by Glenn Bryan, GrowthMatrix, Inc.

Word of Mouth (WOM) is the act of consumers providing information to other consumers, and positive WOM is the ultimate goal of all marketers.  When patients begin to “spontaneously” talk about a chiropractic clinic with their colleagues, friends, and relatives, a real and meaningful perspective is communicated along with a trusted recommendation. It is this personal influence of trust found within the relationship that makes WOM the best source of new patients.

When you take part in a really good experience, what do you do?  You can’t wait to tell others.  And that’s what your patients do.  Several researchers have shown that positive experiences will generate about 5-10 recommendations (or WOM encounters).  These are 5-10 high-quality connections that you would probably never be able to create alone.  My guess is that with the growth of social media (Facebook, MySpace, Friendster, Twitter, etc.) – your clients may be telling others about their experience in your practice before they even leave your office.  Now that’s exciting, but also a bit scary, isn’t it?

However, what happens if your patients have a bad experience?  Well, what do you do if you have a bad experience?  Yea, you tell people about it.  In fact, you probably tell everyone!  Researchers estimate that people that have a bad experience tell at least 50 people about that bad experience.  And, with social media they may actually be telling a lot more.  Now that’s really scary.

A common assumption is that positive WOM is generated by good patient service. The logic goes that good patient service results in satisfied patients that are then motivated to go out and tell others about your clinic.   The problem with this logic is that it is based on a myth.  Patients in today’s consumer-driven environment expect a minimum of “good patient service.”  If this is all that the patient receives, then this minimum is not worth talking about.   And in the current economic downturn, patients have become even more demanding of the services they expect when spending their hard-earned dollars.  So, average is OK, but not worth telling others about.

Another common assumption is that quality care will generate positive WOM.  The logic on this assumption is that because I’m a great chiropractor, my ability to improve my patient’s health will generate extensive WOM.  This is another myth that all professionals want to believe is true.  The current reality is that many great chiropractors are struggling with maintaining steady patient visits.  So, being a great chiropractor is desirable, but does not seem to encourage patients to talk.

And a third common assumption is that when patients elect to engage in positive WOM, they will describe your practice correctly.  This too is a myth.  It would be interesting to know how many holistic medicine patients describe their experience as, “Yea, they cracked my back a few times and now I’m feeling great.   You should go have your back cracked too.”  Ouch!  This type of positive WOM can hurt just as much as negative WOM.  So, positive WOM that does not support your clinic’s brand is undesirable.

So, patients participate in helpful, positive WOM because of the total experience they engage in while in your clinic.  You must provide quality care and good patient service as a minimum, but you must also go beyond the expected.  You must strategically design a total patient experience that engages your patients in a way that goes beyond the ordinary and expected.

For example, airline travel is a pretty common and a well-understood service.  You arrive at Airport X, check into your airline carrier, board your plane, sit while the carrier does all the work, arrive at Airport Y, deplane, and depart the airport.  As an airline passenger, you expect high quality (arriving safe and on time) and good service (smooth check in, courteous staff, and prompt attention to any issues).  However, this experience will not generate positive WOM – because you expect no less.  This is why most passengers seem to be just complaining about airline travel and not praising its benefits.  If however, you fly Southwest Airlines and an attendant happens to pop out of the overhead baggage container while you are boarding, resulting in a humorous event that lightens up the passengers, which then sets the mood for an entertaining and pleasant flight, then you probably will tell others about the experience.

Now, I’m not recommending that your staff pop out of a cabinet in your treatment room as your patients enter (that would be an entirely inappropriate experience), but I am recommending that you think deeply about your patient’s experience in your clinic and begin to create a memorable experience that they want to tell others about.  Given our reluctance to change, this may be a difficult task.  However, it is important to begin to see your practice the way your patients experience it when they enter.

This is the essence of branding and marketing.  It’s not enough to have a cool logo and some slick advertising.  Patients see right through these items.  Patients want a real, compelling, and engaging experience when they come to visit.  From the moment they call, to setting an appointment, to the first visit, and all the way to when (and how) they get your bill.  The experience is what matters.

To make this manageable, you need to understand how patients cycle through your practice, map out your patient cycle, and then begin to manage the “touch points” within that patient cycle.  The objective is to manage every critical moment you have with your patients to create a total experience that will drive positive WOM.

As part of the total experience, you should be framing the message you want your patients to take away in terms of visuals, words, and themes.  I don’t want your patients to just make stuff up about your clinic; rather, I want you to be “seeding” your patients with a comprehensive and simple message that they can easily use to describe their experience at your clinic.  If the total experience is worth talking about, then you want to give it a message that is true and informative.

For example, if we go back to the airline industry, how would you describe United, Delta, or American airlines?  If I pulled 10 people off the street and asked the same question, I don’t believe I would receive a consistent answer.  Rather, I’d probably receive 10 different perspectives.  If, however, I asked these same 10 people to describe Southwest Airlines, my guess is that they would be fairly consistent: low price, fun, reliable, friendly, no charge for luggage, and ridiculously low rebooking fees.  Now that’s a unique, compelling, and consistent message for the airline industry.

So, you need to understand that branding and marketing involves the total experience that your clients have with your clinic.  Total experience drives WOM!  Both positive and negative.  Make sure you’re managing your patient’s total experience of your clinic.