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Senior and Post-Acute Healthcare News and Topics

Sharpen the Sales and Marketing Efforts in 2010

I lost track this past year of how many people I talked to that told me that, “organizationally, we are kind of stalled in developing new business because of the economy and health care reform”.  I know that in down economic periods, promotion budgets (advertising, sponsorships,etc.) are some of the first line items trimmed but to me, that’s not really marketing; more of an adjunctive tool that organizations use, typically with limited impact.  I understand the health reform subject creating an air of uncertainty although, for most organizations very little changes immediately post-passage (when and in what form that occurs).  The reality of the health reform debate is that for every possible implication there is a strategic opportunity that most post-acute providers can develop, capitalizing on the new policy changes.  Further, as I have written in previous posts, Congress has shown very little will-power in terms of enforcing the punitive elements of additional Medicare cuts and as such, while I don’t advocate a wait and see strategy, in this case, a bit of skepticism about how much pain will ultimately occur with health reform is warranted.  I’m generally more concerned about here and now health policy problems such as Medicaid and the status of state budgets, combined with an overarching concern that economic recovery has a ways to go to qualify as “fully progressing”.  All this said however, and in spite of a still lagging economic recovery, the time is right to sharpen the sales and marketing efforts for this new year.

What is different this year (as opposed to last or years before) is that society is still shell-shocked by the economic fall-out.  The traditional rules or approaches to a new year marketing and sales strategy will no longer net the same results.  In one regard, it is unlikely that any organization’s sales and marketing budget is “bigger” this year than last or better yet than in say, two to three years past.  I am literally unaware of any organization (not that some might exist) that has added substantially more resources (dollars or people) to their marketing area.  This means, more will have to be done with less or at least, the same level of resources. To that end, creativity and strategy are the terms that best fit.

Strategically, health care marketing has traditionally been focused on selling three “tangibles”: Convenience (ease of access, location), Quality (outcomes), and Depth of Service (capacity, expertise, etc.).  Today, I would add two more focal areas to the mix – Value and Stability.  I would also re-work the first three to make certain they were in concert with the latter two.  Thinking about the latter two, does anyone really ever say that health care doesn’t cost too much?  Even at the heart of the health reform debate, while most Americans don’t want the government to necessarily take over their current health plans, they also openly state that solutions that lower the cost of health care (save government take-over) are a priority.  Psychologically, when someone believes something costs too much, the rub is not price but value received for that price, particularly in light of the resources available to pay the price.  Without being too technical, in a down economy, people become even more price and value conscious, even those who have been somewhat unaffected by the down turn.  The news of job losses, falling home values, etc., reinforces caution and conservatism to people even though arguably, health care when needed can’t be completely, competitively shopped or for that matter, deferred for too long.  The trick or strategy thus becomes, how to craft a marketing strategy around a value proposition and reinforce that proposition with the concept of stability.  Providers that can demonstrate a consistent track record of stability (low turnover, solid financial management, continued reinvestment in products, services, and physical plant) will undoubtedly lower the level of trepidation present in would be referral sources, current referral sources and patient/resident bases (families/significant others included).

Strategically repositioning the marketing program or plan to integrate value and stability looks something like this at a high level (organization specifics of course, would flesh this out deeper).

