Patient retention and Customer Referral, Article 1 of a series.

Patient Retention And Referral Is The Key To Ongoing Profitability

By Geoffrey Cooling

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This is the first in a series of articles that I hope will help you, maximise your business opportunities, serve your Patients well and thrive in what are tough economic times. I would like to stress that my only qualifications for this advice are a lifetime of varied, diverse and sometimes personally terrifyingly stressful employment. That and common sense, oh and elements that worked for me when I was a practicing Dispenser.

With the prevailing economic situation, particularly in Ireland, but indeed also in the rest of the world, businesses of all sizes are looking at strategies to maximise opportunities and decrease risk. It appears to be something that is prevalent within our industry as more and more businesses find themselves with decreasing returns on traditional marketing elements and the prevailing sense of downward pressures on margin and therefore profitability.

While it certainly seems that return on investment on traditional marketing appears to be almost nonexistent, more and more of the people I speak to on a daily basis feel that they have to invest in these strategies for want of anything else to do. Although traditional marketing is still valid I feel that a key area that has been ignored is customer retention and referral. One of the key buzz phrases that are in ascendance at present in our industry is Patient Retention.

It seems strange to me that this concept almost seems to have come out of the blue for some people in our industry; customer retention is probably the central tenet of every industry in the world but appears to be new to us? What is Patient Retention and indeed how best can we achieve it? Patient Retention is simply the concept that your Patient is so ecstatically happy they will never go anywhere else.

How do we achieve this, the holiest of grails, in our practices as we move forward? Patient Retention is a long term goal, something that will really begin to affect your bottom line in the future, or is it? The efforts that you put into ongoing Patient Retention can immediately affect your bottom line through customer referral. In order to achieve Patient Retention and customer referral, you need to put comprehensive and all encompassing strategies in place that makes your Patient ecstatic about you and your practice.

In order for customer referral to happen, you need to make your Patients evangelists for your brand, happy customers are just not enough. A happy customer may tell a few people how good you are, but evangelists will become active advocates for your business, publicising your brand far and wide. Word of mouth sales are indeed the best sales, because most of the impediments that traditionally exist to a sale have been removed prior to your consultation. The strategies that you put in place to bolster your Patient Retention are also designed to increase customer satisfaction and will lead to evangelist customers. A more common term for these Patients is Relationship customers.

Most Patients have no brand awareness when it comes to hearing instruments, their loyalty or otherwise is based on the perceptions of your practice and their perceived treatment at your hands. This is of course with the exception of once you go Widex, you never go back! Shameless plug alert, I am sorry, I just can’t help myself. So what you need to do is to take every opportunity and make opportunities to shape their perception of your brand, the brand of you and your practice. While some patients leave a practice because they move away or indeed die, the majority of them leave because of a perceived attitude of indifference.

Feeling ignored when entering the office, being rushed through an appointment, leaving without having questions answered, or not having a problem solved in a timely manner may be sufficient to cause a patient to search for a new practice. Since the routes traditionally used appear to have become ineffectual and the cost incurred of acquiring a new patient has correspondingly exponentially increased. It would appear that the retaining of a current patient is critical to the profitability of a practice. It has become critical to maintain a relationship with a Patient for as long as is possible and to design strategies to service this need.

Developing a relationship with a patient may be the best way to maximize not only patient retention, but furthermore, patient satisfaction and patient satisfaction is the route to evangelism. There is some evidence that an overwhelming majority of consumers, make important purchasing decisions based upon relationships, and we have no reason to believe that our industry is any different. Relationship buyers are customers who like your products and services. They build a relationship with your employees and they think of your company as the primary supplier of their needs within your category.

They do not want to be bothered to have to shop around every time they make a new purchase. They look for quality, good service, helpfulness, friendship and information. If you supply these things, they will stick with you. Every element of your practice has a direct effect on the perception of your Patient/Customer. From your shop front and display, waiting area, receptionist, consultation room, consultation manner, presentation skills, after sales service, communication style and so on and so on. The fact that there is so much for you to think about and possibly change should not deter you from doing it with gusto. In this article I would like to discuss the Patient journey and how within this journey you can best effect your Patients perception of you and your brand. The rest of the articles will address the other areas of your practice.

Our Patients/Customers have become ever more sophisticated and most businesses should adapt their planned Patient engagement and service scheduling to reflect that. The general model for Patient engagement I suggest to increase Patient engagement would be:

  • Test and sale
  • Fitting
  • Rehab visit/Fine tuning Visit at one month
  • Possible further Rehab/Fine tuning Visit
  • Service Call at six months to continue at six month intervals.

This journey is designed to maximize Patient engagement with you and your practice which gives you maximum opportunity to shape and enforce a Patient’s perception of you and your practice. This journey also allows for several communications a year with your Patient, structured mailings that don’t feel like junk mail. I believe that less is better with direct marketing, I have watched for years the some elements of our industry bombard their Patient database with mailings about new products etc with dismay.

The introduction of the Patient Journey to your practice allows you to mail your Patient on a regular basis with communications that are perceived to have real value for them. It also allows you to maintain your Patient engagement and keeps you in their minds. The structure of the Patient Journey also allows you to introduce the subject of new technology at a seemingly apt time.

You will mail your Patients every six months to return to your office for service, you can also mail them perhaps twice  yearly campaign offers on ancillary products such as buy two packs of batteries get one free, or buy re-fill drying capsules get cleaning tablets free. It is important that the mailings are structured and well thought out; they must also be pertinent to the Patient. Don’t forget a Christmas card, get them printed, take the time to personalize them, have yourself and your staff sign them and send them out.

If your Patient is returning to you every six months, you do not need to send them offers on new technology, you can tell them about it, show it to them in person. If done properly and at the right time it will not appear to be a sales push, it will merely be more of your famed education and good advice.

