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Paul Willging Says...

August 1, 2005
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Be a Partner With Your Community

Be a partner with your community
The responsibilities of long-term care managers do not end at the facility's walls. There is an external environment-the community-that requires as much attention as do internal operations. Indeed, the success with which the seniors housing manager deals with the local community will have a direct bearing on the success of the operation itself.

The importance of involvement with the local community is graphically demonstrated by the history of other actors in healthcare delivery. Hospitals (and, to a lesser extent, physicians) have always enjoyed community esteem. They have been seen by the communities in which they operate as valuable resources, whose involvement in community affairs is prized.

Nursing homes, on the other hand, have often suffered from community indifference. While that is due, in part, to the fact that long-term care facilities provide services with which most Americans would rather not be associated, it can also be traced to the limited involvement that many facilities have in their communities. Nursing home and even assisted living operators have generally not networked as effectively as their hospital counterparts, they have not sought to make allies of the media, and they have, more often than not, been the target of (rather than stimulus for) political debate.

And just how important is community perception? Well, let's start by recognizing that the community constitutes the market for your services. As many demographic studies have indicated, most residents of seniors housing and care facilities live less than 15 miles from the facility. Well more than half of them have learned of the facility from friends who either were residents themselves or had friends who were residents.

Because word-of-mouth referrals are the source of most admissions, advertising strategies must be based on that fact. It is never enough simply to place ads in front of the general public. Without a carefully planned strategy, including many elements of one-on-one promotions, your marketing dollars may well be wasted. You need to know who your primary referral sources are and how to attract their attention and generate their enthusiasm for your facility. Don't forget that they, too, are key players in the local community-and the greater your own involvement in the community, the more likely it is that they will know you and direct customers your way.

And conversely, don't forget this key dynamic: Dissatisfaction breeds dissatisfaction. When one of your customer segments (resident, family, or staff) is dissatisfied, all segments become dissatisfied. Unhappy employees commiserate with residents. These residents become concerned and nervous and talk among themselves. They tell their families and friends when they visit. Families and friends tell their coworkers and employers. Disgruntled staff eventually leave and take up employment elsewhere, where the stories take on an even wider distribution. And soon you have a plague in the making.

Remember, the number one source for learning about a community is someone who lives there, works there, or has a parent living there. Never underestimate the impact on your marketing activities of customer satisfaction ("customer" being broadly defined). When a limited number of vacancies can spell the difference between profitability and bankruptcy, maintaining customer satisfaction and community esteem becomes paramount to survival.

A second important point: Whether working your referral network or implementing your advertising strategy, don't run the risk of promising more than you can deliver. Your reputation in the community can be easily jeopardized if your candor is widely questioned. Don't promise families that their loved ones can age in place, no matter what their level of acuity, if you don't have the capacity to sustain this commitment. Review your marketing materials carefully, both for inclusions as well as exclusions. Written materials should include the cost of the basic service package and what it includes, the availability (or nonavailability) and costs of additional services, the circumstances under which prices may change, how the facility monitors resident health status, the qualifications of the personal care staff, and your community's discharge criteria. Also, provide your referral sources with an example of the contract you typically use. In cases in which your contract raises doubt, consult with legal counsel.

Important point number three, and one revealing a vital distinction: Public relations should be a part of your marketing strategy, but should not be confused with marketing itself. Marketing is the promotion of products and services. Public relations is the enhancement of image. Good image might be considered a prerequisite for effective marketing; it is not a substitute.

Marketing is a motivational tool and deals with products and services for sale. Public relations is a communications tool and focuses on the creation of a favorable public perception. Marketing seeks to directly influence a customer's purchasing decision. Public relations seeks to change attitudes and make people feel favorably predisposed toward the vendor.

The objective of marketing is to increase sales and, consequently, enhance revenue. The goal of public relations is to garner community acceptance or a more favorable public opinion, even in the absence of a sale.