When someone makes a purchase, they typically progress through a series of discrete steps called the Consumer Decision Making Process or The Buyer’s Journey.
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One of the Holy Grails of marketing is to have a complete understanding of the buyer’s journey. Knowing every cognitive, psychological, and sociological aspect that led to your target customer’s end decision would mean you’ve ostensibly ‘beaten the game’. You’d be able to recognize the various different touch points throughout the decision making process and send the perfect message at the perfect time.
One of the biggest challenges in understanding the decision making process is getting a grasp on what is happening in the early stages, most notably Problem Recognition, Information Search, and Alternative Evaluation. The consumer typically progresses through these stages very stealthily- meaning it is unlikely that you are going to have a direct knowledge that they were even progressing through a decision making process until just before or at the moment of their purchase decision.
In the PT world, a ‘purchase’ is when a patient attends their initial evaluation. While we have some direct touch points prior to their IE (when they perhaps call to ask few questions before making a decision, or when they call to schedule their first appointment), we’re relatively unaware of the vast majority of their decision making.
To illustrate this more clearly, I’m going to walk you through my recent decision making process and the actions that led to choosing which PT clinic to attend following an injury. After I made my decision, I began to understand the complexity and thoughtfulness of the process, and realized that there were very distinct touch points that had a profound impact on my end decision.
There is a basketball court right next to my apartment that seemingly always has a bunch of guys playing a game of pickup. I was making a habit of showing up a few times a week for a couple hours to get in some cardio after work. One day, about twenty minutes into my first game, I jumped up for a rebound, landed on someone’s foot, and suffered a pretty horrific inversion ankle sprain. I’ve had serious ankle problems in the past, culminating in a Brostrom procedure in 2004, so I have a pretty good feel for the severity of a sprain pretty quickly after it happens. And based on the pain, swelling, and my inability to walk, I feared the worst. Within a few days, my ankle looked like this:
- It seems fairly obvious, but the typical stimulus in this process is either an acute injury or pain.
I knew I had a bad sprain, but I was still holding out hope that I’d start to feel better and be able to rehab myself. In the days that followed, I dug my old immobilizer boot out of storage and followed the PRICE protocol religiously. After a week, the morning commute to my T Stop was still a dreaded event, I was unable to walk without a walking boot, and I knew there was no way in hell I’d be able to get back to running and playing sports without some formal intervention. In short- I knew I had a problem.
And, as I’ve learned previously, trying to be my own physical therapist never works out. So instead, I decided to find a clinic in the Boston area. Being a recent transplant to the area, I had to start my search from scratch.
The one difference between the average consumer and me is that I am a physical therapist. Meaning, I knew that PT was my best course of action. It’s important to realize that when someone recognizes they have a problem, they then identify the product or types of product that would solve their problem. An average consumer might be considering heading to their PCP, a PT, a chiropractor, a specialist, and a litany of other healthcare professionals.
This is where branding & the #BrandPT movement is paramount. If the general public does not go through the cognitive process of “I’m hurt, therefore I need Physical Therapy”, the chance that PT is their final decision is decreased. If they see their PCP first, he becomes a key influencer in the decision making process. In this case, your messaging would have less effect, as the patient is likely to follow their PCP’s recommendation rather than search for alternatives.
- Branding, branding, branding. Work on your personal brand, work on your clinic’s brand, work on your profession’s brand.
The first thing I did was leverage my network. I know a few PTs in the Greater Boston area, so I contacted them and asked if they recommended any places in my vicinity. I also asked people who work in my building and a friend in the apartment adjacent to mine if they had any recommendations. They offered me the names of a few clinics, and I jotted them down.
Next, I hopped on my computer and started searching. These were the two search queries I started with:
- “Physical Therapy Location A”
- “Physical Therapy Location B”
My reasoning for these searches was relatively straightforward: I work in Location A, and I live in Location B. Having a busy work schedule, it’s incredibly important for my PT clinic to be in one of those two areas (or somewhere along the commute). I went into Google Maps to see exactly where each clinic was in relation to my home and work. So, without realizing it, convenience played a huge role in my decision making process.
Here’s the most interesting thing (that I didn’t realize until after the fact)- I only looked into clinics that appeared within the first few results for each search query. Meaning, I didn’t scroll down or click over to Page 2 to see if there was a hidden gem. I trusted Google to give me the best, most relevant search results. If you weren’t in the top five listings, you weren’t getting my business. If you were the first or second listing, I would at least look into you further.
