Differentiate and Thrive

By Susan Nowell, DPT, PPS, and Annika Lundmark

The adage “with adversity comes great opportunity” certainly rings true for physical therapy private practice owners of today. The health care climate is rapidly changing. In light of increasing reimbursement-based demands, the need to implement new national health care delivery systems is evident; however, definitive, strategic paths remain to be seen. The United States spends more than any other developed country on health care and the costs continue to rise at a high rate. With increasing administrative burdens, declining payment for services, and growing patient cost-sharing, more providers are implementing cash-based service into practice as a way to survive.

I believe that physical therapists can act as leaders of a proactive, patient-centered, preventative health care movement not only to thrive in private practice, but also to reduce the growing costs of the current “reactive” health care system. In order to move beyond survival and to truly thrive as a vital health care profession, we need to actively differentiate ourselves. As of January 1st, 2015, direct access, in one form or another, has been gained in all 50 states. This is very exciting for our profession. Unfortunately, this autonomy is not mirrored in our current reimbursement-dictated system.

If our profession can prove its central place in reducing overall costs of health care with preventative, patient-centered care, I believe our autonomy will gain incredible traction. In the meantime, I think we should focus more of our marketing strategies directly on the payers of our growing cash-based system approach—our patients.

I was formerly the rehabilitation director of a hospital-based outpatient clinic. I recall the challenges of improving clinic revenue while simultaneously implementing Medicare functional reporting and other compliance standards. We organized some outreach events, initially aimed at educating the community on the wellness benefits of physical therapy. Outreach initiatives ranged from hosting a foam roller postural lecture series to supporting Kona Ironman athletes onsite the week of the world championship event. As we received patient walk-ins and increased overall revenue in following months, I realized that these community outreach events were excellent marketing strategies for our clinic. Furthermore, they were active and patient-centered.

In a regulated industry such as health care, it can be difficult for therapists to tackle differentiation in marketing. I think we can learn from other industries where products and services are also held to regulatory standards. As I am at the starting line of building a niche private practice, I find it valuable to consult with business professionals who succeed in differentiating themselves while upholding regulatory standards.

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Here are some of the top marketing strategies I learned from Annika Lundmark, primary marketing consultant for a business that is at the top of their game in the world of sports surfaces for large sports venues and schools districts across the United States:

Q: What was the initial mission of your company?
A: Founded in 2003, Hellas was originated to fill a differentiated need in the marketplace combining both construction services with sports surfacing products and installation services. Hellas’ athletic fields, running tracks, and tennis courts all have quality advantages, technical components, and unique specifications for athletes in terms of safety and performance characteristics. However, the fact that we have differentiated ourselves in our delivery in addition to our quality products is really what has set the company apart.

Q: How do you achieve differentiation in your marketing messages?
A: Consistency is crucial in building brand recognition and increasing your footprint. By differentiating your message from other providers or finding that special niche you can increase the likelihood of getting on your audience’s radar screen.

So how do you differentiate? Is there something in your offering, practice, or even personality that stands out? It can be subtle or it can be bold. Think of effective marketing or advertising campaigns you have seen and how you can stand out.

After you find your point(s) of differentiation you have to consistently hammer that message in all areas of communication and interactions. The more unique and differentiated, the more people will pay attention—but remember it still has to be relevant, and it has to be true!

For example: If you decide that your promise to your customers is going to be “Always with a smile,” you better make sure you and your service always come with a smile. You must show photos on your website with smiling people, you have to smile when you first encounter new patients or clients; if not, it will not work—your message has to be manifested in your interactions and ways of doing business.

Then again, a smile will not replace quality. Your client will still judge you on the quality, but that smile is memorable and will help create a strong reference.

Q: What is your approach for reaching new clients?
A: Mindful expansion is important. By doing a traditional profiling of your current clients, you can most easily find more of the same. Ask yourself: Who are my clients? Age, gender, income, where do they live, occupation, and hobbies. You may be surprised to find a pretty narrow segment, or what marketers call your target audience. From that profiling decide “How do I find more of the same or can I reach a new audience?” Or do I need to expand geographically by finding the same profile in a new area? Doublecheck that your differentiated message will resonate with your target audience. Create a referral incentive. Make your existing clients do the work for you if they are pleased with your services. Be straightforward and honest. “I am expanding my business; do you know of anyone that may benefit from my services?”

Q: What are some active ways that you market your products?
A: Hold a “lunch and learn.” If you want to educate and network, combine spreading your differentiated message and education with a positive event. Everyone is busy but most of the time can make time for lunch. Offer to bring lunch and have an informative session while your audience is eating. Do not forget to leave behind a promotional item with your differentiated message and contact information that they keep on their desk. Also dress well! Wear something very nice with your company name/logo embroidered on it, and make your employees always wear company apparel when they visit clients. It is such an easy way of branding your business.

Q: How do you retain your customers?
A: Mindful communication is important. Do not bombard your clients with email, newsletters, or promotional offers, and keep a database of what they are interested in so you can get the right message to each group at the right time. If you have a strong base of athletes that is in need of sports rehab, send a promotional offer during the “off” season to drum up some extra business. Set aside one day per month where you decide on next month’s promotion or client outreach. Pick up the phone!

Do not neglect the importance of a phone call in this electronic age. “Just touching base to see how are you feeling after the last visit, any continued aches or problems, did my services help?” I guarantee this will differentiate your services and personal care.

Annika Lundmark is a marketing consultant for Hellas Construction. She can be reached at annika@hellasconstruction.

Susan Nowell, DPT, is a PPS member and Impact editorial board member. She can be reached at sunowell@gmail.com.

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