How to Bring the Service to the Customer in a Niche Market
Start with leveraging a comfortable environment, convenient schedule, and optimal technological repertoire.
By Eric Lehman, PT, DPT, and Matt DeBole, PT, DPT
As a current practice owner, practice manager, or aspiring entrepreneur, spending time considering how to deliver quality care to a niche market can be very time consuming, not to mention how daunting it can be to keep up with the latest business trends. But the good news is that pivoting a few aspects of your business model to begin seeing a select population might not be as hard as it seems… and is certainly not out of reach. We have developed a checklist of critical things that will take your business, whether it’s currently a side hustle or a general population clinic, into a fully scalable “specialty” practice.
So grab your business plan, have your mission statement handy, and let’s dive into finding a solution to helping you bring that extra bit of service directly to the patients in your community.
1. Start by defining your target market.
This is number one for a reason. In order to attract the people for your niche, you have to know what this person looks like. Who’s your ideal patient? This “avatar,” as most people call it, should give you the best representation of the person you would prefer to treat in your clinic. Demographics (age, anthropomorphic measures, gender, etc.), likes/dislikes, work ethic, and family life, time available for exercise, etc., should all be in this description. The more specific you are, the better off you’ll be! Trust us; this is important for any physical therapy (PT) clinic but critical in a niche market.
2. If you can’t walk the walk, you better talk the talk.
This is probably common sense for most, but once you have defined your target population, it is important to know how to converse with your patient. While you might not be able to place yourself inside of your target population (e.g., being a runner yourself if you treat runners), it will be important to know their lingo in order to appropriately treat them. For instance, understanding that running 80 miles per week is common practice, knowing why getting a “BQ” (Boston Qualifying) time is important, or recognizing the difference between running a repetition, interval, or fartlek workout goes a long way to building rapport and trust. Maybe they are an avid CrossFitter? Knowing that thrusters, jerks, and push-presses involve a narrow grip compared to a snatch grip, which is wider, may be the key to determining their pain-generators. Are you treating mostly stay-at-home moms or are they more like the weekend warrior bunch? Being able to ask the right questions to this population is important but being able to confidently put yourself in their shoes or intertwine their jargon into physical therapy practice will give you the “street cred” that helps you build rapport with your patients. This simple and commonly overlooked step will amplify your chances of converting that “discovery visit” into a fully scheduled plan of care.
3. Get on their turf.
When just starting out or during those dreaded lull months, renting clinic space can be a killer to your bottom line. Especially early on, high overhead and the thought of adding in more crippling debt is no doubt a huge deterrence to even starting a company. The good news is that while traditional stand-alone physical therapy clinics are still the standard, mobile or “concierge” physical therapy clinics are becoming a great way to immerse yourself into your patients’ world and save you a ton of money. Seek alternative ways to limit the chokehold that is signing a monthly, or yearly, lease. Get creative: Hold therapy visits at a CrossFit gym, at the nearby high school or college track, or at the neighborhood swimming pool. That’s what we did! Make a deal with your local golf driving range, fitness center, or gynecologist (shout out to you #pelvicmafia!)to rent out clinic space on an as needed basis. Obviously, for this to work you will need to keep your state’s practice act in mind, but with a solid business proposition and a little creativity, there’s no limits to where you can extend your services.
4. Be flexible.
There’s no two ways around this one: to be successful, make time to have a flexible schedule that fits your patients’ needs. By showing your patient that you are available when they are, you set yourself apart from a local physical therapy clinic that might not have the openings for a new evaluation or may only have one or two open slots available but at the wrong or most inconvenient times. Granted, being able to adapt to your client’s schedule might be a gift or a curse. If you are starting out as a side hustle, seeing people before they go to work, after they come home from work, or even on weekends will tire you out. But once you realize you’re spending all of your free time working with your niche clients, not only will it feel less like work, but before you know it, it will be time to crunch the numbers and think about making your dreams a reality and treating your caseload full time.
5. Don’t neglect social media and SEO.
n this day and age, growing a fanbase or reputation on social media is a must right now, and there are very few entrepreneurs or successful private practice owners who will tell you any different. We are currently living in the golden age of search engine optimization (SEO) and social media and you’d be unwise if you didn’t use it to your advantage. You’ll also be fooling yourself if you think your competition isn’t on social media either.
