November 10, 2016

6 Ways a Silent Competitor Kills

Whether in sports, warfare or business, it’s the quiet competitor that often proves the most deadly. It’s these types of foes that bring us into a fight we didn’t know we were having. By the time we realize they are coming for us, it’s far too late.

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.
—Sun Tzu

For a health system Chief Marketing Officer, this quiet competitor may be the competitor you know well. It’s ABC Health System across the street. You know everything about them because you’ve been scrapping for years. But somewhere in plain site, they are shifting the battlefield. They’re quietly opening new fronts in the fight or changing their brand subtly but ultimately strikingly from the brand you know.

Other CMO’s run into the quiet competitor more from left field. It’s that little system you’ve long considered insignificant (perhaps because you’re focused on a nemesis hospital) who has been subtly shifting their business model and are now fighting you from positions that surprise.

Whatever the nature of these silent threats, their common denominator is that they don’t make these moves on the airwaves. Like a submarine, they move under the surface, rendering them undetectable as they slip into your safe harbor—making their presence known only after the first torpedo is launched.

That’s what makes them so dangerous. As ad people, it’s easy to look at messaging first. They’re not advertising against us. They’re not putting forth a bold new initiative or brand. So all is well, right? They must be the same competitor we’ve always known.

So if they aren’t calling you out in advertising, how do you know if you one of these deadly competitors are lurking under your calm waters? I’m fortunate to work with people who have been in the health care marketing business for 30 years, so I’ve been asking my colleagues, “How do you really know a competitor is going for your throat?”

I got an array of answers and a flowing river of stories but these warning signs were the most common. Is your competitor in the midst of more than a couple of these warning signs? If so, take a hard look at what they are doing.

1. They’re buying docs like hotcakes…especially yours.

When a system is aggressively buying practices and turning independent physicians into employed physicians, this is an obvious threat to your patient pipeline. What is surprising from our experience is that this threat is often downplayed or even ignored. It’s easy yet unwise to get into an advertising war. But at the same time, when a competitor buys a practice that has been friendly to you, this is an act of war—whether you are ready to fight it is irrelevant to your adversary.

We’ve seen it many times over. A rival buys a client’s preeminent referral source and the client does nothing. It’s hard to admit you are nearly reliant on another organization for your success. But if you are, the only thing worse than being that reliant, is to be in denial about it. If you are contemplating reacting to this threat, this is one of the rare cases where the chances are that you are underreacting. If a competitor is taking out your docs, ask yourself if you or your leadership are truly taking the threat seriously.

2. They illuminate your failures…without mentioning your name.

When is a competitor most likely to tout their new online booking app for their ER? It’s going to be just about the time a newspaper shows your ER wait times as twice the national average. A good opponent strikes at your weaknesses again and again. If they’ve never talked about their ortho program before and now it’s their signature, halo service line—take a close look at your satisfaction scores in that service line. They may be seeing something in the community that you don’t yet.

If you are focused only on volume, remember that volume doesn’t lag until well after your satisfaction scores do.  Whatever your competitor is talking about, if it is a pivot to something new, check how you compete there. There is a good chance you either struggle in this area or your strength here is weakening.

3. They change the rules of the game.

As the 1990’s were coming to a close, Microsoft and Apple seemed locked into a battle of computers. Then, Steve Jobs pulled an Ipod out of his pocket. Apple changed the rules of the game and they’ve never looked back since. What may seem like a gimmick or an initiative with a narrow impact could possibly be a game-changer that will rock your organization.

Your competitor may be touting their telemedicine program in one service line right now. But what you don’t know is that they are going to base nearly their entire primary care model on low-barrier access to their physicians. They may plan to turn that freestanding ER into a virtual urgent care. Or something like this.

Be on the lookout for these left hooks that can be devastating when you don’t see them coming. Once a year, ask yourself this question and fill in the blank “If our competitor did _____, it would put us in a lot of trouble.”

While you never want to overestimate a threat, this is a good check-in to be sure you are doing due diligence and accounting for your foe in your annual plans.

4. Expanding their physical footprint…slowly but surely.

We have a client right now whose service area is separated from their competitor by a large park and nature reserve. For decades, there was what was called ‘a gentleman’s agreement’ to not encroach on each other across this natural border. When one urgent care crossed the border, it could have been easily seen as just one urgent care.

But when a health system in your area literally crosses a line, even into a new county, with a brick and mortar investment…don’t take it lightly. Human beings are tribal and from our work spaces to our business plans, borders are real things. This willingness to cross a natural boundary or to plant the flag somewhere new was not taken lightly by your enemy. Nor should you.

Freestanding ER’s can become hospitals. Medical offices can become the wells for referral pipelines leading from new grounds. Protect the sovereignty of your homeland and take even the smallest encroachment seriously.

5. They forge lots of alliances…but never with you.

If you see a pattern where a competitor is forming research partnerships, ACOs or taking part in a joint community initiatives but they never call you, there could be more than a clinical need driving them. Divide and conquer is a tried and true method of warfare.

Your competitor may be making a conscious act to take you down now and then they can focus on what they view as lessor competitors. If an arms race to align with a premium brand like Duke or MD Anderson is underway, you don’t want to be left without friends. Take a look at the alliances your competitor is building and ask yourself where they might look to leave you out in the woods next.

6. They have a new CEO.

Remember that ‘gentleman’s agreement’ I mentioned earlier? Do you know what sparked the end of that agreement? The competitor changed CEOs. He didn’t make that agreement and he had zero intention of honoring it.

Perhaps the biggest indicator of a changing competitor is that they have a new CEO. We’ve had clients who changed CEOs and called us with words like “now you can take the gloves off” or “we want to surprise the marketplace.” A new CEO wants to leave their mark right away and more than anything that means change. It’s nearly impossible that the nature of your competitor won’t change when a new CEO is installed. This is the time to watch them closer than ever. Check their background. What did they achieve at their last posting? Were they aggressive in the marketplace? These are crucial questions when you are facing a new foe.

Do the research and cultivate the relationships you need to stay ahead of these warning signs. This means staying close to service line leaders. They’ll spot the first signs of trouble before your boardroom does. You may not be the first to hear but you can and should be among the first to put all of these indicators together and provide some insights and solutions to your leadership team.

A savvy healthcare marketer is there for all five P’s to consult and assist their leadership team. When you are more than ‘promotion’ to your C-Suite, your stock will rise and your organization will be ready for whatever the silent competitor may throw your way.