Brand strategies for fun and profit. Hospitals can learn a lot from restaurants. Even though it’s a silly stretch to point out that the words hospital and hospitality share the same linguistic root, the parallels remain strong. In any service business, especially ones where clients and customers enjoy personal or intimate experiences, managing expectations is a crucial way to build brand value and improve consumer perceptions.
For example, the restaurant business is the only business I know of that can be utterly devastated by a single hair.
You have your favorite restaurant. A place you eat at regularly, the spot you celebrate your family’s milestones. The owner and servers know you, you can always get a table, and your favorite dish is always available, even when it’s not on the menu. In short, your life is more enjoyable because of this place.
Then one night you bite into your favorite dish and wind up having to pull an unexpected hair out of your mouth. I don’t care how much you love this restaurant; chances are you’re not going back.
If you’re completely honest with yourself you’ll admit that you could find at least one errant hair in your own nice clean home (you could certainly find one in mine). But somehow we don’t extend the same luxurious tolerance to the places we go to eat, favorite or otherwise.
It was lessons like these, learned when I worked in my family’s restaurants as a kid, that helped me build brands for hospitals and health care companies years later. When I worked in my folks’ restaurants, one of the terms we tried to strike from our server’s pitch was “How’s everything?” Besides being a meaningless throw away phrase, “How’s everything?” precluded the server from doing any kind of upselling or establishing and reinforcing the quality of the consumer experience we worked so hard to provide.
Instead of that useless phrase, we tried to get our servers to engage their customers with a bit of information about their meal. So when they served fish, for example, they would mention that the restaurant had a contract with the local fishing fleets and that the filet had been cut fresh this very morning. When the server would clear the dish away, they’d ask how the patron enjoyed the fish, reminding them that it was probably the freshest fish they’d ever eaten that they hadn’t caught themselves.
You can imagine the difference. The first question, “How’s everything?” would usually result in an offhanded, “Fine.” The question about the fresh fish would create conversation and compel the customer to actually think about their meal and comment favorably. Plus, it would give the now satisfied customer a little bragging point that they could use later when they were telling their friends about the fresh fish they just enjoyed.
I saw this same technique of aligning brand strategies used in the health care business when Michael Earley, CEO of Metropolitan Health Networks, set out to cut the wait time in his company’s clinics. The first thing Mike did was insist that his patients be called “customers.” After all he reasoned, why wouldn’t we expect people to wait if the word we use to describe them — patients — is a homonym for patience?
The next thing Mike did was change the way his receptionists answered the phones. To speed up service, they said, “Welcome to MetCare. Do you need to see a physician immediately?” Doing this accomplished two things, it let customers know that if they had an emergency they would be taken care of right away. And it telegraphed the company policy clearly — constantly reminding the traffic and logistics departments to make sure they could live up to the promise.
Managing expectations is a great way to build and reinforce brand strategies but it does require a committed effort to make sure that operations live up to promises. In fact, if the products or services do not reinforce the message then setting a high bar will simply highlight flaws. Because pointing out how quickly a patient will be attended to — or how fresh the fish is — only works when you’re aligning brand strategies and the guarantee is actually met, or exceeded, by the reality.