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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Everything Matters

On my umpteenth commute through an airport this past year, I picked up a book from Tom Peters' Essentials series called "Design." It's a quick and entertaining read perfectly designed for cover to cover perusal over the typical span of time one spends waiting for planes, waiting on planes, riding on planes, deplaning - well, you get the idea.

Peters hooked me on page 16 under a quick passage called 'Hotel Hell.' What any road warrior will tell you is that after getting up at 4 am for a 6 am flight to make an 9 am meeting that finishes at 4 pm in time for you to catch a 7 pm to arrive at the next stop by 9 pm where you get to your hotel by 10 pm and hope to catch up on the day's emails and prep for tomorrow's meeting before falling to sleep at midnight -- what MAKES YOU CRAZY is that most of the time, you are moving furniture or crawling around to find a power outlet close enough to lounge on the most comfortable piece of furniture with your laptop. To quote "only 1 in 10 or 15 hotels get it." It, being that after 16 to 17 hours of hard labor, the last place I want to sit and work is "at a crappy desk, with unbelievably crappy desk chairs. "

The point Peters makes is that design is the principal difference between 'function' and 'experience.' Peters explains, "For me, design encompasses not just manufactured goods . . . but a company's entire value proposition. In other words, every aspect, tangible and otherwise, of the experience on offer by the company."

In other words, everything counts. And it counts from our customer's point of view. Walk into Apple, Starbucks, Whole Foods -- look up, down and sideways -- everything from layout to decor to uniforms to product mix to technology to employee engagement is purposefully designed to create an indelible experience. Customer experiences create brand perceptions, brand perceptions influence consumer behaviors, consumer behaviors drive business outcomes. It's a pretty simple formula.

How many of us as health care executives have spent the day waiting in our own emergency rooms, sat in a hallway half dressed for hours, tried to call and schedule an appointment with a doctor's office on our lunch break, met a registration clerk that doesn't look up while barking 'next,' didn't get the call about biopsy results because no one thought it was necessary to report a happy negative, tried to schedule appointments around working hours, filled out the same information over and over on forms -- should I go on? The point is -- it all matters. No matter how much we fall in love with the 'promise' of our brand, it's the 'action' of the brand that imprints like permanent ink.

Fast forward to chapter 3: "We continue to talk about 'service and quality' as the key attributes of value; instead we must understand that "EXPERIENCE" is not only a very big word . . . with far reaching implications . . . but it is nothing short of the basis for a . . . totally re-imagined organizational life form. (Truly.)"

(Composed after finding a power outlet behind the bed)

Friday, November 28, 2008

From Brand Promises to Brand Action

Healthcare is one of the most competitive of US industries; and one of the more complex in which marketing and brand strategies are developed and executed. The growing demand and influence of aging, informed consumers, increasingly tighter integration and alignment between health systems and physicians, complicated reimbursement mechanisms and higher deductibles, widespread shortages of physicians, nurses and other staff, and challenging economics are creating an environment in which brand is growing in importance as a strategic asset.

So how do you turn your brand into the secret weapon of the health system’s competitive arsenal? By embracing the concept that brands are built more powerfully through the customer experience than through promotions alone; that great brands are created by integrated business, brand and marketing strategies.

For too long, health systems have driven brand building solely from the marketing department and primarily through a communications perspective where brand promises are created from positioning themes and communicated through a wide variety of promotions vehicles. Not because marketers covet sole control of brand management – I know plenty that worry daily about their company’s ability to live up to advertised promises – but because the broader organization has not realized the importance of the customer experience in creating powerful, relevant and defensible brands. And consequently, have not aligned services, products, processes, systems, employees and communications to deliver the brand experience consistently – every day, every time. Creating expectations you can’t meet is the fastest path to brand irrelevancy.

I propose that we set aside the idea of a ‘brand promise’ and think of brand as the health system’s value proposition towards its patients, customers and constituencies. Thus, the brand value proposition becomes the sum total of benefits – emotional, practical – which gives meaning to the customer experience and builds stronger, more loyal relationships. As Kent Seltman, now retired CMO for the Mayo Clinic, puts it – ‘our brand is built everyday on the fly by every employee that interacts with our patients.’

In the enduring lyrics of Elvis Presley, what brands need now is a ‘little less conversation, a little more action.’

Monday, November 24, 2008

In Pursuit of Competitive Advantage

The most important decisions faced by healthcare executives and governing boards are, more often than not, posed by the marketplace. The expectations and actions of consumers, doctors, government agencies, philanthropists, stockholders, suppliers, the labor market and industry at large continually reset both requirements for success and the rules of competition. The development and implementation of strategy is the principal means to create and sustain competitive advantage over the long term. It requires continuous leadership attention and engagement in ever-higher levels of strategic thinking, discussion and decision-making.

Successful organizations approach strategy as a compilation of processes to discern the boundaries of the business, redefine the basis of competition, and create an organization capable of success in ever-changing and unpredictable markets. Strategy cannot be delegated; it is the core duty of executives and boards to define the future and to lead the company, its people, its customers, and even its competitors, in that direction.

Strategic leaders – those at the forefront of markets and industries – approach strategy formulation and execution in myriad ways. Of more interest are the commonalities that characterize great strategists and great organizations, and form the foundation for great plans – among them an artful mix of analytical processes and intuitive leaps of faith; strategic thinking skills that engage discussion at all levels about the future and its potential opportunities and threats; a willingness to recognize weaknesses and challenge prior successes; a laser focus on what’s important; and a long view that is little obscured by short term and lesser significant issues.

This blog exists to explore matters of strategy -- especially as it is practiced by market-driving companies. I invite you to join the discussion.