I bet when you have a question, need a quick answer, or aren’t sure about something, the first thing you do is search it on the internet? No wonder “Google it” became a verb. Or put it this way, how much time do you or your family members spend each day of the week on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or LinkedIn? I bet when you add it all up, the actual number would surprise you. Trust us when we say that your ideal patients are doing the exact same thing. So when your ideal patient three streets over from you Googles “CrossFit injury” or “knee pain during half marathon,” wouldn’t it be great if your blog or your clinic’s name was the one that popped up first? By setting up these systems ahead of time, you’ll be able to spend more time treating your patients and less time in the doctor’s office, buying lunches for referrals. There are plenty of resources out there for improving your social media or SEO skills. Email us if you’d like to find out more about them.
6. Utilize the latest technology.
Sure, we as physical therapists are trained to stretch, strengthen, and mobilize any area of the body with little to no resources. That’s what we are good at. But how is that going to compete with the “PT mill” down the street that is promoting the latest gadget and gizmo, or marketing their state-of-the-art, hydraulic-powered machine that you can’t afford? Out of all things on this list, having the latest technology isn’t a must. But this is something that can set you apart from the other clinics in your community. Because what other clinic will take the time to offer a disc golf player a full swing analysis at the nearby park, offering them advice on why their elbow pain continues to recur? Using slow-motion capture during Olympic lifts, at the driving range, or during softball batting practice can be a cheap and easy way to demonstrate to the patient how your expertise fits directly into their problem. While your expertise keeps them coming back, the technology is what got them through the door. Do you have a runner who doesn’t get symptoms on the treadmill? Use a drone to follow them and video capture their running mechanics as they run on a track or road. Or loan out a video camera so that your athlete can video their workout to give you a better idea of how or when their form begins to deteriorate. While technology can be a successful part of your evaluation and treatments, there is no doubt that it can be doubled as a marketing tool. Post (with permission) these videos on your blog, social media accounts, or community Facebook groups, and show everyone what services you can provide compared to the clinic next door.
7. Put the time in.
Anyone who’s started a niche practice knows that success does not occur overnight. It will take some time before you begin to see a steady and consistent caseload on your calendar. In order to fast-track this process, it is important to put the time in and work hard early on. Set up simple programs and processes to make things run smoother. You might need to sacrifice a little in order to reap the benefits later on. Seeing a patient or two by offering discounts might be the best way to get your name out when you are just getting started. You’ll also want to think about taking some time to develop a group program in your community that relates to your niche practice. For instance, if you are hoping to work with youth athletes, reach out to the nearby Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball or middle/high school baseball leagues and host an inservice discussion of common injuries and preventative measures. Provide a free physical or medical screening workshop at the nearby fitness center. Offer free consultation visits after an injury or “wellness visits” after discharge. Write several blogs and post these articles in various community groups online. While it might not seem likely at first, taking an hour out of your schedule to perform a free service might in turn convert two or three individuals into patients. Don’t shy away from that kind of return on investment!
8. Always overdeliver. Word of mouth is key; especially in a niche market (one bad egg can hurt; one great egg can propel).
Don’t forget that, by definition, in a niche practice you are treating a unique or tight-knit group of individuals. It will be imperative that you take each opportunity to provide exceptional value to your patients. Don’t let a difficult patient get to you, cause turmoil, or push you over the edge. One bad day could ruin your reputation and destroy all of your hard work. In communities, word of mouth is everything! It could be the easiest way for you to go from one or two patients a week to a wait-list. But on the other hand, one or two bad reviews could be disastrous. Negative publicity, especially early on when you’re just starting out, could be a very hard thing to overcome. You’ve worked hard this far. Just remember to err on the side of overdelivering value with optimism and you’ll be just fine.
Eric Lehman, PT, DPT, is the owner of Lehman Physical Therapy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He specializes in the treatment of CrossFitters and his clinic is located within a CrossFit gym to provide immediate care and a direct-delivery approach. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Matt DeBole, PT, DPT, is the owner of Doorstep Physical Therapy in Menlo Park, California. He specializes in the treatment of runners of all backgrounds and has a mobile “concierge” clinic at the nearby university track. He can be reached at email@example.com.