Your Story (June 2014)

Like a lot of medical devices, hearing instruments are quickly becoming a commodity item. The faster, smarter, cheaper microchip that we love in our smartphones, is quickly forcing us to re-think our value proposition in the marketplace. It’s no longer enough to have the most sophisticated technological solutions, after all every professional has access to this. Today, you need to build a reputation around your skill, professionalism and ability to personally connect with people.

Practitioners who take this seriously know their brand needs to resonate emotionally with people. It is rare to find customers who buy because you provided the most elegant explanation of their test results, but if you can wrap your professionalism and expertise around a memorable and engaging patient experience you are more likely to appeal to the emotions of your customers. The ability to appeal to someone’s emotions, to delight their limbic system, as some would say, starts with your ability to orchestrate a theme with one or two signature moments. A great example of bringing a theme to life comes to us from the lovely city of Melbourne, Australia. If you’ve ever been to Melbourne, you may know it is a hip place with plenty of artsy coffee bars, boutiques shops and fast-changing weather. Rachel Deane, an audiologist from down under is yet another trend setter when it comes to theming an office around something that many find emotionally appealing, the 1950s and 60s. Read her story.

AP: Rachel, tell us a little bit about yourself and why you chose to go into private practice.

RD: Well, fundamentally I’m too emphatic to work for someone else! I have a very clear vision about quality hearing care for adults and needed to design a business around my perspectives. Private practice is a natural fit for me. My vision was formed by my mother's experience with hearing professionals over many years. She struggled with contrary advice, multiple operations, multiple "solutions" and not one trusted professional who took responsibility, as her primary hearing care specialist, nor was anyone accountable for her outcomes. These are things I take seriously with our clients—we ensure they know that "I have their back."

AP: I had the chance to visit your practice in February and was struck by your practice’s décor and theme. Please let us about your theme and why you chose it?

RD: I wanted an environment that was warm, relaxing, familiar and yet classy. It also needed to be easy to maintain to our very high cleanliness and presentation standards. We chose a 1950s theme inspired by the “Mad Men” TV show. Mid-century modern furniture design was really cool, definitive and kinda sexy. Design from the 1950s and 1960s, but the 50s in particular, often embodied exuberant, sleek, and elegant function, things that I personally admire. These are also things that our niche clientele tend to respect. Importantly, I also wanted clients to walk in and instantly feel relaxed, disarming any pre-visit anxieties about coming in. By offering a spacious, uncluttered décor that’s nostalgic and familiar, clients often remind us that we are getting it right. We consciously blend the old with the new by demonstrating hearing technology as well. I think its important to reflect who you are as a person in your practice and acknowledge who your clients are as much as you can. More and more clients want to engage with you, as their specialist, “my Audiologist”.

AP: It seems like you have made the deliberate choice to attract a specific type of patient to your practice. What type of patient are you trying to attract?

RD: We have a boutique practice, working only with (i) private paying adults, (ii) only with high end technology and (iii) only with very discreet solutions. I can’t recall the last time we fitted a BTE or ITE—we fit tiny RICs and IICs or CICs. We try to appeal to executives and all tech-savvy early-adopters. We could have designed a high tech fit-out, lots of white surfaces, but we wanted to be different, even memorable if possible. We consciously blend the old with the new by demonstrating hearing technology as well. In this way, we try to disarm any pre-visit anxieties as they are greeted to a welcoming environment that happens to also showcase the technology they often didn’t know they wanted to touch and feel.

AP: How is your business strategy linked to your theme?

RD: We make constant adjustments to our model and marketing communications in particular. So I’m not sure we do a perfect job—it's a moving target. We are launching a brand new strategy that is entirely on-model and on-strategy, but it's embryonic right now, so perhaps I can talk about it once we have it up and running. I think it's important to really understand your client base, describe each segment in detail and try to develop services that meet each group's needs. The client who comes in and says “you’re the expert, tell me what you think I should do” are fewer and farther between. These clients trust our professional expertise without too much interaction. Most of my clients are the opposite. They want to get right under the hood and have me distill 5 years of university training and 15 years of clinical experience into a 10 minute presentation. Their attention span is short and they don’t put up with “sales-talk”. They want lots of information, solution alternatives and differential prescriptions transparently and succinctly spelled out.

