Details matter. Picture your favorite restaurant—the food, the ambiance, the lighting, the way you are greeted, the attentiveness of the wait-staff, the decor—all of the reasons why you like it. For example, when you call to make a reservation, the phone is answered quickly and a pleasant person answers your questions. It’s always clean. In fact, it’s often so clean you almost never think about how clean it is. The restrooms always have paper towels and full soap dispensers. Your table is ready when you arrive. Your waitperson seems genuinely interested in your satisfaction and seems to know intuitively when you need something. The food is hot and comes to you exactly as ordered. When you want the check, it’s easy to get the waiter’s attention.

Guess what? You have just had a great brand experience. This is something that is hard to define, but you know exactly when you have had one. One of the reasons a great brand experience is so hard to define is that it is made up of many small factors, which add up to a gestalt feeling of emotional satisfaction—something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s also created by everyone who comes in contact with the customer.

A brand experience is something that you, as a hearing care professional, need to deliver to have a successful practice—every day with every patient.

How is this relevant to you? Competition. In most markets, patients have a number of hearing care practices to choose from. They will ask friends and family members for recommendations, and you want to be the one recommended.

With 22 million Americans—about 8% of the population—affected by impaired hearing, and only 5 million owning hearing aids, there is a large untapped market for dispensing professionals.1 What can help set you apart from the competition is the way you interact with current and prospective patients and market your practice.

What Is a Brand Experience?

A brand experience can be broken down into two components: 1) the tangible, and 2) the emotional. The tangible part is often black and white: What is the product and does it accomplish the task? The emotional side is the elusive part of the equation:

  • Does the user trust the provider to find the best solution for him or her?
  • Does the user feel good about working with and ultimately buying from the practitioner?

This is also the part of the brand experience that is the most powerful, and oftentimes, the most challenging.

A great example of the power of emotional branding is Starbucks.2 I’m a big fan, and Starbucks is a regular part of my daily routine. As a marketing professional, I love to read about the company. I like to talk about its brilliance in marketing. Starbucks is truly one of the great American success stories of the last 20 years.

Let’s put this in perspective. If you had been approached in 1980 with the idea of building a chain of coffeehouses that would command more than $3 for a cup of coffee, would you have taken it seriously? Probably not. If market researchers had asked consumers about their interest in coffee at those prices—and told them they would have to wait in line for their drinks to be made—the research results for the concept would have predicted utter failure. Yet today, Starbucks has 11,000 stores worldwide in more than 37 countries. It is so successful that even people in China drink Starbucks coffee, and, apparently, in very large quantities.

What’s its secret for success? Starbucks is a highly emotional brand. People don’t go there for the coffee. People go there for the experience. They go to meet their friends or have a special moment in their own day where a coffee drink will joyfully be made to the individual’s unique specifications. They go there for connection.

Hearing care businesses—indeed, all private health care offices—can learn a lot from Starbucks. Patients are not coming to you just for a hearing aid; they are coming to you to find a trusted expert who can help solve an important problem that has emotional overtones and extensions.

You are engaged with your patients in a tremendously emotional experience. Hearing loss carries the emotional baggage of infirmity and old age. Hearing issues are complex—they have their own vocabulary, with words like “bandwidth” and “audiogram”—words not used or well-understood by consumers. Unlike most other health issues, insurance usually won’t cover this expenditure, which puts the entire financial responsibility squarely on patients’ shoulders. And if they are new to your practice, they have the added emotional burden of figuring out if they can trust you.

Starbucks has a saying: “Everything matters.”3 Owner Howard Schultz explains that every Starbucks store is carefully designed to enhance the quality of everything the customers see, touch, hear, smell, and taste. The artwork, the music, the aromas, the surfaces— all have to send the same message.

