Google, Amazon, and mobile computing have conditioned consumers to expect quick responses. Online consumers are always online. Always connected, they have little patience for businesses that aren't and move on quickly to others that operate at Internet speed.

Aesthetic providers in general don't appear to be keeping up with this shift, and they're likely losing revenue because of it. Surveying over 2,000 consumers three days after they submitted an online inquiry to a doctor via RealSelf.com, and again at 28 days, we found that:

  • Just 12 percent received a response the same day.
  • Almost 40 percent hadn't received a response after three days.
  • After 28 days, 22 percent had still gotten no response at all.1

Avoiding the unpleasant scenario of losing business requires a comprehensive approach: understanding online consumers' expectations, recognizing pitfalls of poor lead management, and adopting best practices to improve the odds of turning interested prospects into new patients.

Speed Matters

Leads can become a source of tremendous growth if you treat every inquiry as a potential patient and respond promptly. Internet leads in general have an exceedingly short lifecycle. According to a landmark study by MIT and InsideSales, odds of connecting with a lead decrease by more than 10 times in the first hour after the inquiry. The odds of qualifying a lead—having a meaningful discussion with them—decrease by more than six times in the first hour2 and more than 60 times after 24 hours or more.3

Healthcare in general performs especially poorly, according InsideSales. Analyzing nine major industries, they found that healthcare came in last in both median response time and the percentage of leads that got no response at all (46 percent).4

The data offer compelling evidence that doctors who fail to respond quickly to patient inquiries lose opportunities to generate new business. As one RealSelf survey respondent summed up her experience, “[The doctor] never responded so I went and had surgery with someone else.”

Why Are Practices Slow to Respond?

Practices chalk up delayed responses to a number of factors:

  • Staff is busy: Medical practices were never designed to accommodate environments like the web, which moves and changes rapidly. When online leads are thrown on top of unscalable processes that are used to handling traditional word-of-mouth inquiries, breakdowns happen, such as failing to respond.
  • Lack of tools: If you looked into the operations of a car dealership, you'd find that nearly all use lead management software to collect, evaluate, track, and manage online contacts. A typical medical practice? Leads go into a centralized email inbox where staff manually responds. There are no systems in place to measure response times or ensure proper follow-up.
  • Personal touch: Many doctors on RealSelf say they want all leads emailed to them so they can be personally responsive. It's noble goal, but these responses can fall to the bottom of the priority list and happen days later, if at all.
  • Cherry picking: Some practices pre-qualify leads without engaging the person, viewing some inquiries as not serious.
  • Perception: People will call, or still come in, regardless.

“But We Respond Quickly”

Some doctors and office managers overestimate how well their staff responds to online inquiries. In a survey of 157 RealSelf doctors, 90 percent said they agreed or strongly agreed that they respond to online inquiries within 24 hours.5 Consumer data tells a different story.

What may be taking place here is what Karen Zupko refers to as “optimism bias,” the human tendency to believe that you're less likely to experience a negative event or outcome compared to others. In an aesthetic practice, this can create managerial blinders in which doctors believe all is well—for example, assuming staffers are doing a good job of managing leads—rather than actively managing the system to ensure it is.

Best Practices and Tips

1. Respond at Internet speed: Research shows that if you take longer than 20 minutes to respond, you've missed a person's highest point of intent. And with many aesthetic consumers sending inquiries to more than one provider, the doctor who answers first is more likely to “score” the consultation. Responding within an hour still positions a doctor well, and response time should never exceed 24 hours.

2. Nurture every lead, don't solely harvest. Not every potential patient who reaches out to your practice is “ready to buy.” The person who fills out a contact form is almost certainly further along in her research than one who downloads a whitepaper. While the former demands a quick response, the latter may be put off if you call her right away—although that doesn't mean she wouldn't welcome an email saying “Thanks, we hope you find the information helpful, and we're here if you have any questions or want to know more.”

Good lead management not only ensures that your team responds appropriately to inquiries; it also provides a foundation for keeping in touch with those who aren't ready to commit. Marketing experts call this process “lead nurturing”—think email newsletters or the occasional special offer. It's about nurturing a connection that keeps your practice top of mind and helps potential patients become confident in their decision.

3. Respond with a personal message: Canned responses are inadequate, unless it's after hours. But the response doesn't have to come from the doctor—a staff member can make a lead feel just as valued.

4. Invest in lead management software: A good lead management system—one that incorporates her contact information, the nature of her inquiry, who responded and when—helps you categorize leads to determine their stage in the decision process. This helps ensure subsequent interactions are timely and relevant. You may have a solution already at your fingertips; many practices have found success leveraging their EHR to track and manage online inquiries.

Finally, consider this: While the above is true for all businesses, it holds special significance in elective medicine because the decision process for aesthetic procedures can be so long. According to RealSelf data, 36 percent of aesthetic consumers research their options for a year or more, and 15 percent do so for more than three.6 So when they're finally ready to book a consultation, don't let that lead slip away: Seize the moment to transform them into a new patient.

Tom Seery is Founder & CEO of RealSelf (www.realself.com).

1. RealSelf survey data

2. http://www.leadresponsemanagement.org/lrm_study

3. https://hbr.org/2011/03/the-short-life-of-online-sales-leads

4. http://research.insidesales.com/acton/attachment/1207/f-0434/1/-/-/-/-/2014%20Lead%20Response%20Report.pdf

5. RealSelf survey data

6. RealSelf survey data