Referrals are the lifeblood of specialist practices — which is why just about every specialist I know is interested in improving relationships with their referrers. That's the nature of the business.

It is also the nature of the business that each practice owner is busy in his or her own practice, so the opportunities to work on those relationships directly are limited. That's why any approach to building relationships needs to be focused and effective.

Team members in doctor coats and scrubs huddled in a meeting (left) next to an icon representing people networking on a blue square background (right)

Over the years, I have noticed that the most successful specialists have internalized this reality. I have also seen that there is a pattern to their success with referrers — that there are certain tried-and-true approaches that come up again and again when you look at how top practices become top practices.

I have made an inventory of those blue-ribbon approaches — you could call it the 7 Relationship-Building Habits of Highly Effective Specialists — and it looks like this.

Be strategic.

Horse chess piece icon on a blue square background (left) next to team members having a meeting (right)

As mentioned, your time is limited, and as much as you may want to, you can't give every referrer the same attention, all the time. Your first priority is to define your priorities and select just a few referrers to target in each quarter. Then, choose your strategy for building that relationship based on your mutual goals.

In other words, if it's someone who you simply want to work with more often, your strategy could be all about increasing the number of referrals. But maybe it's someone who does refer consistently, but only seems to send the routine stuff — in which case, it becomes more about strategies for getting them to work with you more comprehensively, and refer higher quality cases.

Become a local “guru.”

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One of our guest faculty members — a highly successful periodontist — talks about how he made it his mission to be the “go to” guy in his area for guidance and advice. In contrast, some specialists are reluctant to help GPs too much. Why teach them how to take business from you?

The fact is this: General practitioners are going to do more advanced procedures anyway. Why not partner with them, provide some guidance on those cases, and help them understand when they need your help?

Become a trusted source for advice and education, and you become the “go to” specialist for their referrals.

Leverage your time wisely.

Calendar icon on a blue square background (left) next to two male doctors walking in a doctor's office with a transparent overlay of a portion of an analog clock (right)

You can't focus on all your referrers, all the time — but you can focus on several key referrers in a highly-leveraged way. Nothing accomplishes that better than leading a local study club.

Spear Study Clubs are designed to leverage your time by providing a “turnkey” operation with easy-to-present content and expert support. Study club meetings are where relationships grow in a meaningful way because people who learn together, grow together — and people who grow together also develop close collegial relationships.

Additionally, being the leader of a well-organized study club is another way to enhance your “guru” status.

Become a leader online.

Person standing in a circle icon on a blue square background (left) next to two male doctors looking at a tablet (right)

Social media is a great way to leverage your time and influence with referrers inside and outside of your study club.

If you haven't done it already, create a Facebook group for your referring community, and make sure to post to it frequently with photos of successful cases, clinical tips, or just local news. You can also use Instagram for case study before-and-after features.

The great thing about social media is that it's available whenever anyone has the time to log on. Consequently, everyone can check in and contribute on their own schedule. Social media helps you establish yourself as an online leader in the local dental community.

Think in terms of team-to-team relationships.

Icon of three people on a blue square background (left) next to two male doctors looking at a tablet (right)

When specialists think about their relationships with their referring, they tend to think in terms of doctor-to-doctor relationships. While those are very important, when a referring practice is referring a patient, the recommendation often comes from a treatment coordinator, office manager, or front desk staff member.

That's why the best specialist practices make it a point to develop relationships on a team-to-team basis by providing team lunch-and-learns and learning as much as possible about the people who hold the “power of referral” in referring practices.

Practice “thoughtful gifting.”

Hand holding a sprouted plant icon on a blue square background (left) next to close up of woman in scrubs handing man a paper (right)

Just about every specialist practice distributes branded “swag” and other gifts to their referring practices as a way of remaining a “top of mind” presence with those teams. But I have noticed that the most successful specialty practices take it to another level by engaging in “mindful gifting.”

They note personal interests (like an appreciation for golf or wine) and personalize their gifts accordingly. If something significant occurs at a referring practice, such as bringing a new associate aboard, they make sure they acknowledge the event with a personalized gift and message.

For that matter, even the general gifts that go out to every referrer can be thoughtful and creative.

For example, one practice we work with recently sent branded personal smoothie blenders to everyone in their referral community. This included a link to a video featuring the team doing a workout session in the lobby, followed by a demonstration of how to use the blender and sample recipe. It was a huge hit, with many recipients asking for a follow-up.

These strategies seem like a lot to do with that limited time you have to build relationships, but they are proven to deliver real results. Plus, there is a proven way to make the process easier — which leads us to our final point.

Delegate and empower the team.

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As a clinician, you are naturally spending most of your time chairside. It stands to reason that the only way to ensure these habits occur consistently is to delegate the key tasks and empower team members to take responsibility.

Many of the most-successful specialist practices we know have a team member who is devoted full time to this process — visiting referring practices, providing lunch and learns for their teams, gathering information about the team members, organizing and following up on study club meetings, monitoring and updating the doctor's social media accounts, and most importantly executing on selected strategies to grow relationships with selected referrers.

Even if you aren't ready to devote one person full-time to the role, the important thing is that these habits are adopted and that the team has clarity for who is responsible for doing what.

White icons on a blue background, (in order from right to left) horse chess piece, location marker, calendar, person standing in a circle, three people, hand holding sprouted plant, person's head with lightning bolt

Growing your relationships with your referring practices is probably the most significant thing you can do to grow your specialist dental practice. There are many moving parts to that process, and every relationship has its own unique dynamic — but the path to success is not particularly mysterious.

Follow the points we have outlined here and you are virtually guaranteed to see rewarding results.

Aimee Fletcher, M.A.Ed., is a member of Spear Resident Faculty.


Commenter's Profile Image Mary Lynn W.
October 19th, 2021
Very well done article Aimee! ML Wheaton