Marketing to Meet Today’s Consumer Demands

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
Keep in mind that your long-term care facility or senior residence runs from the inside out, not vice versa. Appearance isn’t enough. In your personal life, the inside drives the outside, and you don’t look very good externally if you’re sick internally. The same is true with your facility. A successful internal environment-in this case your staff-is what drives a successful external environment. Your building and grounds may be the first things people see, but it is a friendly and caring staff that will make a lasting first impression. When people visit your building, they may know little about healthcare. They are looking for a friendly face and a warm smile.

This isn’t to say externals don’t make a big difference. People want to see a clean and well-maintained building when they’re considering moving into your facility or having a loved one come to live there. No matter how hard you work, if there are cigarette butts out in front of the building, if there’s no visitor parking, or if there are handprints on the front door, you stand a good chance of losing business. These oversights, again, give customers and prospective customers the idea that you don’t care.

Key Number Four
This key is borrowed from the Boy Scouts: Be prepared. You need to be ready for visitors at all times, regardless of variations in staffing from shift to shift. After all, when do people visit? At their convenience, not yours. They might drop by at times when they are together as a family, such as after church, on weekends, or on holidays. Or they might visit in the late afternoon or evening on their way home from work. It’s not unusual to have more visitors in your buildings between the hours of 3:30 and 7:00 p.m. than you have all the rest of the day. And it’s during those hours and on weekends and holidays that we have fewer people available to answer questions and provide tours. That means fewer people to keep current customers happy and help solicit the business of new ones.

Sometimes customers say, “I came here to talk with someone about my family member Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evening, but no one was here to talk with me.” Then, frustrated, they might follow that with, “Either you are going to talk with me or you are going to talk with my attorney.” One of the best ways to handle this problem is to have someone in a position of authority, someone who can make a decision, available to talk with people from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m. one night a week and to let current and prospective customers know that someone is always available to address their concerns and/or answer their questions.

Key Number Five
Recognize that your clients and their families are, for all practical purposes, a vital part of your marketing department. Residents and families can leave your facility or senior community saying good things about you, or they can leave saying things that can do you great harm. A high percentage of your referrals come by word of mouth, and it’s unlikely that you’ll get a referral from an unhappy customer. Make your current residents and their families your friends.

Final Thoughts
Consumers have more choices for healthcare than ever before. Choice gives the consumer power. With the increase in competition, you may not get more inquiries but fewer. You must increase your conversion ratio and turn more opportunities into admissions and move-ins. You can ill-afford to let one phone call, one inquiry, one opportunity to give a tour, one referral, or one admission or move-in fall through the cracks. If potential clients do not get an immediate response to their inquiries in person or by a timely phone call, fax, or e-mail, they very well might simply call-and be sold on-the next name on their list.

Success isn’t just a question of whether you’re making progress; what’s important is the speed of your progress. In other words, are you making progress faster than the guy across the street?

The same forces active in the deregulation of the banking and airline industries are now at work in healthcare. We no longer have a “protected franchise”; we must learn to work the market. We must create a sense of urgency. We must act quickly. The luxury of taking our time is gone.

I think we have a tendency to look past the mark, to overlook the basics. If the fundamentals aren’t working, nothing else will, either, and you need to fix them. You must examine your “ground-level” performance, and quickly.

In today’s environment of continual change, you cannot just let the future happen to you. Analyze your strengths and weaknesses. Compare yourself with your competition. What makes you unique? What is your competitive edge? What makes you different and better? Write it down in 25 words or less, and then put a written action plan in place and follow it. The opportunity for increased business is tremendous, but all of your ducks, not just most of them, have got to be in a row. There’s simply no time to waste.

Lou Burgess, President of Front Line Advantage, is a professional speaker, consultant, and author, with healthcare and housing clients in 46 states and Canada, and he has written a booklet, Quality Customer Service, that addresses customer service and quality-of-care issues. To contact him, phone (480) 391-1464. To comment on this article, send e-mail to For reprints in quantities of 100 or more, call (866) 377-6454.
Meet “Super-Marketer” Jackie Schatell

What’s happening these days at Erickson, the fast-growing Baltimore-based developer of senior living campuses for middle-income people 62 and older? Well, in the first half of this past October alone: (1) the 14,000-plus residents of Erickson’s 11 campuses read exclusive interviews with President George W. Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry in The Erickson Tribune, the company’s monthly newspaper; (2) Erickson climbed to ninth in size among companies managing units for people 62 and older; (3) a 68-year-old resident was in training for the New York Marathon, his sixth; and (4) residents from eight Erickson communities and staff from six competed in a “walking challenge,” measuring the number of minutes they walked during a given period of time.

These were four of approximately 80 news releases sent out starting from the first of the year, covering a wide variety of topics but all having one thing in common: mention of Erickson. The dynamo behind the mega-marketing is one Jackie Schatell-former George Washington University English major, former advertising/public relations specialist for a law firm and, for the past year and a half, “storyteller to the world” for Erickson.

“This is a very fast-growing company,” she says, “and its residents are involved in a lot. We have one basic message: When you move into an Erickson campus, there is a lot to do-try new things, make new friendships. This is not a time to settle down, but to enjoy life.”

Schatell’s releases provide indeed a kaleidoscopic view of life, particularly as it’s lived at two Erickson campuses based in New Jersey: Cedar Crest in Pompton Plains and Seabrook in Tinton Falls. Schatell regularly reviews both facilities’ activities calendars, talks with representatives of every department, and crafts stories specific to various media outlets: local weeklies, major dailies, local TV broadcasts. Once in a while she’ll “go national,” as happened when Seabrook-located near Asbury Park where Bruce Springsteen was born and raised-had a “Bruce Springsteen Appreciation Day”; Springsteen family friends in residence spent the day reminiscing about the youngster they knew, both with each other and via network news outlets.

There’s good marketing and bad marketing, Schatell says. “What don’t we do? We don’t call ourselves a nursing home, we don’t refer to residents as senior citizens, and we never show inactivity. We’re talking about a ‘new world’ that offers happiness, fun, and new opportunities for people. Nursing homes can do this, too. They can market their quality of care, the quality of their staffs, their homelike environment, and their fun activities.

“When you come right down to it, it’s a matter of attitude, of believing that facilities can offer this and spreading the word.”

Richard L. Peck

Topics: Articles , Facility management