What can you do to provide to your patients the kind of brand experience that builds their trust? Let’s find an easy way to start examining the brand experience a patient feels in your office. For example, let’s take the magazines in your waiting area. Are there magazines that predate 2007? If so, they need to go. We’ve all had the experience of sitting in a doctor’s office and seeing magazines that are old and out of date. Out-of-date publications may convey that you aren’t paying attention to your waiting area. If your publications are out of date, it opens the door to doubts and fears about what else might be out of date in your practice.

Another factor in Starbucks’ success is the emotional connection it builds with customers. Says Schultz, “We are not in the coffee business serving people, but in the people business serving coffee. The equity of the Starbucks brand is the humanity and intimacy of what goes on in the communities … We continually are reminded of the powerful need and desire for human contact and for community, which is a new, powerful force in determining consumer choices.”3

Starbucks executives and managers alike understand the importance of this personal connection. The Starbucks leaders spend a great deal of time helping employees seize opportunities that positively affect the lives of the customers they serve, and in doing so, building the brand. That’s why regular Starbucks customers find that the employees make an effort to know their names, remember their “usual” drinks, and ask about their children.

Your Gatekeepers: Establishing the Emotional Connection

The opportunity to establish an emotional connection with a patient begins the first time he or she calls your office. How welcoming and warm is the voice that answers your office phone? Does it imply that you are genuinely glad to receive the call, or does it imply that you are so busy that one more patient just doesn’t matter? Patients want to be treated as if they matter—even when they’re not yet patients. They resent being treated as if they were just credit cards with humans attached.

First impressions count. Your first opportunity to encourage a positive feeling is with the voice that answers your phone. That voice must show personal concern and real patience. That voice should help the patient look forward to visiting your office.

This idea extends to the message patients receive when your office is closed. It should emphasize that you are glad they called. Ask them to leave a number and a convenient time for you to call back. And then really call them back during that time.

Let’s also talk about newspaper advertising. Did you realize that Starbucks has built an incredible customer base without advertising? Don’t worry; I’m not suggesting that you stop advertising. But I am suggesting that you review your newspaper advertising to determine what the ad is conveying about the experience patients will have when they come to your office. Many patients are turned off by ads that place a lot of emphasis on price. Enormous discounts sometimes undermine trust. Patients wonder what the “real” price is if they are being offered such a big discount. They worry that the practitioner’s primary objective is to sell, sell, sell, and what patients want is the best solution for their individual needs.

Kelly Riggs discusses the Starbucks marketing strategy in a different context in the article “What Can I Do To Impact Business in 2007?” in the February 2007 HR Archives.

Worth mentioning is a revealing story from a Canadian audiologist. She told me that she always includes her picture in her newspaper advertising, because several of her patients reported that they come to her because her picture reassures them that she is someone who is both professional and trustworthy.

Your marketing messages can help prospective patients understand the reason why they can trust you. For many of you, the reason may be the 20 or 30 years you’ve been in business. For others, it may be that you’ve been certified on the newest state-of-the-art hearing technology. For still others, it may be that you will work closely with them throughout the process. Whatever the reason, marketing with a human touch is key to beating the competition. And remember that a marketing tool is only a vehicle to introduce your brand; you need to follow through by delivering a fantastic brand experience from the moment your patients make their first contact with your office.

So see your brand experience through the eyes of your patients and prospects. Have your friends call the office and be your “secret shoppers” to see how they are treated on the phone. Make your practice look like the kind of place where patients can trust the expertise you have built over the years. Remember the mantra “details matter,” and you will continue to find great new opportunities to grow your practice.

Terri J. Shapiro

Terri J. Shapiro is senior director of marketing and communications at Starkey Laboratories Inc, Eden Prairie, Minn. Correspondence can be addressed to HR or Terri Shapiro at .


  1. O’Neill G. Hearing loss. A Growing Problem That Affects Quality of Life. Challenges for the 21st Century: Chronic and Disabling Conditions. Natl Acad Aging Soc. Dec 1999; Number 2.
  2. Michelli JA. The Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary Into Extraordinary. New York: McGraw Hill; 2001.
  3. Schultz H, Yang D. Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time. New York: Hyperion; 1997.