The Psychology of Patient Referrals – Part One

Patient referrals are important. Getting patients to refer family members, friends and coworkers can be crucial to facial plastic surgeons’ success.  Referrals can keep a practice busy throughout the year.  They, along with your inbound and outbound marketing program, are vital as a way of keeping new patients coming to your practice.  As the head of a psychology-based online marketing agency, I recognize the value of a marketing communications program that includes PR, broadcast advertising, search marketing, high SEO content marketing and other forms of inbound marketing in enhancing your reputation and drawing new patients to your practice.  But a facial plastic surgery practice’s marketing program is not complete without a strong initiative for generating referrals.  Replicated, well-established research by social psychologists reveals key principles that can help you generate the referrals you need to grow your practice.

patient referrals, facial plastic surgeonWhy do patient referrals happen – or not?

As you well know, many facial plastic surgery patients prefer to keep their procedures secret.  They want others to notice that they look great without realizing they had some work done.  Since that is the case, how can you encourage patients to reveal their “secret” and refer others?  Some have a strong desire to help friends, relatives and coworkers.  They want them to enjoy the benefits of a better appearance.  Often, though, this may not be strong enough to offset the desire to keep the reasons for their great new look under wraps.  However, there are strong psychological factors you can activate to entice patients to reveal the truth and refer patients to you.  This article will highlight one of the most powerful.


Researchers like psychologist Alvin Gouldner found that the reciprocity rule exists in every society on earth.  It appears to be hard-wired into the human brain.  The rule essentially states that someone who does you a favor must be repaid in kind.  However, this does not mean that a favor worth $5 will automatically generate a $5 favor in return.  Research shows that people often repay much more than they receive.

In his classic, Influence: Science and Practice, marketing psychology expert Dr. Robert Cialdini (who was kind enough to mentor me) highlights research by social psychologist Dennis Regan.  Subjects in pairs were asked to rate paintings as part of an “art appreciation study.”  Each pair contained a real subject and “Joe,” a research assistant posing as a subject.  During a break while new paintings were brought out, Joe left for a few minutes.  In half the cases he returned with a bottle of Coke for himself and another for his partner, which he offered as a gift.

When they were done, Joe asked his partner for a favor.  A local charity was raffling off a new car and Joe was competing for a cash prize for selling the most tickets.  The tickets cost five times the price of the Coke.  Compared to members of the control group, who received no gift from him, people for whom Joe bought a Coke purchased twice as many raffle tickets.

By Oxfam East Africa – Flickr: Ethiopia0009

In fact the Reciprocity Rule is so strong that at the height of the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s, that impoverished country sent $5,000 in relief aid when a strong earthquake hit Mexico City.  Why?  To repay a previous kindness.  When Ethiopia was under attack from Mussolini’s fascist army prior to WWII, Mexico had sent aid to them.  The Reciprocity Rule is so strong that even a country whose citizens were starving felt obliged to return a favor to a nation that had helped them many years before.


How to generate patient referrals with reciprocity

How can facial plastic surgeons activate the Reciprocity Rule so that patients will refer others to them?  The most obvious gift that a surgeon can give his or her patient is a great outcome.  Good surgeons always strive for pleasing results, so this point requires no further elaboration.

However, research has revealed other factors that may not be quite as obvious.  Economist Ori Brafman and psychologist Rom Brafman highlight two studies that reveal additional keys to client satisfaction.  In a nationwide survey of new car dealers, satisfaction with manufacturers was less about business outcomes (good pricing, receiving on-time shipments of well made cars that sold well) and more about how they were treated.  They rated manufacturers highly if they “took [pains] to learn the local conditions under which the dealers operate,” behaved in a “polite and well-mannered fashion” and “treat[ed] dealers with respect.”

Another key factor was revealed in a large survey of legal clients.  In this case, the clients were convicted felons in Baltimore, Detroit and Phoenix.  Not surprisingly, convicts were happier with their attorneys if they received favorable outcomes.  Those with lighter sentences were more satisfied than those given long prison terms.

Amazingly, though, regardless of their trials’ outcomes, defendants expressed significantly more satisfaction with attorneys who spent more time with them.  Even felons sentenced to long terms in prison were happier with their lawyers if they showed personal interest in them and listened to their concerns.

Reciprocity Aids Facial Plastic Surgery Practice Marketing

The Reciprocity Rule will make patients with high levels of satisfaction want to do something to repay facial plastic surgeons who have treated them well.  However, doing a great job in improving a patient’s appearance may not be enough to overcome their desire for privacy.

Surgeons who take time to listen to their patients, communicate with them, and call and check up on them during recovery can significantly bolster their satisfaction levels, regardless of their procedures’ outcomes.  If all staff members show kindness and personal interest, patient satisfaction will rise measurably.

The Reciprocity Rule means that patients who receive the gift of kindness and personal concern from a plastic surgery practice will want to respond in kind.  If the surgeon then personally asks them for a referral, many will have a difficult time saying no.

SEO optimized article writing can also help

Surgeons who also publish articles on the various ways people can improve their appearance generate goodwill.  Optimizing SEO when article writing can help assure that people who are most interested in facial rejuvenation will receive your gift of the accurate information they want.  This approach, if done in the right way, regularly produces new patient inquiries.  It’s an inbound marketing strategy that, along with your referral program as well as online and offline marketing, can give your practice the regular supply of new patients it needs to grow.

article writing, SEO, facial plastic surgeon, inbound marketing
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READ PART TWO                                                                                                               CONTACT RONDEAU RESOURCES

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