Dr Qian Xu explores the importance of patient loyalty and details how she believes this is best gained in a business
As competition becomes fiercer in this growing specialty, the cost of acquiring new patients has risen dramatically. Since it is much cheaper to get existing patients to come back to you, it makes a lot of sense to set up patient retention schemes to try to keep your existing patients.
Many clinics have such patient retention schemes, but they often involve special deals and offers for existing patients. They find themselves stuck in a price war, fearing that if they raise their prices, their patients will go elsewhere. When you are in such a price war, your business may survive for many years, but it will not thrive. It will be hard work and seem like a constant struggle, and I’m sure that it is not the reason you went into business in the first place.
In my experience, there are three ways to beat your competition: be cheaper, better or different. If you don’t want to be cheaper, then you have to be better than or different to your competitors. When you are either of these, price then becomes irrelevant. I have found that this is the foundation to building customer loyalty and the secret to raising your prices to charge what you are really worth. I have built a stable referral-based business that doesn’t rely on paid advertising. Through this process, I have also gained a lot of insight into what made my patients trust me, what made them want to buy from me and what made them stay loyal to me. While traditional loyalty schemes can help bring in repeat business, without true patient loyalty, your business could suffer in the long run.
Before we can start building customer loyalty, we need to first define what it actually means. According to the Oxford Dictionary, ‘loyal’ means ‘a strong feeling of support or allegiance’.1 This means a loyal patient will come to you when they need a treatment, not just when the price is right. They would make time to see you even if it is inconvenient for them. If they can’t afford your treatments, they will save up until they can afford it, rather than going to someone cheaper. During the tough times in your business, it is your loyal patients that you can count on to help you through.
You can’t buy this loyalty; you must earn it. Many clinics confuse repeat customers with loyal customers. Although repeat customers can also be loyal, they are not necessarily the same thing. How many of your ‘loyal patients’ only come in when you are running an offer? Those people are loyal to the price, not to you. The problem with running offers is that it only solves a short-term problem and it also can become addictive, as this may be when you see a significant uplift in figures. Another issue that you must consider is the Advertising Standards Agency Guidelines, which state, ‘Marketers should ensure that promotions do not encourage consumers to undergo unnecessary or unwanted interventions.
Particular care should be taken when offering discounts for packages for procedures or promotional mechanics such as loyalty schemes or incentives for, for example, referring a friend’.2
Putting everything into consideration, I believe that for ultimate success, it is important to not get stuck in this cycle of offers and discounts.
When I think of customer or patient loyalty, the technology company Apple pops into my mind. It seems like people will buy whatever they come out with, and they will buy everything. People are loyal to Apple, but why is this? In author Simon Sinek’s book, Start with Why, he talks about the golden circle with ‘Why’ in the centre, ‘How’ in the next ring, and ‘What’ in the outer ring, like a target, shown in Figure 1.3
Most businesses talk about what they do, and sometimes about how they do it, but very rarely do they talk about why they do what they do. For the aesthetics specialty specifically, everyone can talk about what treatments they do and attempt to explain how they are better than the other practitioners. Maybe they have a Master’s degree, perhaps they use a particular technique, or they have become specialised in one thing, such as lip augmentation. However, almost no one talks about why they do what they do. Other than ‘I want to work less and make more money’, do you have another more meaningful reason for wanting to do aesthetics?
Here is what I say when I meet someone new, “I believe that aesthetics is not about keeping up with the Kardashians; it is about maintaining and creating the best version of yourself. This is why I take a holistic and long-term approach and create bespoke treatment plans for each of my patients.”
This way of communication has revolutionised my business, and I have been able to convert sceptics into paying patients. These people book a consultation with me without even knowing what treatments I offer, and they often will have whatever treatments I recommend. In my experience, if you can convert sceptics into paying customers, they will often become your most loyal patients.
Once you have convinced people to give you a try, these three R’s will help you build and maintain loyalty.
It is obvious that when people pay you for a set of treatments, they expect certain results. Depending on what treatments you offer, some will give better results than others. I think the saying that you need to under-promise and over-deliver is very appropriate in aesthetics. If someone is aware that the results may only be very subtle, but are still willing to give it a go, they will less likely be disappointed and are actually likely to be pleasantly surprised. This will be the first step towards building trust and loyalty.
It’s obvious that you should always do what you say you will do, but you should go a step beyond that and do the things that you didn’t say you would do. Things like remembering patients’ birthdays and certain life events, perhaps you can send out little gifts now and again to loyal customers; this would really help to strengthen the loyalty.
Most people know that there are risks involved in aesthetic procedures. They have seen enough horror stories in the media, which is why many of them are scared. However, what makes most people feel safe is not necessarily how well trained you are (it’s difficult for them to tell), it is what you will do to prevent problems from happening and whether you will be willing to sort out any problems should they arise. I give out my personal mobile number to my patients because if they have any problems, I would want to be the first person they contact. Of course, you can choose to have a separate business phone, so it doesn’t mix with your personal life. A lot of people are worried that they would be inundated with messages if they gave out their number, but when you make it clear to people that you are contactable, they feel safer, and they often won’t contact you with minor things. Even if they get a complication or a result that they didn’t like, as long as you are there for them to sort it out, they are likely to still come back to you for other treatments. Once they trust you, they will not easily go to another practitioner. They will remain loyal to you.
Loyalty cannot be built overnight. After making a good first impression, you need to keep up the good work. The way I think of loyalty schemes is that they are simply systems that you put in place to continuously show your patients that you care about them. When you only have a few patients, you can do this manually. It’s easy enough to drop them a message every few months to see how they are doing and sending them a Happy Birthday message or a Christmas card. When you have more patients, you can automate some of these factors or even delegate them to a virtual assistant. You just need to keep in touch with your patients to remind them that you are here for them should they need anything.
Just like love, loyalty comes from the heart, and people can’t always explain why. To win the hearts of your patients, you have to show them that you care, and it helps if you really do care. At the end of the day, I find that it doesn’t always matter what you do for your patient retention strategy, it is the intention behind it that counts. People will forget what you say, but they will never forget how you make them feel. The ultimate aim of any patient retention strategy should be to make your patients feel special, so that they will always choose to come to you and no one else.