Marketing | January 2018 Hearing Review

An essential facet in the approaching new age of OTC hearing devices.

We must embrace the new OTC technology because of the role it can play in the service of our patients’ hearing care needs. We can expand the market by providing it as a treatment option. We can implement our patient loyalty programs and make sure we hold on to the FDA-approved hearing aid market that is currently served. These new patients/entrants into our practices should stay loyal to us for all of their fitting needs, trading up when medically necessary, all their lives.

Over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aid legislation continues its inevitable progress through the government, weaving through the lobbyists, various committees and hearings, being passed by Congress, and now landing in the laps of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Soon enough, the current set of stakeholders in hearing healthcare must deal with this change. It cannot be ignored. Yet there are those who will do so, accepting the risk that they will not be impacted—as though OTCs and personal sound amplification products (PSAPs) never existed.

Those who prepare well now will do best in adapting to and surviving the disruptions to the audiology marketplace. Now is a good time to review your loyalty marketing strategies.

What is Loyalty Marketing?

Loyalty marketing refers to building trust among current customers, and rewarding them for consistently conducting business with your company, so that they will continue to do so.

For many companies, 80% of their business comes from 20% of their customer base.1 In previous generations, loyalty programs often came in the form of redeeming proofs of purchase for special products (eg, Green Stamps for those of you old enough to remember them!). Today, they are more commonly operated through card purchases using digital information. In turn, this digital information can be used to discover more methods of instilling and reinforcing customer loyalty.

Incentive programs have gained significant traction online. By some estimates, 43% of companies that use incentives to increase customer loyalty do so using the Internet as a channel.

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Hearing Healthcare and Loyalty Programs

Audiologists and hearing aid specialists can and must employ continuous, long-term loyalty marketing programs. Existing customers cost less to reach and sell, are usually less vulnerable to competition, and buy more over the long term. Data across all businesses show that a 5% increase in the customer retention rate tends to increase profits by 25-125%.

The loyalty business model relies on training employees to achieve a specific paradigm: Quality of product or service leads to customer satisfaction, which leads to customer loyalty, which leads to increased profitability. Loyalty marketing is an extension of that effort, relying on incentives, word of mouth, and patient-to-patient referrals to attract new business.

Incentive programs. Hearing healthcare practices can offer patients who are consistent appointment keepers a “points program” or “punch card” for each appointment kept. Provide a reward for a certain number of points, or for each completed punch card. Rewards could include anything from a discount, a Starbucks’ coffee card, or tickets to a play or the theater. The end result may be improved efficacy and patient retention, or a satisfied patient who may refer family members, friends, or co-workers to the practice, generating new sources of revenue.

Another patient retention strategy includes sending direct-mail letters of appreciation in which you can include new information, differentiation, and technology, or offer a service innovation.  Ask for a response, and incentivize/reward all those who do so. This reminder strategy binds them to you. This helps them default their future hearing healthcare choices to you.

Unique Customers; Unique Opportunities

Loyalty marketing concentrates on strengthening the relationships with patients/customers that a clinic or practice already has. Therefore customers/patients who make regular purchases and/or who are fitted every 4 to 5 years are most impacted by a rewards program, as their repeated business earns them more rewards.

Getting a jump on mild-to-moderate loss patients and OTC. New customers may be reached through incentives and referrals from existing patients/customers. This is a unique opportunity for hearing care business owners who seek to add new “mild-to-moderate hearing loss patients” to their practice by providing the less-expensive OTC technologies, as well as adding their proven expertise to the patient experience—establishing a relationship of respect and trust, and enhancing the possibility that this new patient will return as their worsening hearing health status dictates the need for upgraded hearing aids.

New patient encounters over the phone and in person with your staff need to be open and welcoming. Counsel patients to come to you first. It will be more expensive for patients to purchase an OTC product from a retail outlet and then visit a hearing healthcare provider for programming expertise. Recently published audiology research documents a 45% return rate by customers who attempted to self-fit OTC hearing aids.2 Hearing care professionals can help prevent this and earn the loyalty of these new entrants into the world of hearing healthcare.

Can you incentivize or reward them for making you the “first-fitting choice” or “preferred provider?” Absolutely, yes—and you must do so, modestly, yet still send the clear and compelling message that you appreciate the honor to serve them. For example, advise the patient that your computer will notify you when they have made and kept 5 appointments, and they will be rewarded with a choice of 5 theater tickets, a special treat for 5 people, or a 5-gallon gas card, or similar idea. This is all about maintaining your relationship with each patient/customer, and your willingness to express appreciation to them for choosing you and your practice.

Using Your Database to Instill Patient Loyalty

Patient-to-patient referrals are the most profitable return on investment (ROI) that a hearing healthcare practice can make. Yet, as an industry of highly-educated healthcare professionals, we do not excel at this. You may consider offering a reward/incentive for each patient-to-patient referral that is provided to you, sending direct-mail letters of appreciation in which you can include new information, differentiation of practice benefits, and available new technology, or offer a service innovation. Increase the reward into tiers of prizes as more new patient referrals are provided.

