Why hospital & healthcare referral programs fail

Most hospitals and healthcare providers know that referrals are a critical, high-quality, and high-value demand generation channel. Advocates are willing and happy to help providers they love, but research shows most providers never ask, or when they do, they fail to nurture advocates in a way that generates the most referrals.

I've put together a list of common mistakes I hear every day in speaking with the folks that run some of the largest referral programs in the world and I've included some suggested solutions. As a marketer, I've been guilty of many of these myself through my career but have learned some important lessons along the way about how to upgrade a referral program so that it's the most valuable weapon in my marketing arsenal.

Mistake #1: As marketers, we know that our patients are an important referral engine but we often forget about two other critical targets: employees and partners.

Often when a hospital or healthcare provider thinks about a referral program, our current patients are the first thing that comes to mind. It's true; patients and their families often make excellent brand advocates. But we often fail to see that customers are but one effective means to generate referrals. Employees and partners make very effective advocates as well! Who knows our products and services better? If you're not leveraging all three groups, then you're missing out on a very big slice of the referral pie.

Solution: Create separate and customized automated referral programs and rewards for all three valuable audiences.

Mistake #2: The referral process or platform is confusing or difficult for advocates to use.

Referral programs should be so simple to use that our patients can refer their friends, family, and colleagues to us without a single hiccup. How many times have you left a website, failed to complete a survey or online program registration because the process was too tedious? Required too much information? Too much time? Even your patients won't jump through hoops to register for your program or make a referral (no matter how much they like you!).

Solution: Here are some ideas for keeping your referral program simple and appealing:

● Make sure your referral software can accommodate single sign-on (SSO).
● Consider enabling social login which improves registration conversion rates by up to 50%
● Don't make a referral contingent on entering long ID or account numbers.
● Don't require your advocates to fill out an exhaustive number of fields; chances are good that they won't.
● Make the process trackable and quick, no matter how or where the prospect accepts the offer. Just because a prospect receives a referral offer from a friend online, doesn't mean they are going to buy or accept online. They may prefer talking to a customer service rep or visiting a retail location.

Moreover, the look and feel of every referral program should be seamless, and since most hospitals and health networks these days do a fair amount of brand advertising, referral programs should work in synergy with all other marketing programs or campaigns. If you send your patients to a platform with a different brand (the company running the referral software), they'll get confused. Furthermore, it lowers referrals as advocates don't want to feel like they are doing business with a stranger when they are doing you a favor.

Solution: Make sure the referral software you choose to run your program can white label it for you. If they cannot, you're running a high risk of decreasing your returns and missing out on valuable patient acquisition

Finally, make sure the program is easy to access, everywhere.

Solution: An effective referral marketing platform will provide referral tracking through multiple touch points including SMS, social channels, offices, email, advertising and offline through statement inserts, printable fliers or business cards. One thing holds true regardless of the industry but is especially true in the medical world: the more places at which you ask for referrals, and the more visibility the program has, the more closed referrals you'll get.

Mistake #3. The referral process is too complicated to manage internally, so it is never scaled to its full potential.

A referral program should not impede workflow nor should it require extensive hours to manage for the person or group that owns it. A referral platform should integrate seamlessly into existing systems, allowing for ease of use, minimal training and few noticeable changes to your daily routines once it is up and running.

Additionally, a referral program should not cause calls to your patient help line, already often taxed with requests for statements, online support, new appointments, questions, and other issues. A good referral platform will be able to track from the referral through to new accounts open and accurately attribute that back to the advocate.

Solution: When you begin vetting referral software providers, make sure you get an unequivocal "yes!" to at least the following basic questions. A YES will ensure a more efficient and painless implementation, and reduce the hours your company spends managing the program:

● Does your software integrate with most CRM systems like Salesforce?
● Can we change the creative/design on our own, without IT support?
● If the incentive we choose for launch isn't working as well as we'd like, can we change it on our own with little-to- no effort?
● What is the accuracy rate on referral tracking? (Hint: if they say they use pixel tracking, walk away! It is only 80% accurate!)
● Do your current customers experience a significant drop in escalations resulting from concerns and complaints about their reward statuses or other program-related questions?

Mistake #4: "Launch it and leave it."

You'd be surprised how many hospitals and healthcare organizations launch a strategic and carefully implemented referral program, only to announce it once to their patients and then leave the rest of the program to chance. Your patients, employees and partners are just as busy as you are. They may hear about your new program and have every intention of registering and making referrals, but inadvertently forget. A dedicated referral program is a long term program for business generation. It should include easy ways to spread the word. Simply stated, you need to advertise the program everywhere your patients are.

Solution: There are lots of ways to ask brand advocates for referrals, and they need to be done frequently and strategically:

● In company newsletters and emails
● Banner ads on your website
● On customer satisfaction surveys
● Simple and unobtrusive advertising campaign add-ons
● Call center representative "asks"
● On POS signage
● Salesperson or installer "asks"
● Cards next to every register
● On company social platforms

These example are for patient programs, but the same concepts can be applied to employee and partner programs. Emails, newsletters and employee or partner portals are all great places to promote the program.

Like any good marketing or advertising, the more ubiquitous your message becomes, the more successful the results.

Mistake #5: We forget to say thank you!

We grow up learning the importance of good manners and that usually starts with saying 'thank you' – same goes for communicating with your brand advocates. They already appreciate you. They like your services. They pay attention to what you're doing. And if they register for your referral program or refer someone, you have to make it clear that you appreciate their help.

Solution: Data shows a clear and consistent positive relationship between incentives and program ROI. Incentives do not have to break the bank. While the incentive is definitely a motivator for your advocates, your acknowledgement of their work keeps them active in the program. Some ideas that work well:

● A donation to a charity of choice
● A prepaid VISA or Tango card
● Exclusive access to samples or services
● Company swag

I hope that seeing some common mistakes with some suggested solutions helps you to make your referral program the star demand gen engine it was always meant to be. And if you haven't started one yet, now is the perfect time. Technology has caught up to the complexity inherent in these programs. In today's world where the patient is in control of the healthcare buying process, referral programs are the best use of healthcare marketing dollars to get high quality demand generation with direct ROI.

Trisha is CMO at Amplifinity and is herself a marketer who is constantly evaluating new methods and techniques, with a career-long passion for brand advocacy, referral marketing, and strategic demand-gen initiatives. Trisha lives in Michigan.

Amplifinity's referral amplification software turns customer, employee and partner advocacy into revenue. Our platform provides complete referral tracking and management with 100% accuracy so no leads are missed. Enterprises like ADP and DIRECTV trust Amplifinity to enable high-quality acquisition while providing an engaging, fully-branded experience for their advocates. www.Amplifinity.com

The views, opinions and positions expressed within these guest posts are those of the author alone and do not represent those of Becker's Hospital Review/Becker's Healthcare. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them.

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