  • Value and Convenience: Review the target market, especially the primary market area.  Can customers and referral sources get to you quickly and easily?  Are you fully accessible for referrals across all channels (phone coverage, internet, e-mail, etc.)?  Are your coverages for referrals responsive and available across elongated business hours?  Weekends? Holidays?  Do you have a system in place for dealing with emergency referrals or odd hour referrals?  Will you go “to” the referral?  Do you or can you automate or reduce the paperwork and approval process on a referral?  Can referrals access a website for pre-completion paperwork?  The more of these tactics you can integrate into your marketing arsenal, the more you can create a value proposition around convenience. 
    • Key Concepts:  Value and convenience tied together is all about delivering more touch points or connections to your products/services than otherwise available in the market area.  In a worst case, it may simply be about keeping up with the competition so as not to lose referrals or business – being as convenient.  I like a full embrace of reasonable, simple web-based technology and e-commerce applications where possible.  Facebook, Twitter, etc. are emerging tools that no provider should ignore as viable means of getting and staying in touch with potential customer sources or current customer sources.
  • Value and Quality: This is all about the quality of your service warranty or the notion that price and outcomes are clearly aligned.  Health care leaders today would be well served to take a look at other industries and products where price and quality are clearly packaged, marketed and used as competitive tools. I like reinforcing the concept of, “better, faster, and cheaper”.  Adopting this mantra means a consistent review of  and communication about, how the organization delivers its products and services to its customers in a way that creates a better outcome, a quicker response or in a quicker period of time for the same price as a competitor or hopefully better.  This concept is not about convenience or location, though these concepts play-in.  This concept is about warranty or the reliability of the service and an implicit and well-communicated promise that customer’s expectations about the reliability and quality of a given service will be met or hopefully, exceeded.  Remember, consumers exist across the price spectrum from low price seekers to high price or premium consumers.  Products and services can fare equally well across this spectrum, provided that the service or product is aligned with the price paid and the customer clearly understands what the warranty or promise of the service/product quality is in relationship to the price.  Arguably, in periods of economic decline or slow-down, premium priced services or products require the most amount of adjustment as pure luster and past reputation will not alone be sufficient to maintain market share.  The opposite side of the argument however, is that products or services once viewed as premium can attract the interest of prospective customers faster if price can be adjusted even modestly and quality increased or warranty improved modestly.  Everyone loves a bargain and if the market senses or believes that something once unattainable is now available, new customer inertia can be changed (ala the premium outlet mall concept).
    • Key Concepts: Value and quality is principally about drawing a bright correlation between the price or cost of the product or the service and what a customer can expect to consistently receive.  This is about creating a distinct and clear warranty or promise of the service’s/product’s utility(tangible) and the cost and communicating the same.  Nothing hurts marketing and sales efforts worse than products priced too high in relationship to their utility.  Conversely, products or services that are priced too low may be undervalued by the marketplace and perceived as “gimmicky”.  Down economic periods place trepidation into the minds of consumers and as a result, it is incumbent to marketers to be aware that holes or gaps in their product’s/service’s warranty compared to the price or cost, must be adjusted rapidly.  I am less in favor of price cutting as opposed to perhaps, a price maintenance strategy.  I am always in favor of pushing the value proposition by improving quality (tangible outcomes) upward and holding price in check.  The key however, is that health care providers need to sharpen their communication around their product’s/service’s warranty and the cost thereto.
  • Value and Depth of Service: Can you or do you provide more services or have more service availability than your competitors for the same price?  Alternatively, do you do the same things better or identical to another provider from an expertise stand-point for a lower cost or price?  This concept is not about “doing more” (not that additional service depth is bad), it is about comprehensiveness within the product offerings.  Taken to the core; products or services, even few in number, should be flushed-out fully so that staff providing the service are viewed as experts, the capacity for comprehensive delivery is in effect and the price associated with such an exceptional level of service is of great value to the customer.  Thought about differently perhaps, it is akin to a strategy used by Wal-Mart to constantly expand the amount of goods one can buy while shopping, all at a perceived or real “better” price.  Now, Wal-Mart focuses on a particular market with a particular strategy but frankly, few do it better from a classic marketing perspective.  My point here is not to say health care providers should be like Wal-Mart but to draw forward, the concept of value correlated to depth of service.  The same strategy can apply (and does) to more limited product or service offerings.  For example, in my community, a jewelry store named Kessler’s has had continued success and growth by applying this concept, although their focus is just on diamond jewelry.  Their marketing strategy consistently drives home a depth of experience, service and even products, focused entirely around diamond jewelry, principally for couples celebrating engagements, marriages or anniversaries.  Kessler’s, like Wal-Mart, even correlates price to their service and products and boldly so, I might add. 
    • Key Concepts: This concept is about taking the very core of what an organization provides or does and making sure that it is extremely well thought out, as good or perhaps better than what is available in the market and then correlating this to cost or price, communicating the same to the customer.  It is definitely not about doing more, unless that is a real possibility; it is about doing what you do better or to the best of your ability and making sure that the price reflects, uniformly, the depth of service provided.  For healthcare providers, I like leveraging internal capacity and programs to do more across the board or to improve other products and services thereby creating a deeper level of service organizationally. For example, if your organization has hospice as part of your service or product offerings, use the hospice to improve your symptom management expertise and pain management programs and then,  promote this capability. Every area of excellence can and should be leveraged to improve others or to add new niches, new depth that creates additional value for customers.
  • Value and Stability: For lack of better words, this is the foundation in the current climate from which all other strategies emanate.  Customers, community and referral sources need to believe and hear over and over that the value proposition created by the organization is permanent and regardless of the current climate, the organization will remain committed to providing the best products/services for the cost or price (whatever and however this plays out within a market or for any provider).  Once customers or referral sources believe or feel that a service or product is diminishing or that prices are in-flux (usually upward), the ability of the organization to draw attention to any other key marketing strategy is significantly damaged.  I don’t know of too many customers that are willing to trade for a poorer or weaker warranty or accept poorer service or quality for the same price or for that matter, even for a slightly reduced price.  In reality, unless the organization was already offering “second-rate” quality or service for a deeply discounted price (ala scratch-and-dent), maintaining and building upon value and stability strategically, is a first priority to developing additional sales.

It should be somewhat apparent (hopefully) now that these concepts wrap around each other and build or feed off each component. From a sales perspective, the marketing strategies above create the tools that sales people need.  Improve the marketing strategies and the sales tools are improved.  To achieve better sales outcomes, the organization needs to clearly communicate to the sales staff a set of behaviors and activities that reinforces and makes real for the customer, the organizational strategies (illustrated above).

For providers today, the key is not to avoid via less or no activity, the current economic and health policy issues but to strategically and tactically engage them.  The economy in my view, has fundamentally changed the consumption dynamics within the market place, for referral sources and patients.  The emphasis is on value and that emphasis is unlikely to shift any time soon.  The health policy/reform discussions only sharpen the issues around cost and quality.  For providers that can leverage their quality and build a clear value proposition, there is no reason to believe that 2010 won’t be a very good year to attract and develop new business and to solidify existing referral sources and customers bases.

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January 12, 2010 - Posted by | Assisted Living, Hospice, Senior Housing, Skilled Nursing, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , ,

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