James W. Wilson, president of The Wilson Group, discusses the components of establishing a solid business model.

Few sights in the business world are sadder than that of a young professional with a small company of his or her own, sitting forlorn at a desk, waiting, waiting, waiting for the phone to ring. It is a picture seen alarmingly often in the hearing business, especially among audiologists newly launched into private practice, says a noted marketing consultant.

“Many beginner and even some longer-established hearing-aid providers don’t have a firm grasp of what it takes to build a practice and achieve genuine success,” says James W. Wilson, president of The Wilson Group in Fort Worth, Tex.

Newspaper advertising represents one of the most basic ways startups and mature offices alike attempt to drum up business, but usually the messages contained in those ads are poorly conceived and, hence, easily ignored, Wilson contends.

“In my local newspaper just this morning were ads from seven hearing-aid providers,” he says. “Every one of them screamed essentially the same message. But, in so doing, all they accomplished was to create a lot of clutter, what I call advertising noise—too many of the same kind of message in the same advertising medium at the same time. This kind of noise confuses prospective customers. If you’re going to run an ad, it needs to be one with a message that cuts through the noise.”

It’s All About Trust
Frequently, the problem for hearing professionals is not that they can’t get consumers to call. Rather, it is that they can’t convert prospects into actual patients or customers. According to Wilson, the relatively small number of undaunted consumers who do pick up the phone in response to a weakly crafted ad too often find themselves talking to a well-meaning front-line employee who quickly flubs the encounter and drives them away.

“The consumer needs to be brought in, treated like a guest—not like a customer, but like a guest, just like they do at the Four Seasons hotel or the Nordstrom department store,” he admonishes.

Wilson says front-line personnel represent the weakest link in the sales chain of any business, and therefore they are the ones in most urgent need of training.

“Your receptionist is the equivalent of an obstetrician,” he allegorizes. “Her job is to deliver not babies but customers. The problem is you’ve probably got working for you a receptionist who doesn’t know how to do that. That’s like an expectant mother relying on an obstetrician who’s never been to medical school.”

The crucial ingredient in any encounter with a prospective customer is, he says, trust.

“If trust is there, the prospect who calls to ask for information will be willing to make an appointment to come in and be seen by you,” Wilson believes.

How does one obtain trust? First, the process requires candor in response to questions fielded during initial phone conversations, says Wilson who has identified the nine most oft-asked queries posed to front-line personnel and scripted what he feels are the best answers to offer.

“Failure to answer a consumer correctly when one of those questions comes up will all but guarantee a lost sales opportunity,” he says. “One of the nine questions is, How much does a hearing aid cost? The typical, untrained receptionist almost always answers in a nervously evasive way that makes the caller immediately lose trust in the audiologist, who isn’t even involved in the call.”

Wilson proposes that questions about cost be answered forthrightly. “Go ahead and give out the prices,” he recommends. “Do that and you’ll have taken a big step toward earning the caller’s trust. You’ll also be back in control of the call, and can then be confident about asking the prospect if they’d like to make an appointment. Chances are they will.”

Lasting Impressions
The Wilson Group, in addition to advice and training, offers an array of practice-building tools. One is a brochure called “The Consumer’s Guide to Hearing Aids,” which is intended to educate prospective customers about various products and options, all the while instilling trust.

“This is a tool that makes your phone ring,” Wilson assures.

The Wilson Group also provides conventional advertising services, such as TV production and the buying of broadcast time for commercials and print space for display advertisements.

The organization did about $1.7 million worth of business last year, all services counted. James Wilson launched it in 1979 during his senior year at North Texas State University (now called University of North Texas). One of the professors acting in the capacity of Wilson’s career counselor recommended the public-relations major become an independent consultant in that field, and even provided him entree to a client just to get Wilson started.

Wilson’s client mix in the early years consisted largely of high-tech companies, those in the telephony industry in particular. Gradually, his business evolved and he began taking on medical-related accounts. Currently, his client roster is dominated by hearing-aid providers along with providers in the various specialties of dentistry and cosmetic surgery.

“The common thread among my clients,” Wilson reveals, “is they are clinicians in search of private-pay money.”

Key to laying one’s hands on private-pay dollars, he says, is intelligent and unceasing use of marketing. Wilson defines marketing as anything forming a touchpoint for the consumer.

“A touchpoint,” he clarifies, “is anything that conveys your value as a brand. A brand is you, not the line of product you carry. Your personal image is your brand. And really it’s your brand that you’re selling. As such, your brand has to convey value in order to attract customers.”

To illustrate, Wilson points to his wife’s recent selection of an ophthalmologist for vision-correction surgery.

“There were a dozen different providers she could have gone to for that procedure,” he says. “The one she chose was miles out of the way. The reason she picked as she did was because, in the course of marketing his brand, the provider she chose managed to gain her trust and persuade her that he was the best.”

