Cataract & Refractive Surgery Today is pleased to introduce Michael W. Malley as a regular contributor. In 1988, Mr. Malley founded The Centre for Refractive Marketing, which provides ophthalmologists with personal consulting and marketing expertise, and he has worked with the Federal Trade Commission to revise the advertising guidelines for the refractive industry. Mr. Malley's years of experience in the fields of journalism and public relations provide him with a solid background in marketing and communication.
January is usually a great time to be a refractive surgeon, and this year should be no different. That's because many practices will achieve their highest monthly surgical volume of the year by January 31, 2003. Much of the early surge may be attributed to patients' decisions to take advantage of the tax benefits of their Flexible Medical Spending Accounts at work. There are also patients who simply include vision correction in their New Year's resolutions.
So what happens after January? Only one thing is certain: Change will occur within our industry and in the economy. Those practices that are well prepared with solid internal and external marketing plans will find themselves capable of adapting to whatever changes occur and positioned to take advantage of whatever opportunities arise.
Having the flexibility to adapt quickly to changes in the marketplace could make the difference between profit and loss for many LASIK practices this year. How do you proceed if the economy continues to falter? How do you respond when competitors continue to lower their fees? Is now the best time to invest in LADARVision with CustomCornea technology (Alcon Surgical, Fort Worth, TX)? Should you reduce this year's marketing budget due to decreased surgical volume? How do you increase your patient referrals while spending less?
These are all legitimate questions facing today's refractive surgeons, and they should be addressed in your overall marketing strategy for 2003. The first step in this process is simply to take an honest look at your practice. Verify your strengths and admit your weaknesses. Are you truly on the leading edge of technology? Are you really the most experienced surgeon in the region? Are your fees too low?
Are your fees higher than the market will bear? Aesthetically, how does your practice compare to others? Is your staff working for or against you? How much time are you spending with patients? Is your refractive practice actually making a profit?
For those surgeons who simply can't face reality, this is obviously just a lesson in futility. This simple exercise, however, could provide the basis for your overall marketing strategy for 2003. Once you compile this information and have a clear understanding of the competitive advantages—or disadvantages—of your practice, it is time to prepare a marketing strategy for the new year.
DEVELOPING YOUR MARKETING STRATEGY
Just like fingerprints, no two practices are identical. The same can be said of your marketing strategy. An approach that works for one of your colleagues in another market will not necessarily be successful for your practice. Each market has its own set of unique demographics. The competition is different, the costs for advertising vary, and the characteristics of the practice probably differ more than you care to realize.
Base your marketing strategy for 2003 on the current conditions of your practice, the state of the local economy, and the level of advertising activity conducted by your immediate competition. That's it. None of the other possible influences matter.
If your practice is conducting limited external advertising, your marketing strategy should focus on three fronts:
• the level of care you provide to patients;
• the percentage of referrals you generate; and
• the amount of internal marketing you conduct.
The staff and physicians of every practice think that they take great care of their patients and that there is little room for improvement. In reality, we all know differently. If you rely on the quality of your patient care to generate new patients, it must be flawless. Patients need to come before everything else.
Reduce your waiting times. Improve your front desk appearance and the attitudes of your receptionists. Spend more quality time with patients. Conduct quality assurance surveys. Encourage patients' input on the quality of your care. Evaluate the personal relations skills of every technician and ensure that they understand their own power of persuasion. No staff member spends more time with a patient than a technician, so no one should be better trained in personal skills. Put signs in the kitchen and staff areas that say “Put Patients First!” Implement “Catch Me Caring” campaigns with your staff that encourage patients to catch them in the act of doing something above and beyond the normal call of duty.
For a practice that elects not to advertise, nothing is more important than the percentage of referrals generated by patients, optometrists, staff, local doctors, and family members. Even among practices that conduct substantial advertising, patient referrals are normally the number-one source for new patients. Although most practices have someone in charge of patient referrals, this task is usually left to a nonmedical staff member to perform when he is not tending to his regular duties. Nothing could be more dangerous. If referrals are the lifeblood and future of your practice, a well-equipped and qualified staff member should be in charge of generating, fielding, and processing them.
