Just keep swimming
Simply put, marketing is the action of persuading customers to identify with and then buy a company’s goods or services.
Marketing, like all things in business life, must be adapted to circumstance. While what is effective for a multi-national corporation may have little direct meaning for a small firm trading on a local or regional basis, the general principle – to think as much about the customer you are trying to reach as about the product you are trying to sell – is relevant for all businesses, whatever their sector, size or location.
Properly pursued, a marketing plan, or even a marketing-driven frame of mind, will help a dental practice think with greater clarity about its aims and how they can be achieved. It will encourage a practice to examine its service or treatments, its markets, its patients and, most importantly, its approach to winning new patients.
What marketing discourages is introspection – a fastidious concentration solely on the product. Instead, it diverts attention outwardly, to what the market or patient wants.
Always the customer
Marketing’s first step is to map out who a firm’s best customers might be. It niggles at such questions as matching products more neatly to customer needs. It looks for new markets outside of the existing customer base and it interrogates the product for weaknesses, flaws or simple tiredness. It speculates on what new products, or what the same products differently presented, can do for sales figures. It does all this by placing the customer at the centre of things. It is imperative to target your patients as closely and as accurately as possible.
Marketing deals with the very basic, practical elements of business. One of these elements is price. Undercutting the competition on price often looks like a good tactic, but price should never be confused with the value of a product in the consumer’s mind; in many cases, it is ultimately value that will create the strongest bond between a practice and its patients.
Two other important, but sometimes misunderstood, terms are features and benefits. A feature is that which the producer adds to their product or service; a benefit is the advantage that the buyer gains from using the product or service.
The secret here is to convince the customer that the feature represents a meaningful benefit. A good marketing strategy will always seek to describe a feature not simply in terms of itself but as a benefit to the customer. While this sounds like common sense, many businesses concentrate on promoting the features of their product at the expense of their relevance to the customer.
Identifying your customer
As well as isolating the benefits of a product, marketing also concentrates its attention on the sort of customer a business should be trying to win over. One way of doing this is to divide a potential audience into different segments. This can be done by age, gender, social grouping, geographical area or job, depending on the general market sector and the type of product or service being sold.
By separating potential patients, it makes it easier for a practice to accentuate what it is about its service or treatments that will most appeal to that group. Differentiating types of patient has another potential advantage: it enables a practice to change its method of operation to better accommodate the needs of its patients. New ways of delivering the service can be tried, or treatments can be honed to satisfy specific patient requirements.
Knowing more about its patients and their distinguishing characteristics will give a practice a raft of vital information. Such information will make it easier to find out who a practice’s most loyal patients are, where a similar type of patient can be found and how best to reach them. It can nudge a practice towards extra treatment specialisation if that is what the market is demanding. And it will allow a practice to spot those gaps in the market that its rivals have been slow to exploit or have ignored altogether.
Setting out your stall
Where a practice places itself in its market will also play a part in its success. If a practice has decided to move upmarket, it must behave in way that reflects its position. If the service is going to be cheap and cheerful, then a practice must make sure that its tone and style are appropriate for its patients.
Too often, brand image is presumed to be of importance only to big companies, those with a national or international presence. This is not the case.
Any business can create a brand image for itself – and inexpensively, too. Usually, it need consist of no more than a name and a look. It is this name and look that, once decided on, will set the tone and personality for a business and its products. It also forms the umbrella under which new products and services can be launched. A brand should be held to consistently and should be visible and memorable. The sort of branding a practice should adopt will be determined by both its service and treatment – specialist or inexpensive – and its position in the market.
Planning a campaign
All businesses have sales, pricing and customer strategies by virtue of simply being in business. What marketing can do is to shape and mould those strategies so that they are coherent, relevant and workable. A broad business process, marketing has many sub-disciplines, including advertising, direct marketing, packaging, new media presence and customer relationship management. The last thing a practice that wishes to promote itself should do is rush out and book an advert space or request a fulfilment cost on a multi-sector direct mail campaign. A marketing plan is needed.
The purpose of a marketing plan is essentially twofold. It should define where a business already is and where it would like it to be within a given period of time. To be relevant, the marketing plan must also indicate how the transition from one point to the other is to be managed.
Self-knowledge is invaluable, since this will allow a business to set itself realistic sales and development targets. Therefore, a practice should conduct a self-assessment study – such as a SWOT analysis, which gauges strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Under strengths, a practice should list those things at which it is particularly adept. The same goes for weaknesses. Opportunities represent openings in the market that are new or that appear relatively unexploited by the competition. Threats summarise the strengths of rival practices.
The words or phrases arranged beneath each heading will, if the analysis has been rigorously honest, produce a reasonably accurate picture of just how well a practice is able to deliver its service and care.
A practice should add anything that it already knows of its patients or markets to the SWOT analysis. This should include how well its service or treatments fit in with existing patient needs; whether a service or treatment should be refined or added to so that it is better able to compete or attract a broader patient base; whether the pricing policy matches the market’s expectations; whether the profile of existing or potential patients is changing; and where the best and most loyal patients are likely to be found.
The market should be scanned for shifts in buying habits. Patient groups can shrink and grow according to broader social changes or for quite specific and precise reasons (there’s a less or more expensive treatment elsewhere).
It is also important to read the short-term future. This will help a practice anticipate such events, say, as imminent technological advances or fluctuations in buying cycles, which can be either disruptive or an opportunity.
Any increase in activity from the competition also needs to be measured, as this will affect the way in which a practice might choose to promote itself (by price or quality etc). Most businesses lack the resources to carry out the sort of detailed research that will allow them to establish an exhaustive market overview. But there are still data and information available to them that will help achieve a clearer idea of product performance and market penetration. A look back over past sales figures may give some clues as to buying patterns (is there a seasonal trend to them?) and the durability of a product’s popularity (is it waning, and why?).
Sometimes, a brief survey of existing patients – a simple, easy-to-complete questionnaire or a friendly, ‘won’t-take-a-minute’ market research phone call – will yield valuable information on attitudes to price, perceived value, treatment suitability, service needs and likely future demand.
From all this, a practice can then set itself some goals. How best to mine its market for the most profitable returns, how to position the treatment or service so that it most closely matches patient requirements, and how to develop its spread of patients.
These sales aims should be specific in their expression and in their measurement; a practice must give itself actual, not wishful, targets, and must then accurately track its progress towards them. For this reason, a marketing campaign must include a timetable detailing how its objectives can be met. Once a timetable has been agreed, it should be stuck to.
By now a practice will be on the threshold of deciding which method, or combination of methods, it wishes to adopt in its efforts to reach more patients more often and more persuasively.
There are some final considerations that need to be borne in mind. The more competitors a practice has, the noisier its market and the more it must shout to make itself heard. The longer the gaps between appointments, the more forgetful the patient is likely to be, and the more reminders and prompts they need. Special offers on price need to be promoted – so will the hoped-for increase in discounted sales offset the promotional spend? The more tightly a product fits a niche market, the higher its likely profile, and the lower its marketing budget. A practice can then decide exactly where its promotional energies and budgets – into advertising, direct mail, email campaigns, patient relations management – should go.
Simpson Burgess Nash chartered accountants is based in Manchester.