her and her children. Naturally, the director would wind up telling me that her enrollment already was full for the current school year. Like school recommendations, many patients ask for physician recommendations the same way.

2. Asking total strangers online. My new community has a Facebook page. I figured it couldn't hurt to throw out a general question asking my new neighbors at large if there were any schools they'd recommend I check out. No luck there, perhaps because people were understandably hesitant to reveal the name of their kids' school to a stranger, but there's still the chance someone might see the post and share the name of a place they loved three or four years ago, as the woman I met at the playground had. For most specialties, I suspect people might be more forthcoming about recommending physicians in this manner. For more incidental services, such restaurants and massage therapists (yes, it was a DIY move), I turned to the "Explore" tab on Foursquare to see what others had to say about nearby businesses. Generally speaking, these searches have provided mostly entertainment value. For instance, there was the time I read a tip that said "Matt is the worst waiter of all time!" only to soon try to keep a straight face while Matt, of all people, approached the table to introduce himself.

3. Online listings and reviews. I personally take all online reviews with a grain of salt, and I try to scroll down to get a good cross section of comments. A business's average rating, however, will often influence whether I click on a link to read specific consumers' reviews. What most catches my attention are the concrete reasons a person has for praising a business or person, especially if the poster's circumstances are similar to mine (e.g., small children in tow, tending to be in a hurry, an omnipresent need to have access to food and/or a bathroom). So if you are a practice that encourages patients to post reviews about your practice online, you also might suggest that they share pertinent details about themselves and their preferences within their comments.

4. My actual, physical mailbox. Like magic, I got a coupon in the mail for a professional couch cleaning, just when I was noticing how much my freshly painted walls bring out the drool line along the edge of the cushions from when the kids were learning to walk. I will Google the company to ensure nothing horrific pops up and, if all is well, summon them immediately. If a local family medical practice should reach out to me through direct mail, I'd likely at least look into them.

5. Signage, convenience, and familiarity. At least initially, I've found myself gravitating toward places on the town's main drag, especially those with clear signs I can read and/or recognize. Even though I'm more apt to ask for directions than my husband, I'm nonetheless averse to looking any more confused in public than necessary.

6. Gut check. Once the rest of the due diligence is complete, this step is the most crucial. Accurate or not, I gather a lot of these impressions through a proprietor's speech and body language. Does this teacher make eye contact with me? With my child? Does he or she remember our names? Do they help me with the door or volunteer any information for which I don't ask explicitly? As Seth Godin put in a recent blog post, is this the type of person who will "show up" for my child or me?

To me, these are the things that matter. As you market your practice to existing and new patients, I encourage you to learn and pay attention to the things that matter to them. - Deb @PracticeMgt