In the summer of 1985, Coca-Cola executives were greeted by an unusual sight outside their office windows: protesters—lots of them.
The drink giant had just replaced its century-old recipe with a new formula, one that 200,000 taste testers had assured them was smoother and sweeter. But actual Coke consumers didn’t agree.
As soon as New Coke hit supermarket shelves, customers revolted. Within days, angry Coca-Cola fans had formed protest groups and arranged marches. Hundreds blockaded the soda giant’s headquarters, some holding signs bearing the slogan, “Our Children Will Never Know Refreshment.”
“I’m mad,” Gay Mullins, one of the protest organizers, told The Chicago Tribune. “This makes me angry. I’m angry, and I’m mad. I feel injured. Betrayed. Like a sacred trust has been violated… People are having anxiety headaches. They’ve been placed in a distressed state.”
After three months of intense pressure, Coca-Cola relented and announced they were bringing back their original recipe. Soda fans rejoiced.
That was in the 1980s. Back then, consumers were intensely loyal. They committed to months of protest just to get the product they wanted.
Now things are different. Consumers will jump from one brand to the next, attracted by better deals and improved service. Nowhere is this more true than healthcare, where more than 80% of patients are unsatisfied with their experience.
“Healthcare has become a market share game,” explained Joe Greskoviak, Chief Operating Officer of Press Ganey, in an interview for Patient Engagement HIT. “To really be able to survive and thrive in healthcare, you have to continue to grow your market share, and the best way to grow your market share is not to lose the market share that you have today.”
Yes, retention isn’t as sexy as marketing, but it’s so much more cost-effective. Attracting a brand new patient is five times more expensive than keeping one you already have. If a healthcare company can grow its retention rate by just 5%, that’s the same as boosting profits by up to 95%.
But how do you grow your practice’s retention rate? To sort the not-so-useful vanity tactics from the tried-and-tested strategies, we’ve profiled five successful healthcare businesses from around the world, analyzed what they’re doing, and borrowed the best bits to share with you:
- Push personalization in your marketing: Wake Forest Baptist Health
- Keep patients in the loop: VCU Health
- Make things fast and convenient: Practice Builders
- Match your communication to your audience: NHS Newham CCG
- Communicate, communicate, communicate: Vital Interaction
1. Push personalization in your marketing: Wake Forest Baptist Health
Patient retention starts long before someone steps foot in a facility. From the very first moment someone interacts with your practice, the experience needs to be personal—a relationship they won’t leave just because a competitor offers the same service for less.
In fact, McKinsey and Company found good personalization campaigns can boost your revenue and retention by 10 to 30%.
To see how this works, let’s look at Wake Forest Baptist Health, a fully integrated academic medical center. For years, the medical center relied on mass media advertising, blasting out a steady stream of adverts via TV, radio, and billboards.
While this approach worked back then, Vice President of Marketing Jeff House admitted it doesn’t make sense today. “We have had to move out of the mass media as the strongest way to reach folks just because their communication habits and behaviors have completely changed over the past couple of years,” he told Patient Engagement HIT.
Faced with wavering marketing performance, House began testing new digital marketing channels such as pay-per-click and Facebook advertising—and the results were incredible.
For Wake Forest Baptist Health, implementing a personalized marketing strategy made its patients feel like the center was speaking directly to them, rather than to a crowd, and that helped build a relationship. “Customer relationship management is not about what we want to tell them,” House said. “It’s about what they want to hear.”
How you can do this:
Personalization starts with the simple things: addressing patients by their name in letters and emails, proactively advising on what treatments are right for them, sending patients content tailored to their healthcare needs, and so on. Once you’ve nailed the simple stuff, there’s a whole world of possibilities to explore.
For example, you could run a remarketing campaign that shows advertisements only to those who have already visited your site. You could add patients to specific mailing lists, based on their demographic or treatment history. Or you could invest in a website that delivers personalized content categorized by age, gender, and medical history.
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2. Keep patients in the loop: VCU Health
Imagine for a moment that you want to check on the state of your finances. What would you do? You’d probably log on to your online banking platform, your 401(k) account, or your credit report, right? All that takes is a couple of clicks, and your entire financial landscape is laid out before you.
Now, ask yourself what you would do to check your health.
You might call your doctor’s office and ask for your records or wait until your next dental appointment and ask your dentist in person. Whatever you do, it’s significantly harder than checking on your finances—and that’s really jarring for patients. They feel out of the loop, like a guest in a conversation about their own health. And that contributes to patients feeling pushed away.
But not all healthcare companies keep patient data behind lock and key. Some companies have granted their patients increased access to their own medical data—and the rewards are amazing.
Take VCU Health. A few years ago, the medical campus rolled out a patient portal that allowed patients to log in and check their medical reports online.
“We actually just put out a survey within our patient portal and we have nearly 1,500 responses, so I know what patients are thinking about the portal from their end, and they truly love it as a patient engagement tool,” Susan Wolver, an internist at VCU Health, told Patient Engagement HIT. “In fact, 80 percent of people said that it helps them take better care of themselves.”
While opening up data access created a bunch of new security issues, executives at VCU Health believed the rewards are worth it.
When medical market research firm athenaResearch investigated the impact of patient portals, they discovered Wolver was correct to believe there was a link between patient data access and retention.
“[Our] study found that after an initial visit to a primary care practice, 80 percent of patients with portal accounts returned for a second visit within 18 months,” wrote the authors. “In comparison, patients without portal accounts returned only 67 percent of the time.”
