I love to watch Troy Palamalu, the whirling dervish of a strong safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Wherever the ball goes, Palamalu seems to be there—stuffing a runner, picking off a pass, scooping up a loose ball.
During the recent Super Bowl loss to the Green Bay Packers, however, Palamalu seemed remarkable by his absence. The offensive scheme of the Packers greatly neutralized the Steelers’ defensive star.
I’m a football fan, but far from an analyst. Yet it seemed clear to me the Packers won the big game because they did the basic things—blocking, tackling, holding on to the ball, knowing where the playmakers were—better than Pittsburgh did. The spectacular did not win the spectacle. Fundamentals were more important.
What does this have to do with healthcare marketing? A lot.
Health systems and hospitals put a lot of energy into spectacle. Big ads, big events, big news. Yet it is the little things, the basics of human interaction and personal relationships, that ultimately drive a health system to a winning position in the marketplace.
There is a hospital I know well that is on the verge of bankruptcy because, over the span of a decade, it lost virtually all its primary care and specialty physician support. Economics and competition played a big role in shifting physician loyalties, but at the heart of it all were weak relationships.
In the words of one physician who moved out of the declining hospital’s office building, “They made promises they did not keep. They acted like didn’t care.”
By “they,” this doctor meant the leadership of the hospital. It wasn’t a failing practice that prompted the doctor to leave, it was a failed relationship with the hospital CEO and his marketing team.
I used to work with a large orthopedic group that built a marvelous new office building in the shadow of a hospital. It was a fortuitous move for the hospital, which was third largest in the market and desperate for growth in orthopedics.
Yet despite all proximity and convenience factors, the doctors in that group gradually shifted 100% of their surgery to a competitive hospital about a mile away. Why? According to the surgeons it was poor relationships with the first hospital’s leadership. “We didn’t feel like we could trust them,” said one doctor about the rift.
Relationship basics are usually less dramatic than broken promises and trust. Just failing to communicate, failing to notice, failing to remain open and receptive to ideas—these fundamentals can send even a championship healthcare team into a tailspin.
And for a team trying to find its form, fundamentals are even more critical.
About two months ago I heard about a new medical group that had formed from several independent practices. I used to work with some of these doctors, so I was a interested in their new venture. I decided to drop into their new office to say hello and look around. I had heard through the grapevine patient volume was behind early projections.
The office made a positive early impression. Good location. Logo etched in the double glass doors. Nice furniture. But my impressions turned sour pretty quickly.
I stood at the reception desk for—I timed it—over four minutes. During that time the main receptionist talked on the phone and never acknowledged me. Another front office worker shuffled files on a counter less than five feet away and never acknowledged me. A management type, complete with blue business suit, walked to the counter and never acknowledged me.
I walked around the reception area, nodded to the two patients waiting who were looking as neglected as me, and then walked out. I could have been a new patient. I could have been anyone. They will never know.
That group is putting a lot of money into advertising these days, which is a good thing. Yet no amount of advertising will ever be more important than the basics of a competent, friendly staff member making a good first impression.