Implement a system that can be used to gather and store information. It can be used for market research or to develop more tailored promotional offers to customers/patients. Consider the use of customer relationship management (CRM) software, which enables you to develop a greater understanding of the customer base, as well as create new possibilities for marketing promotions that build customer loyalty.

Special events, picnics, and open houses. Consider inviting your database of past and present patients, as well as those tested-not-served customers, to a monthly educational seminar at your practice location, and provide snacks and beverages. Those who attend receive reward Level 1 (eg, a month’s supply of batteries); those who attend and bring along a hearing-impaired guest receive reward Level 2 (eg, dinner at a fine restaurant for two); those who attend with a guest who is converted to a patient receiving treatment will receive reward Level 3 (eg, perhaps an overnight stay at a popular resort hotel).

Other special events are also great ways of staying in touch with current customers and being introduced to new ones. Consider inviting every patient who has ever been fitted at your practice to an annual picnic. Offer an incentive simply for the act of signing up (a bouquet of flowers, a baseball bat and ball, a gift certificate to the bookstore, etc). A small reward immediately establishes the value of the program and experience in the customer’s mind. Offer to provide every loyal patient who shows up with five new punches on their loyalty card, which can be traded in for new batteries, ear wax removal kits, ALDs, etc, upon achieving a targeted number of punched holes in the cards. And don’t forget to advertise your picnic or cookout, making it a community event.

Making the Most of Your Good Work and Patient Loyalty

Loyalty programs are an opportunity to express your appreciation to the customer/patient for that loyalty. This helps establish an emotional connection to your database of new and old patients. The ultimate benefits are patient retention and an enhanced, sustainable revenue stream.

Imagine a patient who is diagnosed and treated by you at age 40, with a life expectancy of 85 years. That means over the next 45 years, you may potentially fit her with new hearing aid technology every 5 years (estimate an average binaural selling price of $5,000) or 9 total fittings during her lifetime (total estimate per-patient lifetime cost is $45,000, which is also your gross revenue for this patient). Now, compare this experience to a big-box retailer that “churns” out patients/customers and potentially fits a patient with new technology every 3 years, charging $3,000 per binaural fitting. The total number of fittings over the next 45 years will be 15 for this same patient. Of course, you can’t compete on average selling price, but the total per-patient cost over a lifetime is also $45,000. There is no difference in total cost to the patient, or in total revenue for the hearing healthcare specialist. It is accepted that customers will pay a higher price for a better-quality product; however, when customer service and all else are equal, customers will decide which provider to choose based on cost.

In this case, you have demonstrated to the patient/customer you are equal in cost. Now you need to differentiate your practice with superior patient care, improved results, exceptional bonding skills, better communication skills, and incentivized loyalty programs that ensure the patient returns to you for all nine of their future fittings during their projected lifetimes. This is how you will compete in the new hearing healthcare marketplace.

On a final note, many years ago, Mercedes-Benz arguably made the world’s finest luxury automobile. The price was high, and the market, though profitable, needed to be expanded. Company leaders were reluctant to add a less-expensive model to their product line, fearing a weakening of the brand’s reputation for excellence. They also thought that a more economical version would cannibalize the sales of the more expensive brand leader. Their fears were unjustified; the Mercedes’ board members voted to allow the marketing department to proceed with manufacturing and selling the lesser version of their brand leader. The obvious result was an expansion of their market to more willing buyers who could afford the less-expensive, top-of-the-line model. They substantially grew the market while increasing gross revenue and profitability. And many of those new Mercedes’ buyers whose circumstances improved over time, traded up. That is called customer loyalty!

The outcome draws parallels to the current audiology market in the United States. We fear OTC hearing aids will weaken our market just as Mercedes feared marketing a model that was a lesser version in efficiency, ability, luxury, and price.

This same opportunity awaits hearing healthcare providers in the United States. We must embrace the new OTC technology because of the role it can play in the service of our patients’ hearing care needs. We can expand the market by providing it as a treatment option. We can implement our patient loyalty programs and make sure we hold on to the FDA-approved hearing aid market that is currently served. These new patients/entrants into our practices should stay loyal to us for all of their fitting needs, trading up when medically necessary, all their lives.

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References

  1. MarketingSchools.org. Non-traditional marketing. 2012. Available at: http://www.marketing-schools.org/types-of-marketing/non-traditional-marketing.html

  2. Humes LE, Herring C, Kinney DL, Main AK, Quigley TM, Rogers SE. The effectiveness of hearing aids and two service-delivery models in older adults: A randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Hearing Review. 2017;24(4):12-19. Available at: http://www.hearingreview.com/2017/05/effectiveness-hearing-aids-two-service-delivery-models-older-adults-randomized-double-blind-placebo-controlled-clinical-trial

Correspondence can be addressed to HR or Bob Tysoe at: [email protected]

Original citation for this article: Tysoe R. Loyalty marketing strategies in hearing healthcare. Hearing Review. 2018;25(1):30-32.