How you can do this:
Ideally, you roll out a patient portal that provides on-demand access to patient information. With a good portal, your patients can log on and instantly view their treatment history, scheduled appointments, and even their consultation notes.
But these systems can be expensive and difficult to install. To get things moving now, you can start by telling your patients how they can request their own medical history and information.
3. Make things fast and convenient: Practice Builders
The customer experience landscape is shifting—and has been the case for quite some time.
Today’s patients expect a very different service from their healthcare provider than they did just 10 years ago.
“There’s this new generation of ‘need it now’ consumerism that now also applies to a physician’s practice,” Nina Grant, Vice President of Business Development at Practice Builders, a healthcare marketing agency, told The Script. “So there’s a high risk of that consumer going somewhere else if an interaction is anything but stellar.”
And what contributes to a positive customer experience? Speed and convenience.
Grant’s advice? Lean into these expectations. If your patients expect to be able to FaceTime their doctor or book appointments via an SMS text message, look at how you can implement those tools. If you don’t, your customers will endure rather than enjoy interacting with you—and it may even cause your retention to plummet.
Yes, it’s a fair amount of work upfront, but these strategies will pay off down the line.
For example, if you let people book or change appointments via SMS, suddenly your receptionist isn’t tied up on the phone all day. Alternatively, if you roll out telehealth services—for example, doing consultations via FaceTime—you’ll cut down on your overhead and reach more patients.
All the while, your patients are receiving the service they want, when they want it. And that’s making them far more likely to stick around.
How you can do this:
To make your communication quick and convenient, you need two things: robust tech and employee buy in.
Without a solid tech platform, your employees will have to manage multiple streams of communication (like Twitter, email, and VoIP services) as they attempt to manually monitor messages and respond as quickly as they can. That’s a recipe for burnout. What you need is a platform that pulls everything into one place, allowing you to read, respond, and manage your communications from a central location. But tech alone won’t cut it.
Once you have a good foundation, it’s about cultivating an employee mentality and company culture that drives fast response times. Clearly communicate what you expect from your employees (a response in however many minutes, hours, or days) and set up tracking to see if they’re hitting that figure.
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4. Match your communication to your audience: NHS Newham CCG
There are more than 400 languages spoken in America. While English remains the most common one, there are huge communities that speak Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, and Vietnamese.
“If you want to be customer-centric, you have to localize,” Li Run, Senior Brand Director at TCL, told Prophet. He went on to explain that organizations must understand consumer needs and communicate their products and services in a way their local market can understand. By doing so, businesses can get “beyond acceptance and towards being loved by local consumers.”
While it may be difficult to train healthcare professionals in a dozen different languages, it’s pretty simple to have signs, brochures, and other messages printed in English and other languages.
In the UK, one healthcare body experimented not just with different languages but also provisions for deaf patients.
“We’re responsible for the healthcare in one of the UK’s most diverse boroughs, so the ability to digitally publish our translated healthcare messages has helped us ensure we’re connecting with the whole community,” said Chris Riley, IT Project Manager for NHS Newham CCG. “Likewise, digital displays have proved invaluable in providing deaf patients in our community with accessible healthcare messages.”
Ensuring your patients can independently understand your business and services is hugely important—and profitable. More than half of non-English speakers say they would pay more to have information in their own language.
How you can do this:
Good communication starts with market research. Get into your community and meet the people you’re treating. Find out what languages they use, what communication channels they prefer, and what they like to hear about.
When you know who your customers are, you can appoint a translation or localization company to overhaul your communications. It’s okay to start small—supplementary signage, brochures, or marketing material—to see if it has an effect. If your customers love it, double down.
5. Communicate, communicate, communicate: Vital Interaction
For the vast majority of the year, patients hear very little from their providers. Maybe a stray email here, an irregular mailer there. Mostly, it’s a total silence. That’s not ideal.
According to Lawson Boothe, Chief Operating Officer of Vital Interaction, a medical tech company, healthcare providers need to maximize communication wherever they can.
Start with something specific to your service. For example, two weeks before a patient is due to come in, shoot them an email or text message. Include some details about the procedure and contact information that they can use to amend their appointment and ask questions.
If you can automate this, all the better—it’ll eliminate hours of administrative work and make sure that every single message gets sent. Repeat the reminder a few days before the patient’s appointment, too. This lets them know you’re preparing for them and keeps the appointment top of their mind, reducing the risk of a no-show.
After you’ve developed your service communications, think about other opportunities for getting in contact. “Send out a birthday card or note,” suggested Boothe. “This is an easy way to show patients you care about them.” Alternatively, write a practice newsletter, distribute health advice, or announce new services.
Whatever you do, keep talking and don’t lapse into an awkward silence. Because when your patients don’t hear from you, they aren’t thinking about you—and that’s when your competitors can slide in and tempt them away.
How you can do this:
As we mentioned above, you can start small with simple appointment reminders, procedure explainers, and new communication channels. When things start to pick up and it becomes difficult to manage all of your communications, you can roll out a platform like RingCentral.
Platforms like ours allow you to pull all messages into one easy to use dashboard, which makes managing communications much easier.
Make new friends, but keep the old
When you’re running a healthcare practice, it can be tempting to focus on new patients. New patients mean your business is growing—and growth is good, right?
Except that’s not necessarily true. If you neglect your current patients, you risk letting your retention fall off a cliff, and no amount of marketing will bring it back.
Sometimes, growing as a business means securing what you already have. Ever heard that old Girl Scout chant: “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other is gold”? It applies here. So focus on what you already have, and build a practice that’s ready for sustained, long-term success.