What every provider needs to know about keeping and creating customers.
- By Joseph Duffy
- Mar 13, 2012
In football, when plays are failing and a team is losing yards instead of gaining ground, savvy leaders might call a time-out to try to rest the players, regroup and create a momentum shift.
Too bad today’s business leaders don’t have that luxury. No time-out is going to curb the cuts, caps and competitive bidding that test the survivability of HME providers. Business teams’ version of a time-out has become departmental cuts and variations of downsizing — attempts to slow the losses and keep hold of some market share.
HME providers may not have time-outs but they certainly have the ability to call a huddle and explore different ways of keeping and creating customers. In fact, those who aren’t doing this may not be around for the two-minute warning. Football coaches call this changing up the play; savvy business leaders call this marketing.
“Providers are scrambling to figure out what they want to look like in the near future,” says Miriam Lieber, President of Lieber Consulting, an operations management and training company. “Knowing that they are being crippled by the current audit frenzy and anticipated Medicare cuts via competitive bidding, HME providers are furiously looking for their next strategic move or direction. They are exposing themselves to new product and diversification opportunities. I notice even where it is unorthodox, HME providers are opening retail showrooms and other ways to drive additional revenue.”
So as the game changes, so should HME providers. And the best way to continue keeping and creating new customers is by
embracing your marketing as the mastery behind building a road map to achieve your goals.
HME Business magazine interviewed some of the brightest marketers in the industry, who share strategies and tools that can help your company thrive in troubled times.
It all starts with a plan
It’s fundamental, but well worth conveying: If it’s not on paper, it doesn’t exist — and the experts we talked to agree: Marketing begins with ink on paper.
“A fundamental plan is essential and it should start on paper,” says Greg Verlander, CEO of TenderCare Beds, a manufacturer of headboard, footboards and other bedroom furniture that give hospital beds an in-home look. “Brainstorm with your team for ideas on who your customer is and what is the best way to reach them. No idea is too crazy and thinking outside of the box of traditional marketing is encouraged. Come up with a plan and continually tweak the plan.
“Marketing takes time and companies have to think of creative ways to keep their name in front of customers,” he continues. “Many companies tell me, ‘Well, I sent a postcard out once but didn’t get a response so we stopped.’ That plan is sure to fail. It takes a constant, staged combination of a variety of mediums to run a successful marketing campaign.”
On your plan must be specific goals and objectives in order to track your campaign’s effectiveness, says Bernie Allen, general manager, media marketing for Pride Mobility. Solid metrics are the only means of determining ROI, which is critical in a challenging environment. Results tracking allows you to refine your programs with maximum efficiency.
“We find most providers understand marketing is essential to their success and that it is important to have a plan in place to make the most of their efforts,” Allen says. “The most successful providers are those who continue to smartly expand their marketing despite the challenging economical climate. They can find themselves at a great advantage as their competitors cut back or discontinue their marketing efforts. In essence, less will actually get them far more.”
Patient marketing: A sea change for HME Providers
As reimbursement dollars dwindle, direct sales to patients become increasingly more important for HME providers’ survival.
“The landscape has changed and so has the HME Provider,” says Ty Bello, president and founder of sales consultants Team@Work. “We must move with the times with new products and services and, yes, the new consumer. Consumers are more educated and have a greater sense of advocacy for their care. The HME provider must reach consumers.
“The marketing plan is the foundation to all good sales,” he adds. “And it has changed for the HME provider and now not only focuses on the medical community but also on the consumer.”
Manufacturers and providers must realize the importance of good patient marketing, says Desiree Trimble, director of VGM Creative, a graphic design and advertising agency that specializes in the HME industry. She points out that recent trends suggest manufacturer and provider marketing is focused on the end user.
“Marketing messages seem to focus on the ‘caring’ aspect,” she explains. “Both manufacturer and providers are focusing on taking care of patients and patients’ well-being. Quality products and quality service have also become important when marketing to patients and caregivers. This may be related to the threat of competitive bidding taking away patient choice and access to quality HME equipment.”
Another element to consider when marketing to patients, Trimble says, is that customers are and will continue to determine value. Recent trends show customers are in penny-pinching mode. They do not buy things because they are on sale. They buy things because they see value. Due to economic conditions, consumers want to spend wisely. If you don’t promote quality products and services, consumers won’t buy from you. Customers want to know you care. They want value. Marketing value and showing you care for patients create a relationship. When customers have a relationship with you, it brings loyalty and sales.
“The easiest product to market to patients changes over time,” she says. “Currently retail items and equipment to help seniors stay in their home as opposed to entering an assisted living facility are the easiest to market. Both are very popular product categories. More and more providers are focusing their marketing efforts on these two areas, which have allowed them to increase their cash sales. These products can be marketed to baby boomers and caregivers and both are growing market segments.”
Bethany Nock, marketing manager at Invacare Corporation, says providers are executing a variety of marketing initiatives to target patients specifically. These strategies include television or radio spots, sponsoring local events such as 5K walks or advertising in patient-read publications, including church bulletins, local newspapers, and senior centers.
Verlander says that TenderCare Beds has been successful using a mix of print ads, television, radio, direct mail and the Internet to reach patients. He says all good marketing plans will include a media mix.