Once I had my list of potential clinics, it was time to whittle it down to a few final candidates.
- Word of Mouth Marketing is a very strong influence when choosing a PT. It’s a completely natural first step in gathering information, and people generally trust the advice they’re given.
- Physical Therapy is HYPER-LOCAL: I didn’t consider a PT place that was any further than 5 miles away from my work or home.
- Search Engine Optimization deserves more time and attention than you’re spending on it. There are really simple things you can do to improve your SEO. It’s critical for you to be in the top 5 search results for “Physical Therapy Your Location”. If you’re interested, here’s a great introduction to SEO.
After I had a list of potential places, I checked out their websites. I read each “About Us”, “Staff Bio”, “Contact Information” and “Blog” pages. I was looking for:
- Mission/Vision/Core Values: Why do they get out of bed in the morning? How do they describe themselves? What are their values? Did I believe what they were saying, or did it feel like a canned response? I can’t stress how important this was to me. It was the first thing I looked at, and it made a huge impact on my end decision.
- Specialties: While I’m no longer playing competitive sports, I was once-upon-a-time a collegiate athlete. So, I was looking for a clinic that branded themselves as experts in sports medicine, athletics, etc.
- Hours of Operation: This is just as important as physical location. If a clinic is only open 9am-6pm, it will limit my ability to schedule appointments without cutting into work time.
- PT Bios: Staff Bios let me know how many PTs a clinic has, and it puts a face to the company. I may be one of the outliers, but I tend to at least skim every clinician’s bio.
Based on these criteria, I was able to cut my list down to three finalists. And, all of a sudden, I found myself on Yelp looking at the reviews of each clinic. I know intellectually that reviews on Yelp are biased because:
- It’s an extremely small sample size, and
- The people who take the time to review a clinic typically either hated or loved the treatment. There’s no middle ground.
But, I still found myself comparing the clinics' reviews. By the time I was through the Yelp reviews, I was ready to make a decision.
Having a strong web presence is crucial. A well designed web site with information about who you are, what you do, and (most importantly) why you do it helps prospective patients gather information, set expectations, and make a decision.
When it comes to people talking about your brand on social media and other sites like Yelp, keep your ear to the ground. A string of poor reviews can be a deterrent for some people. And, while you can’t delete a poor review, you should address each one directly by replying. When replying, don’t try to just rebuke their claims; be empathic, apologize for their poor experience, and make them feel heard. Tie in the high standards that you set for yourself and your staff, and maybe even offer them a free consultation. It’s actually fairly customary on Yelp for business owners to reach out to people who submitted negative reviews and offer complementary services. If the reviewer has a better experience, they’re likely to take down the offensive review and replace it with a positive one!
In the end, I had to decide between two clinics. Both clinics we’re close to either my work or home, had a strong web presence, a focus on providing individualized treatment, and had PTs that seemed well versed in treating athletes. Here were the differences between clinics:
Clinic A was in a more convenient location. It was a 1 minute walk from work.
Clinic B was halfway between my work and home. After work, I’d have to get on the ‘T’ for one stop (in the direction of my apartment, at least) and then walk a few minutes to the clinic.
When asking for recommendations from friends/coworkers/colleagues, two people mentioned Clinic B. No one mentioned Clinic A.
In the end, I decided to sacrifice convenience, take the recommendations of friends, and schedule an appointment at Clinic B.
For me at least, word-of-mouth marketing was the biggest influencer of my decision. With everything else relatively equal, I chose the clinic that my friends and colleagues trusted. But, that doesn’t mean the other influences I touched on (search engine optimization, strong branding, a well-designed & comprehensive website) aren’t important. Addressing each of these areas is necessary when developing a comprehensive marketing plan.
There are many interactions that your patient has with your brand before he/she comes in for an initial evaluation. Each of these touch points is an opportunity to directly affect their decision making process.
In the end, we need to realize that the traditional way that we look at marketing leaves a lot to be desired. Sending out a monthly newsletter with canned content, sending a gift basket to an MD as a thank you, and attending a community event are important things to do, but focusing on only those things is a grave mistake.
Figure out your patients’ decision-making process. Truly understand why someone chose you, and why someone didn’t choose you. Determine the points where you can affect their end decision, and make sure you’re waiting to deliver a very specific message when they go looking for one.
Improve your visibility, improve the perception people have of your business, and send the perfect message at the perfect time. That’s modern marketing.