AP: What type of marketing do you do (or perhaps do not do) in order to maintain a steady supply of clients?

RD: Of course we try to be where our clients are. There really is no form of marketing or advertising that we are unwilling to incorporate into our planning. We try to have relevant, informative material available in multiple media platforms from web, social media, traditional print channels and we’ve dabbled in radio and some sports and community group sponsorship and support programs. We are also fans of direct mail, happy to purchase databases and send offers directly to prospective clients. Currently we are working with an agency to produce a commercial, which is resource intensive but, hopefully, fruitful.

AP: Let’s discuss your website and use of social media. How did you incorporate theming into your website?

RD: Well, the website is brand new and in many ways is still under development (unproven), so I’m afraid I can only say that what we have tried to do is link to multiple social media platforms from a website that is engaging from a content point of view and offers credibility. We also had professional photographs taken of the staff to personalize who we are—including our cleaner who is an important part of the team. We called her “VP of Dust” for fun.

AP: How about other forms of social media? What’s your take on using Twitter, Facebook and other media in a private practice?

RD: Social media and I have a love-hate relationship. I do love using social media personally, but professionally we get involved because we are taking marketers’ advice to do so, not because we see results from it or necessarily enjoy the time it takes to relentlessly update our profiles! I’m a fan of Facebook and LinkedIn but not so much of Twitter. Twitter requires a very personal and almost constant voice and personal opinion stream to have any impact. That takes a lot of time, which is not something I have when running a practice. I don’t think it's effective or real to outsource that personal stream to an agency because even if you brief them very well, no one can be you, and comment as accurately and timely. Facebook is different and can be managed by us effectively, however, I am yet to see any tangible results from the enormous effort that goes into it. They tell us that getting LIKES on our site will be good for business, but I’m yet to see any lift directly attributable to social media. Of course, the marketers tell you it’s a long-term brand awareness play, so perhaps in a couple years we can revisit this question?!

AP: What do you find to be the biggest challenges associated with running a private practice?

RD: There are never enough hours in the day! I love what we do here and I’m in a constant state of excitement. At an operational level my staff are my priority so seeing that everyone is happy ensures productivity that is simultaneously fun and rewarding. Its also the biggest challenge from time to time, especially in a growing business, bringing on more staff requires keeping the harmony and effectiveness scales evenly balanced.

AP: Could you share with us your long range goals? In other words, where would you like to see your practice in five years?

RD: I'd like to replicate the business in different geographic locations and then move into more of a managerial role where I’m 80% management and 20% clinical instead of the status quo where I’m 90% clinical and 60% management (I get a lot done in a week!). We are currently seeking Audiologists as business associates who want to love their work, love technology and be extraordinarily engaging whilst they create incredible hearing solutions for life-long hearing care. There is an enormous demand for quality health care, in every discipline. We will always work at the high quality end of the hearing service delivery spectrum and consistently encourage client empowerment.

AP: What are some aspects of the Australian market for audiology services that might be unique?

RD: The third party funding environment is unique. Those under the age of 21 yrs and those receiving pensions (over 65 yrs) have access to automatic subsidies, sufficient in most cases to provide free professional services and good quality products. Therefore more than 80% of all devices here are in some way government funded.

AP: Any final words of advice for a private practice clinician looking to theme an office and pursue a specific segment of the market?

RD: Yes, make your business strategy and your business environment as much a reflection of YOU as a person, not just a clinician, as you can. It becomes a way of life that is thoroughly enjoyable, successful and rewarding on multiple levels. Be uncompromising and you won't regret it.