Marketing vs. Sales: What’s the Best Approach for Your Practice?

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By Susi Ebersbach, MBA

Healthcare has evolved into a commercial marketplace. Increasingly, the practice-patient relationship resembles a consumer relationship driven by the economic pressures of cost shifting to the patient and resultant trend toward consumer-directed healthcare. Higher health insurance deductibles and co-insurance payments, as well as health savings accounts, have prompted the need for patients to become savvy healthcare consumers.

Marketing Is a Process

Often, practitioners tell me they are going to market their practice so they can increase sales. There is an important difference between marketing and sales, and understanding this difference will allow you to develop a marketing budget that helps you reach your goals more effectively. Rather than expecting a marketing program to "sell" your practice/service to the marketplace, the most effective marketing program will "match" the needs of the marketplace to those services your practice provides and emphasize the areas where the practice meets the patient/consumer needs better than competitors. These are your competitive strengths. Use these in your sales presentations.

Marketing is linked to operations, quality programs, and contractual agreements; however, to most effectively supply services and service-delivery processes, each of these areas should be responsive to marketplace demands. For example, you cannot expect patients to obtain their own pre-authorization of services if your practice is not competent at this function. No amount of marketing will change patient demand for this service. However, patients are likely to locate a service provider that meets their demands. Likewise, gaining participation in a high-census, managed-care plan may be a critical element for meeting the marketplace needs in a specific geography. You will not succeed in convincing the marketplace to need what you are offering if the two needs do not match.

What Is the Goal of Marketing?

While the goal of sales is increased revenue through higher service volumes, the goal of marketing is to create a relationship between the practice and the marketplace. This can be accomplished by building awareness of the practice and services, emphasizing differentiation among competitors, offering assistance and education to the marketplace, and providing feedback to the practice about those areas where the patient/consumer's desires are not being met. This information provides an opportunity for improvement via additional or enhanced services, or the creation of a niche that can offer a practice a competitive advantage. Of course, these activities are likely to increase sales, but the actions and the effects are long-term and provide more opportunity for give-and-take than a sales presentation can offer.

What Is the Best Marketing Tool for the O&P Marketplace?

If you have not established a practice website, you are discouraging potential patients from selecting your practice. Patients requiring custom prosthetic and orthotic devices are highly motivated in their search for the "best" service provider. The Internet is the number one place consumers go to find information today. If a patient's insurance plan offers a selection of three providers, the patient will likely seek additional information on the web to select a provider. Directories supplied by the payer often contain incomplete, outdated, and inaccurate information about participating providers. Patients who follow up using the Internet may rule out a practice that has not embraced the technology the patient routinely uses.

Websites are wonderful marketing tools for many other reasons. Standard and specialized information can be easily listed, such as services, clinicians, locations/hours, and insurance plans accepted, plus helpful tips and resources for clinical and support issues. Websites offer great flexibility in meeting the needs of a large and varied marketplace of patients, not only because of the quantity of information that can be provided in a user-friendly, searchable format, but also because they can allow two-way communication between the practice and the marketplace through a "contact us" avenue on the website. A properly designed website also can convey some of the character, professionalism, and values of your organization.

The Bottom Line

An effective marketing program will allow you to compete effectively for the business of today's healthcare-savvy consumers and eliminate the inclination to overstate either the services your practice can deliver or the distinction of the staff delivering the services. A marketing program offers a more ethical and long-lasting means to accomplish sales goals.

Susi Ebersbach, MBA, is an independent marketing and management consultant with more than ten years of experience in the O&P industry as the former director of business development for the POINT Health Centers of America network.