What briefly follows is the structure of the service calls that I adopted

Service Call 1: Review Patient’s experience, clean aid, clean mould if necessary, change wax cap if necessary, change tubing if necessary, fine tune aid if necessary, ask about need for ancillary products. Time scheduled 15 to 30 minutes.

Service Call 2: Review Patient’s experience, hearing scan test, clean aid, clean mould if necessary, change wax cap if necessary, change tubing if necessary, fine tune aid if necessary, ask about need for ancillary products. Time scheduled 30 to 40 minutes.

Service Call 3: Review Patient’s experience, clean aid, clean mould if necessary, change wax cap if necessary, change tubing if necessary, fine tune aid if necessary, ask about need for ancillary products. Time scheduled 15 to 30 minutes.

Service Call 4: Review Patient’s experience, hearing scan test, clean aid, clean mould if necessary, change wax cap if necessary, change tubing if necessary, fine tune aid if necessary, ask about need for ancillary products. Time scheduled 30 to 40 minutes.

Service Call 5: Review Patient’s experience, Clean aid, clean mould if necessary, change wax cap if necessary, change tubing if necessary, fine tune aid if necessary, ask about need for ancillary products, talk briefly about new technology & current offers. Time scheduled 15 to 30 minutes.

Service Call 6: Review Patient’s experience, hearing scan test, clean aid, clean mould if necessary, change wax cap if necessary, change tubing if necessary, fine tune aid if necessary, ask about need for ancillary products. Openly discuss changing to a new product and assess readiness. Time scheduled 30 to 40 minutes.

Service Call 7: Review Patient’s experience, Clean aid, clean mould if necessary, change wax cap if necessary, change tubing if necessary, fine tune aid if necessary, ask about need for ancillary products, talk briefly about new technology & current offers. Time scheduled 15 to 30 minutes.

Service Call 8: Review Patient’s experience, hearing scan test, clean aid, clean mould if necessary, change wax cap if necessary, change tubing if necessary, fine tune aid if necessary, ask about need for ancillary products. Advise changing to a new product and assess readiness. Time scheduled 30 to 40 minutes.

This schedule allowed me to meet my patients on occasions where I was calling them for an appointment, not them chasing me. It increased my engagement with them and allowed me to build a real and strong relationship with them. Whilst this patient journey is a major element of the strategy for engagement, it only facilitates the other strategies and procedures that you put in place. You need to put a clear and stringent communication policy in place in your practice that everyone is aware of and adheres to. The policy should cover everything from how you expect patients to be greeted on the phone and indeed in person to communications structure, who, when, why.

When is a mail sent, two weeks before a service call? Who does a follow up telephone call to verify the appointment? When a telephone query is made, who actions it, what answers are given etc. Exactly how long is too long for the return of a phone call? The key to success with communications strategy and relationship building is a well designed and well maintained CRM. A CRM is only as good as the people who enter and read the information on it. I kept a simple word file on every Patient with details, name of children, comments made at appointment, membership of groups, interests etc. This allowed me to review these notes before every consultation to refresh my memory with these details.

The perception that you and your staff remember the minutia of a patient’s life is what builds relationships. How is so and so? Did so and so get that job? Did your Grandchild so and so get over the measles? I remember you love the Opera, did you hear such and such is coming to town? These comments are the foundations of a relationship; they show that you have a real interest in your patient and their lives. Train everybody in your practice including receptionists to prepare their own notes that allow them to maximize their engagements with every patient.

There are plenty of commercial CRMs available relatively cheaply now, particularly cloud hosted ones that allow everybody within your organization to access centralized data that allows you to remain current on your customers, the activities pertaining to them that have occurred and notes pertaining to them. Get one and use it religiously, but put a clear policy in place that every person in your organization follows. That is the only way that it will maintain its usefulness and maximize its full potential for your business.

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About Geoffrey Cooling

my name is Geoffrey Cooling and I am the author here at Just Audiology Stuff. I have been involved in the Hearing Healthcare Profession for several years now. I initially worked as a Hearing Healthcare Professional for a large national retailer in Ireland.

After several years in Practice I was approached to work for a manufacturer, where I was employed for five years. I am now the Co Founder of a business called Audiology Engine. We design websites, undertake content marketing and generally look after everything digital for audiological practices. I am also a contributor to many hearing profession periodicals and websites.

I have written two commercially available books, The Little Book of Hearing Aids which is written for hearing aid consumers and Audiology Marketing in a Digital World which is written for Audiology Practice Owners. They are both available in Paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon. I also write for consumers on the website Hearing Aid Know, which is a website with the mission of demystifying hearing aids, their types and their technology.

I have a great interest in commercial strategy as it applies to Healthcare in general and specifically to Hearing Healthcare. I also have a great interest in the psychology of sales and human interaction. I have been involved with social media for some time, both personally and professionally. I find the engagement and discourse on some social media channels fascinating.

I instituted social media strategy for the company I worked for as an experiment. That experiment soon spread throughout the company and I am proud to say that the company is probably one of the most active in the industry. I would like to point out that all views, opinions and thoughts here are mine own. Unless of course they have been planted by the pod people, you just can’t take your eyes off the pod people. Those views do not necessarily reflect upon any views or opinions held by my employer, if I ever get another one.

I think that our industry is in the middle of a time of huge change, I think that the change will be forced by both internal and external pressure. I think that private Independent Healthcare Practices will have to be smart and lithe of feet in order to meet these changes. I hope that some of my blatherings are of benefit to those Practices, Independent Hearing Healthcare Practices need to survive. I believe that if that occurs it will be of real benefit to Patients.

I hope that I, and my writings will play a small part in their continued success.

Let me know what you think