“As the health environment changes, providers have increased responsibility to market to and educate patients,” Nock says. “Today’s population has more access to information than ever before. Over time, this will change the ‘buying’ process. Ensuring that patients are aware of their options and select the right provider to meet their needs will help all parties to be successful. Providers are spending time building relationships with referral sources but should always remember the end-user in all of their marketing initiatives.”
Why branding is more important than ever
With patient marketing comes branding, an extremely important part of marketing. Not only branding what a product means to a consumer, but what your company means as well.
“Brand recognition is one of the newest areas that HME providers are increasingly concerned about,” says Bello. “Concerned because we have not had to worry about this for the past two to three decades. Our models have always focused on the referral source, and now a new dynamic of not just the referral source but also the consumer has made brand recognition very increasingly important.”
“For most HME businesses, the decision about branding comes down to whom to focus the brand upon,” says Paul DiMarco, vice president of marketing, VGM Group. “If the majority of business activity comes from referral sources, then it makes sense to direct messaging and branding toward that group — more of a B2B approach. On the flip side, if a good portion of the business is consumer-based, marketing and branding will take on a different modality. In today’s world, where HMEs are looking for ways to diversify, a combination of both approaches needs to be present.”
For Joe Petrolla, President of Seeley Medical, branding is a way of life at his company, even though he doesn’t have a traditional marketing department. If you are unsure of what branding is or how to get started, read the sidebar, “What Branding Means to Seeley Medical.”
“Both messaging and branding should be specific or targeted to the identified audience,” Nock advises. “It should be repeatable and consistent across media platforms. It is often said that a person must see a brand or message at least seven times before committing it to memory. Strategic placement of the message or brand helps ensure that the right audience sees it the most times.”
Partnership marketing: You are not alone
Manufacturers and membership groups make excellent marketing partners, offering tools and consultation to help the smallest companies market like the Fortune 500.
Invacare, a manufacturer of HME products, offers a variety of marketing collateral to customers, including catalogs, sell sheets, brochures, posters, point of purchase materials, DVDs, television spots, customizable literature and more. Marketing materials are not only focused on product but also on education and clinical outcomes.
“Invacare typically offers education for products or services by request,” Nock says. “However, with more than 20 educators, Invacare presents numerous seminars throughout the year and across the country that focus on product certification, technical education, non-delivery business planning and clinical education.”
Many of Invacare’s marketing materials are free and available at www.invacare.com/homecare. Educational seminars and webinars vary by fee and can be found at www.invacare.com/education.
“Invacare has worked with providers on a variety of marketing requests, and if they are successful, so is Invacare,” Nock says. “Working together can include brainstorming ideas to increase cash sales or formatting videos to download on sales rep iPads. Should a provider have a unique request, we work together to find a solution and meet the need. Often times, great ideas are developed that can be used to create a new addition to the Marketing Resource Center so that other providers can benefit.”
Pride Mobility, a manufacturer of mobility products, offers Provider Marketing Support Services (prideprovider.com), a marketing services component that operates like an ad agency and provides print, broadcast, internet, collateral, and industry trade show support for its
“Collectively these initiatives are designed to help educate the provider on the attributes of each product, as well as support their individual marketing objectives,” says Debbie Boedeker, director of corporate sales. “And, as a result of these marketing initiatives, our providers are able to deliver a clear, consistent advertising message to their potential and repeat customers. We also provide sales, marketing, and branding webinars for our providers, as well as educational presentations at industry tradeshows, such as Medtrade.”
Depending on the type of service, there can be minimal costs. A marketing consultation for Pride providers is free, and Pride will try to work within the provider’s budget. Pride also offers custom marketing assistance, including Web development (site program, page generator, images, etc.), television commercials, ad design (newspaper, yellow pages, etc.), logo design, postcard/mailer design, hangtags, product brochures, custom literature, and public relations assistance.
Member service organization VGM Group offers marketing-related services to the HME industry. Several divisions of VGM provide marketing, including The VGM Group, VGM Education, VGM Technologies Off-the- Shelf, VGM Creative, Strategic Imaging, 1111 Specialties and VGM Forbin.
“HME providers who are VGM members work with the divisions mentioned above to market their businesses,” says Trimble. “VGM Technologies’ suite of off-the-shelf marketing products includes preprinted and predesigned marketing pieces such as catalogs, brochures, calendars, fliers and postcards. VGM Creative focuses on custom-designed printed materials. The in-house design group assists members with branding, identity solutions, direct mail and custom-designed collateral materials.”
Other marketing-enhancing services offered by VGM include print solutions; digital print technology, which encompasses the highest quality color imaging, variable data and print-on-demand; specialty advertising items that can be customized with provider logos; Web design and hosting; web marketing solutions; and search engine optimization.”
Marketing activities with manufacturers and providers take place by phone, email and face-to-face in meetings and at trade shows.
“Finally, providers should remember that, at its simplest, marketing is about telling the story of who you are as a company,” says Anna McDevitt, President, Laboratory Marketing. “Patients are looking for providers they can trust so be sure to always be honest in marketing to them.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of HME Business.