by Stuart Dornfield

Having been in the marketing and advertising business since puberty, I have always been amazed at how certain categories of marketers, namely healthcare, have consistently missed the mark in providing products and services that consumers desire. One reason is that most hospitals have rarely considered patients as customers. They don’t teach that in medical school. Consequently, rarely do hospitals attempt (let alone think of) developing solutions or customer services that are consumer-friendly or consumer-centric.

And hospitals are not alone. A recent PricewaterhouseCoopers survey found that healthcare consumers appear willing to dump the doctor’s office for cheaper and more convenient retail and remote alternatives that could amount to tens of billions of dollars in lost revenues for traditional providers if they fail to adapt. Despite controlling nearly 20% of the economy, the survey points out that traditional healthcare is years, if not decades, behind other industries when it comes to adopting consumer-centric models and technologies that assess and meet consumer needs.

More than 8 years ago when I was Sr. VP-Creative Director at a leading Omnicom agency, I met with the president and his staff at Cleveland Clinic Florida. Aside from their desire to be the hospital of “first choice” for those needing surgery, they felt they were not getting their fair share of patients in South Florida. Their new hospital (the newest in South Florida) was well appointed and state-of-the-art. And during several meetings, I threw out many suggestions that I felt would re-define their brand and create a unique selling proposition that went beyond a reputation for great healthcare. I felt they could build category ownership behind some other innovative and forward-thinking ideas that could impact the marketplace dramatically and make people want to drive an extra 20 miles instead of choosing the older and more established hospitals further east. Since their facility looked and felt like a Nordstrom or Ritz-Carlton, I suggested they follow the “Ladies & Gentlemen serving Ladies & Gentlemen” model and develop medical and non-medical services that could differentiate their brand as being “customer-centric,” and at the same time, put more heads in beds. One idea was to hire a first-rate, well-known South Beach chef to prepare healthy and tasty meals for a large percentage of patients who were in the hospital for care that was not of a serious “life or death” nature. Patients requiring such procedures as hernia operations, cosmetic surgeries, herniated discs, eye disorders, neurological conditions, broken limbs, migraines, etc. I also suggested they could develop a new and different Executive Health Program (also targeting South Americans) with “surprise and delight” services like massages and manicures, thereby stealing market share from ordinary hospitals. It could also offer a few “luxury” floors with better patient to staff ratios, more single rooms, large flat screen TVs, thicker towels, top brand shampoos, and other consumer-centric conveniences for private pay patients who want more creature comforts. The president’s reaction to ALL my suggestions was No, No, and No. “That’s not who we are,” he replied.

I can’t blame him. He was like many healthcare providers who follow what they learned in medical school without any education in marketing, branding or customer experience. He was not forward-thinking. Not consumer-centric. Not capable of seeing his hospital as more than, well, a hospital. But today, new players in healthcare are gaining a toehold with frustrated consumers who are ready to abandon traditional care models for ones that echo experiences in retail and entertainment.

Baptist Health South Florida has seen tremendous success with the opening of more than 14 Urgent Care and Diagnostic Centers. Six years ago I helped them realize that they were not in the healthcare business, they were in the retail business. And fortunately, they had a savvy CEO who recognized the logic in that and they now model their outpatient facilities like Nordstrom, selling healthcare services instead of Cole Hahn shoes. Healthcare services delivered in a retail environment that is both medical-centric and consumer-centric with a customer experience that is caring, professional and accessible.

I want to experience things in healthcare like I experience everywhere else.

Increasingly, consumers are forcing providers to try new things, because as I witnessed with Cleveland Health Florida, providers are not going try new things on their own. This is because providers think the old way is just fine and they don’t know how to do it a new way. Or they don’t want to spend the time (or money) to figure it out.

When I buy something from an online retailer they know me and they provide recommendations to me and I never have to input the same information twice. Whereas in healthcare I have to give the same information every time I see them. Ridiculous!

When I stay in a nice hotel for 4 or 5 days, I expect restaurants to serve exceptional cuisine, I expect hotel staff to treat me like a guest, and I expect soft Egyptian cotton linens, room service, and someone to respond to my requests quickly. Why should that be any different when I stay in a hospital for a week and I’m paying upwards of $6,000 or more a day? Why must I endure the lousy institutional food, the poor customer service, the impersonal nature of customer care and nursing staff that is overworked and mechanical?

At the end of the day, it’s consumers who must pressure hospitals and physicians to try something new. Getting them to be more consumer-driven, not just medically-driven or physician-driven.

Figuring out how to do things better can help hospitals gain market share.

Nothing can kill a marketer faster than resistance to change and improvement. And while healthcare institutions are willing to accept new proven protocols in medicine, most are afraid of what might happen if they try something new in terms of customer experience. Will they alienate their doctors and nurses? How much more work will this mean for their staff? It is this hesitation that can be fatal to a hospital’s brand and bottom line. Many will stagnate, lose loyalty, and eventually, lose market share to their competitors. In fact, the notion of market share is as alien to hospitals as eastern medicine is, and yet it is so vital because most medical facilities won’t gain market share if they’re not constantly figuring out how to do things better. Hospital are such left-brained institutions, and by and large, they don’t have a large track record of doing great external marketing or being consumer-centric. Many have an even harder time of shaping their own brand story, let alone figuring out who their customers are and how they think. Some hospitals may want to become more consumer friendly but don’t really have the ability to make the leap. Frustrating as it seems, hospitals won’t do something simply because an ad agency or strategic marketing firm says so, or thinks it’s the right thing to do. Hospitals are the kind of corporate structure that requires too much buy-in across too many layers staff by medical people, not business people. And certainly not entrepreneurs. Even when you show them data to reinforce the creative solutions you want to put forward, it’s hard to get buy-in.

