Word of mouth: Not just another marketing channel

This is a guest post Terri Whitesel, Manager of Online Marketing for DeKalb Medical.

How we built a word of mouth-worthy orthopedic service from the ground up

What do you do when your product or service is not WOM worthy? How do you plan a service experience from beginning to end to assure that your customers will become your greatest and most vocal  fans and how do you make sure that your service continues to deliver on its promise? To complicate things further, how do you accomplish this in a highly regulated, healthcare environment that demands patients’ confidentiality?

These were the questions that DeKalb Medical faced three years ago when it began to transform its traditional delivery of hip and knee replacement surgery services.

WOM-worthy customer service development

Anyone who has been in the hospital or has helped a loved one go through surgery has unfortunately seen the fragmentation that occurs in the delivery of healthcare services in a hospital setting. With so many players — from surgeons to anesthesiologists, to rehabilitation specialists and discharge planners, the ability to keep a consistent and coordinated effort to assure a great customer experience is a challenge.

In the highly competitive healthcare environment of Atlanta, where the customer can take his/her elective surgery to any number of quality healthcare institutions, the customer experience becomes a key service differentiator. So, learning to reframe strategic product development from an “internal, convenience-to-the-organization viewpoint” to a customer convenience point of view was the first step in the DeKalb Medical’s word of mouth marketing journey.

Realizing these challenges, DeKalb Medical elected to rebuild the delivery of its joint replacement service from the ground up. A collaborative team, made up of representatives from each department in the hospital responsible for each customer “touchpoint” was created.  Additionally, orthopedic physicians were invited to participate in the development and implementation of a new service Standards of Care which would ensure a consistent level of service from every medical and clinical provider that a patient would come into contact with. After 12 months of planning, the Joint Solutions Center was ‘born’.

The Joint Solutions Center: Setting the stage for future WOM programs

This dedicated unit for patients undergoing hip and knee replacement surgery incorporates a private dining room and a Joint Gym, both designed to get the patient up and out of bed quickly to join their fellow patients in a group setting. Friendly competition is fostered on the floor through the highly-visible posting of each patient’s progress on a “mile marker” board hung along the hallway “track.”

Every element of the program — from space design and treatment protocols — works to encourage patient sharing. Group pre-surgery education sessions allow patients to meet other prospective patients, and quarterly post surgery reunions allow patients to reconnect with their medical service team and share their post surgery success stories.

Translating great experience into sustainable WOM programs

After months of tracking patient outcomes and post-surgery satisfaction data DeKalb Medical knew they had a word of mouth winner. Efforts now turned to the development of WOM programs to facilitate their patients’ talking and experience sharing.

We knew who our best and most vocal patients were, but we needed a way to leverage all the positive feedback and facilitate the sharing of their positive stories with  people in the community who were considering joint replacement surgery. The solution: A WOM ambassador program whose members would  form a pool of patients that we could demographically match prospective patients with so they could:

  • Talk to prospective patients about their hip or knee surgery experience
  • Participate as guests at physician-led  hip and knee seminars, responding  to questions asked from the audience of prospective patients

Additionally, we wanted our ambassadors out and about at the many hospital sponsored community events, proudly wearing their ambassador “uniform” – a t-shirt stating, I Love My New Hip or I Love My New Knee and across their back…Hurt to Walk? Let’s Talk — Call 404-501-TALK.

DeKalb Medical features their ambassadors in their traditional media.

And talk they have! Every month our ambassadors allow us to connect them with prospective patients in phone calls orchestrated by our call center. At highly-visible events they sport their uniforms and walk the crowd, fielding questions about their new hip or knee.

Our ambassadors’ stories are integrated into our traditional media, direct mail, and advertising, and they share their stories on DeKalb Medical’s YouTube channel. Each month more of our patients ask to join our ambassadors — this WOM planning has exceeded our expectation and has made the long development well worth the wait!

The ROI test: Will prospects convert to patients?

Converting potential surgery customers into patients for an elective surgery that requires them to pay high out-of-pocket deductible is not an easy “sale” to make. The ability to hear, first hand, the experiences and positive outcomes from patients just like themselves has resulted in an increase in hip and knee surgeries which DeKalb can directly attribute to this program.  In addition to surgery fees, the medical center has tracked revenue from ancillary fees such as imaging as a result of this program, and of course, our key customer — the orthopedic surgeons that place their patients in DeKalb Medical’s Joint Solutions Center — share in our success. A true win-win!

About Terri Whitesel

Terri Whitesel serves as Manager of Online Marketing for DeKalb Medical. Additionally, she works with clients to develop word of mouth and social media strategies and implementation programs.

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