Article Date: 1/1/2005

business 101
BUSINESS 101:Marketing
Part one of our three-part "Business 101" series reveals how to build patient volume through effective marketing strategies.
BY NEIL B. GAILMARD, O.D., M.B.A., F.A.A.O., Munster, Ind.

Marketing is a broad business topic, and one that often makes optometrists' eyes glaze over with boredom. In this article, I'll boil the subject down to the basic elements that are important in optometric practice.

By understanding and applying the principles presented here, you can increase patient volume and practice revenue beyond your wildest dreams. First, I'll present a long-term marketing philosophy, then a short-term marketing project, which is effective in boosting the slow periods of a growing practice.

DIGITAL IMAGERY BY BARRY BLACKMAN

What is marketing?

Seeing as 101 level courses are basic, let's start off with what marketing isn't. It's not newspaper ads or refrigerator magnets and it's not direct-mail coupons or office brochures. Those are forms of promotion, and while some may consider them a small subset of marketing, I'd like to focus on the big picture first.

Business school instructors define marketing as identifying and satisfying customers' wants and needs. That really says it all. (I used the word customer in that definition, even though we all prefer to call the people we serve patients.) Customers go by many names, but let's not confuse our goal in this article: We're interested in generating increased sales of services and goods. As professional as we are in practice, it's healthy for us to think in pure business terms when it comes to marketing. You'll be pleased to see that my system of marketing can work for you and still maintain a professional, medical image.

Why care about marketing?

Optometrists need to know marketing because it's the key to overcoming the biggest problem facing our practices today: lack of patient volume. As much as we may hate to admit it, we're generally not busy enough. In fact, if we had enough people calling us on the phone for appointments, we could easily solve all of the other problems that we usually lament over. We could drop low-level managed care plans and raise our fees. We could hire the best staff members anywhere and increase our delegation routine, which would increase daily throughput and productivity. We'd no longer concern ourselves about mail-order contact lens sellers or optical departments at big box stores. Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?

Success in the long term

Ask any optometrist where most of his new patients come from and you'll almost always get the same answer: word-of-mouth referral. That's how all successful practices are built. So if that's the proven way to bring in patients, let's go after that channel in a serious manner.

Why do some practices attract tremendous numbers of referrals from existing patients, while others attract only an average amount? Some practices just have it, and some don't. Identify and implement that "it" factor and your practice will grow.

The factor that creates this powerful form of marketing is simple, yet powerful: customer service (also known as customer satisfaction). The vast majority of patients who've been to optometric offices are "satisfied," but satisfied patients don't refer their friends -- enthusiastic patients do! "Satisfied" is the lowest level of acceptable consumer rating, and even "extremely satisfied" doesn't ensure repeat business or word-of-mouth chat. You might think this issue is trite, but let me assure you that if you embrace the difference in your practice, you'll see profound results.

It turns out that legendary customer service is not only the key to getting patients to talk about and recommend your practice to others, but it's also the key to increased patient loyalty, which means greater patient retention, larger purchases per visit and more frequent return visits. A loyal base of returning customers, plus a constant flow of new customers, makes a winning combination.

Measuring customer service

Many optometrists think they're doing a pretty good job in customer service, but most of them still don't get it. It takes a great deal more effort than most doctors are willing to give to reach the status of legendary service. It requires an office culture built around going above and beyond, and that starts with the doctor and all staff members must duplicate it. It requires a "customer is always right" philosophy, which many doctors and staff members can't accept.

Doctors are historically the worst at customer service. Consider your own personal experience when visiting other doctors' offices as a patient. Service is at an all time low in health care.

Some medical specialties will still thrive, even in spite of poor customer service. Optometry isn't one of them. We must do something that each patient will regard as truly amazing. If it's not something impressive and special, then they won't talk about it. It's not too difficult to come up with ideas that will set your practice apart from the others, but it's a little difficult to put them into effect. It requires work and financial investment. If it were easy, everybody would do it.

Following are four areas to begin with in your new customer service initiative:

1. Review customer service issues with staff and change bad habits.

2. Consider interpersonal skills for doctors and staff.

3. Ask patients to evaluate your practice.

4. Invest in your practice.

Short-term marketing

As you wait for the fruits of your labor in the customer service arena, let's design a marketing project that won't cost as much as it produces in net revenue. One project that's easy to produce, economical and effective is direct mail to your patient base. It's an ideal target market because they all need eye care and they've already chosen your practice. We simply create an event of some kind and then promote it. It's exciting because you make something happen.

Some events may even be worthy of additional publicity, such as a press release in the local paper or possibly even paid advertisement in the paper. Get creative -- would posters in your office help raise awareness? Can you post the event on your practice Web site?

New services

So many new products and procedures are popping up in our field, all you have to do is pick one that you're interested in and go after it. Maybe a service you already provide or something new for your practice to acquire. Just pick a specialty topic from the list below and match it with an event option below. You'll attract people who want the service now, and you'll project an image as an expert in that field to everyone who reads the mailing.

Specialties. What specialty will patients know you for providing?

Events. Here are some ideas for events you could host:

 

Mindful Marketing

 

How does your practice handle the following marketing opportunities?

  • Professionally designed practice logo

  • service club involvement

  • Public speaking

  • Practice brochure

  • Practice Web site

  • Practice newsletter

  • Letter writing to local physicians

  • Customized patient eyecare report at each visit

  • "Thank you for the referral" letters

  • "Welcome to the office" letters

  • Exterior signage

  • Exterior landscaping

How to do the mailing

Write a short letter in layman's terms explaining the service or product from the patient's point of view. I usually like to begin the letter with something like, "In reviewing our files, we selected you as a good candidate for . . . ." Hopefully, that's true and you can use your practice management software to select a target group of patients based on age, last visit date, diagnosis or lens prescription.

Try to provide a "call to action" in the letter (e.g., a free service or screening or a discount on the usual fee). The event itself may be the call to action, in the case of a free seminar. If possible, try to enclose a public relations brochure from the manufacturer that explains the service in more detail.

Depending on your office software system, you may print address labels and form letters on your letterhead stationary or customized letters with patient's names inserted. You can use regular postage with stamps or a postage meter imprint, or you can take the envelopes to your post office for assistance with sending the mailing with a bulk mail permit.

Planning

Choose a time that all of your patients will find convenient, such as after work. Serve non-alcoholic refreshments and try to give each attendee a take-home package of information, a free gift or free samples. Make sure your practice name is clearly identified. Ask attendees to reserve a space at the event and call to confirm their attendance the day before.

Take steps to integrate a long-term plan for excellence in customer service and produce some direct patient mailings in the short term, and your practice will soon produce the patient volume you need to make many of the challenges that today's eyecare practitioners face disappear.

Dr. Gailmard is in private practice. He's on the faculty of the Management & Business Academy, an educational program sponsored by CIBA Vision and Essilor of America.

 



Optometric Management, Issue: January 2005