One tactic that continues to gain traction is proving to them that marketing with an emotional, human element is more effective than the traditional healthcare marketing most hospitals currently embrace. Let’s face it, showing photos of your new cardiovascular team or your new robotic surgical machine is like Macy’s talking about their new lighting fixtures, escalators or new store manager. And while some hospitals have launched more consumer-facing campaigns, many still just show photos of their new team of cancer doctors, a new facility, or promote new services like bariatric surgery with equally sterile creative. Perhaps they would be better serviced spending their money on creating a better customer experience before touting products.

Fighting complacency with real change.

The reality is that few hospitals will ever be doing as well as they should be. There is always room for hospitals to improve their customer experience and their marketing campaigns, and make them even more effective in capturing their audience and motivating people to act.  Merely improving brand preference and word-of-mouth can go a long way to improving their ROI. It all starts with a strong brand DNA that is well communicated across all channels (internal and external) and all stakeholders: Doctors, CEOs, marketing executives, hospital staff, agency and PR staff. When you have this in place, developing both passive and active marketing tactics come easier. My suggestion is to make every board member, every C-suite executive, everyone in the hospital with the power to make change happen become a patient for 5 days in their own hospital. Kind of like “Undercover Boss.” They’ll witness first-hand how when they ring the call button it takes forever to get an answer. Or when they do answer, they get a sour “why are you bothering me” tone of voice on the other end of the intercom. They’ll see how poorly groomed many of the hospital staff members are; how they have to try 3 times to find a vein to draw blood; or how lousy and institutional the food is. They will see how they are left in freezing hallways waiting for an MRI or cat scan. Most of all, they’ll find out how poor the customer experience really is.

Moving forward without band aids.

Getting too comfortable with ‘business as usual’ eventually yields diminishing returns for any business. Your competition will get smarter, new hospitals and healthcare providers will enter your market, and suddenly the same rules won’t apply anymore. Embracing innovation and creativity, improving the customer experience, and viewing the healthcare business like a retail or hospitality business is key to moving forward. Funny how the word hospitality has the word hospital in it, but rarely is that a priority. If a hospital doesn’t believe in the customer experience, then you won’t have customer experience people working for you. You must hire people that believe that customer experience is as important as the quality of care. And I would assert, “bedside manner” is often a more important component. Hospitals who get complacent don’t belong in the business. Nurses and aides that get complacent don’t belong in the business. Doctors who get complacent don’t belong in the business.

Sure, most hospitals are understaffed and can’t keep up with all the paperwork and regulations being pushed at them. But other industries such as banking can say the same thing and many of them like TD Bank have succeeded in creating a new level of customer service. And if you’re charging $4.50 for one aspirin, don’t you think you can pay your people better or hire more people?

Customer satisfaction has been a mantra in retail and hospitality industries for as long as I can remember. So why is it such a challenge in healthcare?

One reason healthcare performs so poorly in customer satisfaction is that they don’t hire enough people from other industries in C-suite positions who can bring new ways of thinking to an old business model. Bankers hire bankers. Teachers hire teachers. Doctors hire doctors. And so it goes.

Maybe it’s time that hospitals started hiring COOs from luxury hotel chains. CEOs from luxury retail chains. And CMOs from consumer-centric companies that have achieved high marks for the customer experience.

Another factor is that half of all doctors (and the hospitals they’re affiliated with) are over the age of 50. They’re saying ‘just give me 10 more years to do it the way I’ve always done it and then I’m done.’ So you have a significant portion of the healthcare industry that is saying ‘get me to the finish line so I don’t have to learn anything new or do anything differently.’ That is a big issue.

Yes, it’s all too often about the money. We continue to pay for the old way. Until we change the flow of money we are not going to change the practice of medicine or any other company that cares more about the stock price than the customer. When will they realize that if you treat the customer better, the stock price will be better? If you treat the customer better, they will tell 10 other people about their great experience. And that’s the cheapest marketing on the planet!

A brand is going to be more valuable to consumers if it creates some sort of new value that did not exist before.

Apple invented more than great technology products. They re-invented retail. Netflix re-invented home entertainment. Chipotle re-invented fast-casual. Tesla re-invented the car business. They are among the companies that embrace forward thinking with leaders who recognize that by giving consumers new ideas, new ways of doing things, or a better customer experience, they can grow their business exponentially.

In most industries, CMO’s and CEOs come up with solutions to save the consumers’ time, give them greater conveniences, more comfort, more fun, more reliability. They differentiate themselves with new services never before seen within their category. Like movie theaters opting for larger seats and sofas so customers can dine and enjoy a cocktail while viewing the film. Menswear retailers like Indochino that provide custom tailoring to men online. And restaurants like Seasons 52 that offer wines by the glass, but with one exception. They bring the bottle of wine to the customer’s table to sample before pouring. It’s a little thing, but to a wine drinker, it means a lot.

Let’s face it, how many new healthcare solutions do you see that say “we can decrease the time it takes to get an appointment or the amount of time it takes to visit the doctor or the time in the waiting room?” Not enough healthcare providers care about the customer experience enough to change things in a big way.

Stuart Dornfield is a leading creative director, senior copywriter, marketing strategist and winner of more than 200 awards for creative excellence in digital, print, direct, radio, television and out-of-home. You can view his credentials and online portfolio on his website.