Marketing to Referral Sources: Strategies That Work
September 2002 Issue
In the "good old days," there were just a few O&P providers in each market. One simply had to hang a shingle on the wall, and patients would come. Today, however, O&P providers are discovering that they must work harder simply to keep their heads above water and maintain their current revenues. The competitive nature of O&P business is changing.
As the industry evolves, more entrepreneurial and dynamic practitioners are branching out on their own and opening facilities. Quite simply, new and more aggressive practitioners are entering into the O&P arena, and they are vying for your customers. If you sit back, hoping your reputation will carry you rather than instituting change, you could find yourself in for a rude awakening.
Marketing may be your answer. A practitioner must find a way to make his presence known to referral sources, or business will deteriorate.
Are You Doing 'Same Old, Same Old'?
In today's environment, physicians and hospitals quickly become confused when inundated with sales calls from several different companies. A provider absolutely must find a way to differentiate himself from the competition. Most sales calls and marketing brochures offer nothing new to the customer. You are likely giving your customers the same sales pitch as your competitors if you find yourself repeating these statements to your referral sources:
1. Our practitioners are accredited by (ABC/BOC) and therefore a step above (ABC/BOC) accredited practitioners.
While many in the industry perceive certification by one accrediting body as more valuable than that of another, often the customers do not differentiate between the two. Obviously a practitioner can help educate customers to understand the difference, but quite frankly, physicians do not want to become involved in our profession's arguments. If this is the only reason you can give customers as to why they should use your facility instead of another, then you are not doing much to differentiate yourself from others in the industry.
2. We have the best practitioners.
Please remember that even the absolute worst practitioner in your market is going to profess his experience and expertise to the customer. These types of statements are self-serving and do not tend to impress customers.
3. We offer the finest-quality bracing in town.
This statement is also self-serving, plus it is difficult to prove.
4. We offer 24-hour service, seven days a week.
When was the last time you got out of bed at 2 AM to deliver a wrist splint, and who in his right mind would turn down a 2 AM call for a halo? The fact is that nearly everyone professes 24-hour service, seven days per week.
What Makes You Different?
Let's face it: the sales pitches described above are the ones most often mentioned in O&P sales calls. You must take the time to analyze your business and identify what makes you different. A practitioner should offer something to customers that they can sink their teeth into-that differentiates him/her from other providers-because everyone thinks their company gives the best service, has the best practitioners, and works harder than anyone else.
Here are just a few examples of what you can say that may work for you:
1. We make house calls.
"While most practitioners frown on making house calls, we would be happy to go to a patient's home for a brace.We realize that some patients are not ambulatory or may have difficulty coming to our location. As a matter of fact, it is not uncommon for us to be called onto a football field an hour before game time to install an extension stop on a functional knee brace."
2. We are preferred providers for more managed care plans than our competitors.
"We have identified the largest 30 plans for this area, and we are preferred providers for 24 of these 30 plans. Our largest competitor is a preferred provider for only 14 of these plans."
3. We have more locations than any other providers in our market.
"We have four convenient locations to serve you, each geographically located near a large medical complex."
4. We have more practitioners than any of our competitors.
"This enables us to accommodate your patient's needs with quicker and better service."
5. We have the largest fabrication staff of anyone in our market.
"This enables us to provide quicker service for your patients."
6. We offer the quickest turnaround time in the city.
"Our average turnaround for an AFO is two days compared to our competitor's seven to ten days."
7. Our growth substantiates our claims.
"We have grown from one facility to four facilities in the last four years, and this growth is proof positive that we are providing superior services. Otherwise, we would not be enjoying such growth at the expense of our competitors."
Who Should Do Your Marketing?
Most practitioners know all they should know about their profession, but are somewhat naive when it comes to marketing their services. Therefore, practitioners may be destined for failure in the marketing arena. In today's times, outsourcing has become the corporate "buzz word." Many companies prefer to focus on their area of expertise (providing O&P products) and outsource other services, such as marketing. Often when referrals decrease, O&P facilities recognize the need to hire marketing assistance. One of two scenarios typically ensues:
1. A business owner decides that he is going to market his services, and after a few weeks' worth of preparation (procrastination), the practitioner wipes the plaster off his shoes, dons a tie that has been hanging in his fabrication shop, and hits the streets. The practitioner soon finds that the lukewarm reception he gets from so-called friendly referral sources pales in comparison to the doors that are slammed in his face when he attempts to get past a receptionist at the next office. The sulking practitioner/sales rep then runs back to his office, promising to try again when he is not so busy.
2. A business owner realizes the need to hire a marketing representative, so he decides to bite the bullet and budget $3,000-4,000/month for a sales person. Upon placing an ad in the newspaper, he soon discovers that $3,000-4,000/month will enable him to hire only one of two types of people: a) the washed up has-been who works 20-30 hours a week and is faking his way through a sales career, or b) the entry-level sales person.
Typically, neither of these types succeeds at O&P marketing, and they may often be less productive than practitioners themselves. Both of these sales nightmares result from the same traits in the marketing representative:
1. They do not understand the O&P industry.
2. They are not trained in the idiosyncrasies of an O&P business.
3. They can answer very few questions about clinical problems or reimbursement issues.
4. Once again, they do nothing to differentiate their facility from any of the competitors.
The most effective way to market your services is to hire a sales professional. A good manager will not expect a practitioner to build a KAFO in the morning and then become a sales representative in the afternoon. Often what inhibits practitioners or management from hiring sales reps is the salary or commission requirements of qualified candidates.
Of course, not every O&P facility needs to hire marketing professionals. It is possible in many markets for practitioners to market their services themselves. If, however, you are planning on growing your practice and becoming a major provider in your market, then in most instances, hiring a seasoned sales professional will help you get there more quickly.
Really knowing what makes you different from your competitors-what you offer that they don't-and effectively getting this across to referral sources-will help make you the outstanding company in your marketing area.
Joe Sansone is CEO of TMC Orthopedic, Houston, Texas.