First impressions are lasting impressions, so Wilson urges his audiologist and hearing-aid dispenser clients to attire their front-line personnel in scrubs or nursing-style uniforms and themselves in white lab coats. This, he says, gives the appearance of an office that is clinically serious and, consequently, an enterprise in which the consumer can place his full trust.

Value Existing Customers
In attempting to determine the nature and extent of a hearing professional’s customer outreach problems, Wilson likes to dispatch mystery shoppers to that client’s store or clinic. The mystery shoppers are men and women he employs, but whose identities are completely unknown to the provider. After conducting a visit (during which they look and act the part of legitimate consumers), these mystery shoppers write up detailed reports in which every mistake made by front-line personnel and others is noted. These reports later form the basis for many of Wilson’s recommendations to correct the problems.

“We not only mystery-shop our clients, but also our clients’ competitors,” Wilson adds. “It’s a remarkably helpful exercise to know what the other providers in your area are having trouble with—and to know what they’re doing right.”

A stumbling block for growth-hungry hearing professionals is the cost of capturing customers. Wilson calculates it sometimes takes an investment of $1,500 to land just one.

“A practice today might spend 24% to 45% of all the money it has on getting customers,” he says.

As such, providers would do well to recognize the value of existing customers and then pull out all the stops to retain them.

“It costs a lot less to sell an additional service to someone who’s already your customer than it is to sell that same service to someone who has never before been your customer,” Wilson cautions.

An easy technique for retaining customers entails periodically throughout the year sending them postcard invitations to come back to the office for hearing or equipment checkups.

“Dentists have used this model successfully for generations,” says Wilson. “Once you get the patient back in your office, you can evaluate for problems and take care of any you find. But, importantly, too, you then have a captive audience that you can talk to about additional services you offer. That’s how my dentist communicated to me about his teeth whitening service, which I and every member of my household have had.”

In a similar vein, Wilson wonders why audiologists have not embraced the patient-relations technique surgeons and most other physicians have long used to good effect.

“After performing an outpatient procedure, those doctors make a point of calling the patient at home that same night just to see how he or she is faring,” he says. “The call takes only a couple of minutes but earns the doctor an immeasurable amount of appreciation from the patient. Beyond the clinical aspect of a care provider wanting to make sure his patient is doing well, this little exercise is marketing—and trust-building—at its finest.”

The Benefits of Good Business Relationships

Part of the role played by James W. Wilson as a marketing consultant involves apprising clients of trends looming on the horizon, for good or bad. Here is a sampling of what the Fort Worth, Tex-based practice builder sees coming this year and next:

*Businesses, eager to pare marketing costs, will pay more attention to turning existing customers into unpaid goodwill ambassadors. The strategy will be to treat customers like royalty so they’ll rush to tell their friends and relatives about the company and urge them to likewise become customers.

“Influencers are what we call such customers, and they have the built-in advantage of having the trust of the people they’re close to,” says Wilson. “If an influencer makes a recommendation, the person on the receiving end is apt to take it to heart because they know the friend or family member making it wouldn’t lead them astray.”

*Consumers will more and more decide they want to be served not by a bureaucratized health delivery system but by a friendly “somebody” to whom they can relate and place trust in.

“The smart hearing business will respond to this trend by positioning itself in the community as the best solution for the problem of hearing loss and will put a human face to that positioning—the face being that of the hearing practitioner,” Wilson says.

*Newspapers—long a favorite medium for hearing-aid offices to advertise themselves—will reach fewer and fewer eyes. Younger readers are turning off to “dead-tree” periodicals and flocking to alternative sources of information, such as the Internet, Wilson says.

“Newspaper circulations are in trouble, with annual declines of 3% to 5%,” he tabulates. “The 65-plus demographic is still subscribing, but as this generation dies off, newspapers aren’t having any luck replacing them with younger subscribers. To combat these declining circulations, newspapers have moved into ‘pickup’ circulation—usually a once a week mailing to nonsubscribers, typically to new, young households.

“The problem is that the advertiser has to pay for the distribution costs. That means higher ad costs with less and less of your ad expenditure reaching your 65-plus target.”

*Television’s popularity among viewers of all ages will continue, but at the same time will become more of a comparative bargain for advertisers.

“Most hearing practices stay away from TV advertising because they mistakenly think it’s too expensive,” Wilson observes. “But, in truth, on a cost-per-thousand basis, TV is less expensive than newspapers. In a major market, TV may cost $9 for every thousand viewers in the audience, and in a small market it may be only $25 per thousand. Versus direct-mail—$600 per thousand—TV is an incredible deal.”

—Rich Smith

Rich Smith is a contributing writer for Hearing Products Report.