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Surviving in the 1990's through integrated marketing.

Change is the order of the day in the long-term care industry and operators can no longer depend upon past practice as a template for future success. Current and predicted industry trends are forcing all providers to seek ways to protect and expand their market share. The use and application of strategic marketing is one way an operator can plan for and meet the future with confidence, and translate challenges into market opportunities. By definition, strategic marketing is the process of developing a fit between an organization's goals and resources and changing market opportunities. It consists of the fundamental business planning tools of market research, a marketing plan and its implementation.

Market Research

One of the most overlooked factors impacting the continuum of care in long-term care is today's new consumer. The "target market" is being redefined and expanded beyond the homogeneous definition of all elderly who need nursing home care and who qualify for Medicare/Medicaid. Strategic marketing must be used to precisely identify a facility's future target market in order to answer key planning questions such as: supply and demand - what is the economic and demographic strength of the market; needs assessment - what is the market's need for nursing and medical care; and perceived value - what can the market afford and be willing to pay for services.

A vast amount of data and analytical techniques exist for use in market research. The proper use of this data has far-reaching implications in determining an operator's census potential (by payor source), optimum rate structures to penetrate and capture the market, levels of care to be provided (up to and including subacute), and additional services that can be offered in response to an identified but unmet need within the continuum of care. The use of market research in the strategic marketing process provides an organization with a solid foundation of information from which to develop informed and well-integrated marketing strategies.

The Marketing Plan and Program

For ease in implementation and the greatest likelihood of success, marketing strategies should comprise both external objectives - marketing - and internal objectives - operations. Marketing and operations should work in tandem, with marketing directing the flow of targeted consumers to the facility (revenue), while operations responds by providing care and service to the residents (expense). What traditionally have been viewed as two separate and distinct disciplines should in fact be regarded as conjoined efforts. both of which contribute equally to the success of the facility.

Since the relationship between operations and marketing can serve to impede or mediate the total performance of the program, it is essential that external marketing and internal operations programs are compatible and well integrated. For example, staff training is typically viewed as an operations function. However, when a facility is attempting to build or maintain a targeted census profile, it is important to consider a unique distinction of service marketing: services are produced and consumed simultaneously. In essence, the quality of the service provider and the service provided cannot be measured separately. Since the employees of a facility administer the services, they, not the author of the marketing plan or "the admissions department," are the individuals who assume the role, of marketing. Of greater importance is that each employee understands that he or she is an integral part of the marketing team, and one of those ultimately responsible for translating the marketing plan into a successful process.

In-service education programs need to be expanded to introduce employees to the role of marketing and to reinforce the vital role all staff play in creating and shaping the reputation of a facility. Continuing in-service education needs to be conducted in two areas: 1) customer service; and 2) sales.

The key to a facility's success lies in providing and demonstrating quality care and quality customer service. Developing a solid customer service training program begins with making customer service a part of everyone's job, and it begins at the top. Management must follow tenets of providing customer service and set a strong example for others to follow. This must be a continuing focus in strategic planning and in day-to-day operations. Employee job descriptions should include language on their role as customer service providers. Performance reviews should take into consideration their activities in this area as well. Orientation and in service training for new and tenured employees should be conducted quarterly to introduce and reinforce customer service principles. Training programs should address the changing and competitive long-term care market, who customers are, staff roles as customer service providers, specific protocol and procedures for customer service provision, and benefits derived from being a customer service provider.

Sales is defined as the process of leading an individual into making a decision. It is the most basic yet powerful form of marketing. However, most staff involved in the inquiry handling process or resident relations are never formally trained in the discipline of sales. Before an operator spends time and money on developing slick brochures, newspaper ads, or elaborate special events, priority attention and foundational training needs to be devoted to the sales effort. "Mystery shopping" the staff, by phone or on-site interview, is a good way to assess staff competency in inquiry handling. Formal sales training should then be conducted to orient staff on active listening skills; impart techniques for obtaining inquiry profiles; teach them to overcome objections and the claims of competitors; and ingrain proper touring, interviewing, and closing techniques. Conducting staff training in sales serves to ensure that the facility is positioned to capitalize and maximize upon current inquiry activity prior to spending additional monies to generate more inquiries.

Achieving and maintaining positive community exposure is best accomplished through grassroots networking. However, an operator must go beyond courting discharge planners and physicians, and actively network with groups such as bank trust officers, attorneys, accountants, and targeted civic groups. Community affairs programming should be expanded to include the development of a facility speakers bureau, protocol and procedures on group solicitation, and program handouts and presentation follow up. Many operators place themselves in a vulnerable position by continuing their dependence upon hospital discharge planners as their primary referral source. Hospitals are, and will continue to be, major and growing players in the provision of long-term care. An operator who limits his community courtship to the local hospitals is in essence courting a near-term competitor.

The most expensive, yet least effective, component of marketing is paid advertising. Examples of paid advertising include information brochures and admission packets, newspaper ads, and facility newsletters. To the detriment of the marketing communication process, there is often a disparity between the, methods by which a facility's qualities are communicated, and the actual quality of the facility's services. For example, numerous faded, reproduced copies of poorly written admission forms do not communicate an environment of quality or accessible, personalized care. Expensive newspaper ads and slick four-color brochures which tout the qualities of a facility do not compensate for poor customer service.

When considering the use of paid advertising, it is important to remember the primary purpose that paid advertising serves in the marketing process - to remove the barrier of ignorance concerning the presence and availability of a facility's services. Advertising alone cannot improve census; it only increases inquiry activity. Too often, operators use expensive yellow page and newspaper ads prior to implementing the lower-cost but foundational aspects of marketing, such as solid customer service, sales, and community outreach. As a result, inquiries are generated, but opportunities for census development are missed.

Also, properly interpreting media buys is a highly technical area of marketing. Media have to be selected not only based upon the size and cost, but more specifically on their ability to generate a certain profile (such as age, income qualifications, and medical needs). If marketing objectives dictate the use of extensive paid advertising, a marketing firm should be consulted for both production and purchase of media.

Of importance to the ongoing success of marketing objectives is program evaluation and follow-up. Often referred to as the marketing information system (MKIS), it is the cataloging of inquiry data to enable the facility to garner pertinent information concerning the performance of the marketing and sales efforts, as well as develop insights about the market. Data should be compiled from four areas: demographic data and psychographic data on the inquirer, and marketing and sales information on the performance of the program and the staff's ability to translate inquiries into admissions. For example, data such as how the inquirer heard about the facility (lead source), their location at the time of admission (residence versus hospital), the reason why your facility was selected (or not selected), and the method of payment (private-pay versus Medicaid), is used to make informed decisions about the past performance of the marketing program, and to indicate what role the various marketing components should play in future planning. All facilities must develop information performance. Without the assimilation and analysis of market data, the operator is merely guessing about the causes of marketing program outcomes.

The 1990's began with a call to action for more solutions and strategies necessary for the survival and growth of our industry over the next decade. In recent years, marketing has assumed the responsibility for solving the complex issues impacting out industry. The challenge today is not whether to engage in marketing and strategic planning. The issue is whether we do it well and comprehensively.

Phyllis M. Thornton is President of Signum Marketing Services (502-589-0325) and a principal of Ethos, Inc. Louisville, Kentucky firms which specialize in providing marketing services to operators involved in all aspects of the long-term care continuum.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Medquest Communications, LLC
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:health care industry
Author:Thornton, Phyllis M.
Publication:Nursing Homes
Date:Apr 1, 1994
Words:1598
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