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Marketing to Meet Today's Consumer Demands

December 1, 2004
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Selling your facility goes beyond the brochure and into operations, says this marketing guru by Lou Burgess
BY LOU BURGESS Marketing to meet today's consumer demands

Attending to the "little" details can give your long-term care facility or senior community a big boost
Society is in the midst of changing times. People are finding out that what worked two years ago won't work today.

Healthcare has changed, as well. Competition is coming from all directions. Standards for success have become higher. We must do everything better, quicker, and smarter-and with fewer people, less time, and less money. Success in this aggressive and competitive environment depends on performance and execution. You can't just rely on the high percentage of things you are doing right, but you also have to pay attention to the small percentage of things you could modify or improve to help you beat the competition in the marketplace.

You must concentrate on the details, i.e., do the so-called "little things" right. You cannot control the market, but you can control what happens in your long-term care facility or senior community. People are not looking for some fancy new program; they're looking for the basics of care and service delivered well. And they want to see mistakes corrected quickly. Remember, making mistakes is human. It's what you do after the mistake occurs that people judge you by. The following are five keys to success that have their roots in the basics of good customer service. They might sound simple, but they can easily be missed:

Key Number One
Communicate exactly what you have to offer. No matter what we may think, consumers are often confused when it comes to long-term care and senior communities. Most do not know the difference between senior living, assisted living, and long-term nursing care and, furthermore, they don't know the difference between the services each provides. If you don't clearly convey what services you're offering, your customers' expectations won't be realistic from the beginning. If those expectations are beyond what you can provide, then you have little chance of ever making those people happy.

One of the biggest pitfalls is the tendency to "over-promise" and "under-deliver." It's easy for the "sales department" to promise something the "service department" can't do. That's why it is terribly important to make every effort you can to meet with residents, families, discharge planners, social workers, physicians, and others prior to each resident's admission or move-in to talk about and set realistic expectations.

Once you have told potential customers and their families what to expect, the thing that will keep those customers satisfied-and prompt them to tell others how pleased they are-is to deliver what you say you will. It's not what your mission statement or your customer service statement says that is important; what makes the difference is the level of action that surrounds those statements. Regardless of reputation, heritage, or mission, if the competition across the street or the competition across town or the competition in another town provides better service and better value, you stand a good chance of losing business to them.

Key Number Two
Provide face-to-face-or at least voice-to-voice-contact. I remember talking with the administrator of a 22-bed hospital in a very rural community. He said, "Almost every hospital in our area provides the same services and at similar costs. What sets our hospital apart is quality customer service. Price is what you pay; value is what you receive. This hospital is selling value, not price."

People value human contact. Almost everyone these days has voice mail and e-mail, and I am not opposed to high technology. But do you find it harder to communicate now that you have more technology at your fingertips? It's how we use and abuse the technology that presents the problem. Be careful not to use technology to distance yourself from your internal, as well as your external, customers. Quality relationships are formed by people talking to people, not people talking to machines. Healthcare is a people business. Use technology to support, not to lead.

When someone calls for information, we want the impression of the customer to be, "I have found someone who can help me." When people call and a real person answers the phone but then transfers their calls to voice mail, a high percentage of those callers simply hang up-particularly when they were expecting to be transferred to the person they were calling, not to voice mail. What makes this even worse is if there is no instruction in the voice mail message telling them to press "0" if they would like to be returned to the operator (a live person) for further assistance.

I called two state associations earlier this year and asked to speak to the executive director. Both people answering these organizations' phones said, "May I give you her e-mail address? Then I won't have to take a message." What these people were really saying was, "Then I won't have to be responsible."

Sometimes voice mail is unavoidable. Although reaching someone's voice mail isn't the same as reaching that person, at least it gives callers the opportunity to leave a message rather than listening to a ringing phone that no one picks up. But it's important to respond to your messages in a timely manner. Therefore, you should implement the "sundown" rule: Return all the day's calls before the sun goes down. Not returning phone calls promptly is one of the biggest communication and public relations problems in healthcare today. It gives people the perception that you don't care.

Key Number Three