Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The 5th P of Marketing: People

When was last time you got a massage without a masseuse present? Or a filling without someone else’s fingers in your mouth?

Massage and dentistry are two examples of service industries, and in service industries the employee and the offering are many times one and the same--it’s just more difficult to find the barcode.

This inseparability (as us smarty pants MBAs call it) has led some marketing scholars to refer to people as the 5th P of marketing (you might recall the original gang of four: product, price, promotions, and place).

Senior care is also a service industry and staff, especially frontline staff, are definitely a key piece of the marketing mix. Their appearance, attitude, and skills in large part define the service experience and, in an age where the battle cry seems to be “differentiate through customer service”, the service experience is king.

Because of the importance of the service experience, it would be wise to know how customers determine and compare service quality.

The authors of Understanding, Measuring, and Improving Service Quality make the case that customers use their perceptions of the traits of reliability, responsiveness, assurance, empathy, and another group of characteristics called tangibles (all things physical, from clothing to paint color) to gauge their service experience.

Reliability refers to how consistently and accurately a service is performed. Variety can be a bitter spice if it means a new and unexpected hair style every time you visit the barber.

Responsiveness speaks to not only an employee’s ability to provide prompt service, but their willingness to do so. For example, we can assume that all cabbies know how to drive, but getting a cabbie to stop is an entirely different issue.

Assurance, another key piece of the service quality puzzle, is a measure of how well employees create a sense of confidence through their knowledge and courtesy. Courtesy and knowledge must go together: in the TV show House, Dr. House’s knowledge is supreme, but his manner is abysmal. The result is an initial dislike from his patients. That’s fine if you’re trying to create drama, but it’s very bad if you’re trying to fill rooms or sell service.

Empathy is a little more touchy-feely. It’s about showing individualized, caring attention. Some would argue we are born with the capacity for empathy, that it cannot be trained into someone. There are factors, however, that can help or hinder the expression of empathy, including employee satisfaction and engagement, the level of confidence in one’s skills, and simply having the time to develop an understanding of individual needs.

Finally, tangibles are all the physical clues that can be used as evidence of quality. Sights, sounds, smells, and tastes are all fair game. Focusing on the 5th P, an unpublished Willamette University study of hospital customers found that role-appropriate dress (e.g., suit on executives, sweats on physical therapists) and cleanliness were the top appearance-related indicators of quality.

So where does training fit in? Effective training, training that engages the learner and sets the stage for long-lasting retention of knowledge leads to competence and confidence, allowing employees to respond quickly, accurately, and consistently.

Confident in their knowledge, direct caregivers are also more willing to respond and more likely to respond with courtesy. Faster and more accurate responses mean more time is available, and less time is needed, to provide individualized attention. Buoyed by the positive feedback of supervisors, residents, and families, employees take pride in their work and themselves and are more likely to meet, or exceed, appearance standards.

The bottom line? Quality service starts with quality training, an investment that pays big dividends in, among other things, increased census, reduced turnover, and higher productivity.

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