Every practice needs a patient referral program, and it should be conducted in writing. There should be an optometric referral program, as well as one for the local medical community. Design a referral brochure and referral cards for your practice. Keep in contact with those who refer patients to your practice and acknowledge their support. Put up displays in your office letting everyone know how much you cherish patient referrals. Start a staff referral program and offer substantial discounts to their friends and family members.
If you're not going to shout out your message to the general public, make certain you thoroughly convey it to every patient who visits your practice. Regardless of the age of your average patient, let each one know about the benefits of laser vision correction at your facility. For the older segment of your patient base, engage in internal written communication aimed at their children and grandchildren. Hang LASIK posters in your optical shop. Display signage in every lane. Design a “one-sheeter” that outlines all of the services you provide and hand one to every patient. Communicate in writing with your patients regularly. Update them on technology and on any recent training you or your staff has received. Invite them to events at your practice. Once a year, celebrate Patient Appreciation Day. Remember that they're all you have—especially if you aren't generating new patients through external advertising.
For those practices that engage in external advertising, 2003 will be challenging to say the least. Even the clearest of crystal balls gives us no glimpse as to what the LASIK market will do or how the public will respond in 2003. Therefore, I encourage all practices to plan carefully, spend cautiously, and monitor their results closely.
The first quarter of 2003 may not be the ideal time to increase your advertising with large-scale, unproven campaigns. Unless you're in the select minority of practices that have already received Alcon's LADARWave technology, I advocate smaller-scale campaigns that can be easily monitored and evaluated. If the results from these initial forays indicate a positive response from patients, increase your advertising until the public stops responding.
Avoid engaging in price wars if at all possible. They will only lead to lower fees for everyone in the market. Instead, make offers that don't necessarily require patients to purchase LASIK immediately. Update your Consumer's Guide to LASIK (or write one yourself). Conduct live LASIK seminars. Offer educational, interactive CD-ROMs. Launch second-opinion campaigns. Whatever you do, offer affordable financing options, a factor that will play a bigger role than ever in 2003, especially if you're trying to increase your fees.
As long as the economy continues to flatline, the public is less likely to increase its discretionary spending, and the competition for those dollars will become fiercer. Therefore, you should avoid the up-front sales push. Instead, push education and technology. Emphasize the dream of better vision. Publicize special events at your facility. Push savings. Rely on your staff and your system to take care of patients once they respond to your offers.
Take a different approach to your annual marketing budget this year. Set spending amounts each month within 10% to 20% of what you spent last year. Do not increase the monthly budget unless you're enjoying a 4 to 1 (or better) return on your investment (ROI). You'll need to know your overhead costs, cost per surgical lead, and cost per inquiry to verify your return.
This will require close monitoring, but can be accomplished with the right internal marketing. If your campaign during a particular month is generating a 4 to 1 ROI or better, keep the campaign the same and increase your budget the following month. As soon as your results fall below the 4 to 1 norm, cease advertising and prepare for the next campaign. The public will let you know what they want to hear and how long they want to hear it. When they've had enough of a certain campaign, stop.
Marketing new technology
For those practices with new technologies such as IntraLASIK (IntraLase Corp., Irvine, CA), CustomCornea, WavePrint (VISX, Inc., Santa Clara, CA), and CK (Refractec, Inc., Irvine, CA), marketing in 2003 takes on a different flair. Do not hesitate to promote your new technology to the public. But remember, if you're looking for a response, simply promoting the technology will not be enough. Invite patients to come see it, smell it, touch it, and talk about it.
Encourage patients to get involved in something new and exciting. Let them be a part of medical history. Call them visionaries or pioneers, and make them feel good about your new and exciting technology and how it can benefit them. Emphasize the benefits rather than the price. Remind them of the change it will make in their lives. When it comes to new technology, avoid discussing a starting price. Otherwise, those who follow in your footsteps will be forced to drive the price down even further. Learn from the mistakes we've already made with LASIK.
With the dawning of such promising new technology, 2003 could be the turnaround year we've all been waiting for in refractive surgery. However, it will still require us all to be cautious with our spending, careful in our planning, and relentless in our pursuit of excellence.
Michael W. Malley does not hold an affiliation with any excimer laser or lens manufacturer. He may be reached at (713) 839-0202; firstname.lastname@example.org.