by William Stelzer

Based upon the successes and failures I have seen in the HME marketplace during the past 15 to 20 years, there is one common component that will make or break you: Effective marketing enhances your company's reputation and draws consumer interest in your products and services. If potential clients do not know who you are and how you can provide solutions to improve their individual situations, it really does not matter how well your store is laid out or how helpful you and your team might be.

Marketing is the process of:

  • Making people aware that you are there
  • Relating to consumer needs and wants for your solutions
  • Developing relationships with consumers, causing them to become your customers and fans

Traditionally, most HME businesses have centered marketing efforts around medical referral sources because these sources referred patients to the company, and insurance or Medicare paid the bill for services. As the marketplace changes to a cash consumer-driven model, customers need to learn about your company and how you can help them directly. Customers need to be educated about how they can comfortably meet the challenges they are facing as they age or as their health declines.

If effective marketing is the essential component for success, then what are the essential components of effective marketing?

  • Advertising, outreach and promotion
  • Merchandising and inventory
  • Solutions-proficient staff

Advertising, outreach and promotion is the area in which most HME businesses struggle the most because it is often viewed as too expensive or time consuming. But to be successful, you need to view advertising, outreach and promotion as an investment in the future. Building a good reputation in the community you serve is both difficult and expensive. Advertising costs dollars, outreach costs time and promotion costs both time and money. A company can be successful using one, two or all three, but at least one is required to reach your audience. A good rule of thumb is: You should spend 6 to 10 percent of your budgeted sales on advertising—if that is the route you choose—and spend 40 to 50 percent of your time on outreach and promotion. Most HME companies spend less than 1 or 2 percent of budgeted sales on advertising and less than 2 hours per week on outreach and promotion.

Before you spend time and/or money on advertising and promotion, you should have a good understanding of what your message is and to whom your message is intended to reach.

You should also know if your message is going to reach, connect with and stick in the minds of your intended audience before broadcasting it. You need to develop a well thought out plan for advertising, outreach and promotion, and you need to be able to measure your effectiveness across the long-term. For example, if you want to reach seniors, you need to advertise in publications they are reading and/or on programs they are watching. You should do outreach and promotion at events seniors are most likely to attend.

Merchandising and inventory is another essential component. If you have a store, the showroom layout needs to be inviting and attractive. Products must be easy to find and effectively displayed with easy-to-read signage and inspiring promotional messages/pictures. Customers love to see, touch and feel, so open displays with demonstration products are great. For products that need to be packaged, make sure they are in attractive packages or display boxes. You must have an adequate variety and inventory of products so the customer can make easy decisions concerning choice of products, and they can take the product home with them from your store or have the option of same/next-day delivery whenever possible.

A solutions-proficient staff means that your sales staff can listen to an individual's issues, concerns and needs, and then help that individual find the appropriate solution to effectively resolve those needs. I would say your staff should not be concerned with "making the sale," but instead with "completing the sale." By this I mean they have helped the customer come to the best possible decision and they have made sure that the customer is satisfied with the solution they chose.

In the past, HME staff have often filled an order for a specifically prescribed product or products with no real concern other than meeting the requirements of the prescription. In a consumer-driven model, your sales team will need to be much more responsive to customer preference versus simply filling an order for prescribed items. Because the customer is taking money out of his or her pocket to pay for the solutions you offer, that customer will want to fully understand what options he or she has to alleviate his or her medical issue. You read two sections of bulleted points above. Put together, they result in the following:

  • Making people aware that you are there is accomplished through advertising, outreach and promotion.
  • Creating and relating to consumer needs and wants for your solutions is accomplished by effective merchandising and adequate inventory.
  • Developing relationships with consumers, causing them to become your customers and fans, is driven by a solutions-proficient staff.