Monday, August 10, 2009

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Make The Rounds for Hospital Brand

I spent this past Friday night with my mom in the Emergency Room. The good news is she's fine. Unfortunately, these visits have become a little too commonplace this year with her.

In the winter, she ended up in the same ER twice, and stayed each time for about 10 days. She was pretty sick and almost didn't make it. But she persevered.

So, when I received the call Friday from my mother's good friend that the ambulance was taking her to St. Joseph Medical Center again, based on recent experiences, I was comforted knowing she would once again be in good hands. From a treatment standpoint, she was. But that's where any similarities to her stays at St. Joe less than six months apart end.

From a medical standpoint, the crew in the ER and on her floor for the weekend was what I expected in terms of knowledge and expertise. But their collective bedside manner was much different this time, sans one notable exception.

Don't get me wrong. No one treated my mother poorly. But everyone seemed "less caring" and less responsive, particularly in the ER. Okay, it's a hospital not a Ritz-Carlton. I get it. But it's also not a Level I trauma center. The ER and floor she was on over the weekend were no more or less busy than her previous stays.

She was in the same place as before, yet it felt very different this time around.

For example, the ER staff seemed slower to respond when she needed to use the bathroom, this after telling her the medicine they just injected into her would make her go often for hours. While not exactly what I would call, "bad," the overall atmosphere had a "sterile" feeling and temperament of the ER staff was very matter-of-fact, lacking that sense of real "caring" that was omnipresent before. It also took them a few hours longer to get her up to her room than before.

With the exception of her main day shift nurse, it was more of the same on her floor. After I left the next morning, I tried calling mom three times that afternoon. I was never able to connect with her. Instead of getting a live operator right away, I went immediately into an automated system. I was on hold for up to 10 minutes on one occasion. Once I did actually get a live person, I gave her my mother's room number. She seemed put off that I didn't know if my mom was in the bed closest to the window or door. I told her it was a room with just a single bed and one phone. The woman was short with me and then connected me, though I can't be sure to the right room because my mom never picked up. I called back an hour later, and after going through the same automated drill, I asked to be connected to the nurses station on my mom's floor. The person that answered put me on hold. I was in limbo for 15 minutes. No one ever picked up. I finally gave up. The nurses station was probably no more than 50 feet from my mother's room.

Six months ago, I was singing the praises of St. Joseph Medical Center. I told friends how caring, quick and responsive everyone was and consistently so. I should know, I was there virtually every day and for hours on end. With all the different people she came in contact with, combined with the length of her two previous stays, there was ample opportunity for "impressions." I can't remember a single person or situation that didn't surprise me in a good way. It felt like everyone was singing off the same sheet of music, rowing in the same direction, cast by the same director. I also have competitor contrast, having been to other area hospitals with her over the past few years. St. Joe was a breath of fresh air.

After this weekend, I can't say the same thing. In my mind, it no longer stands out in an outstanding way. Instead, it felt "mediocre." It simply "blended" with other hospitals I was familiar with.

Let that sink in for a minute. It blends. When something doesn't stand out in extraordinary ways, how often are you likely to share your experiences? Well, I don't talk about the Hyatt, Dillards and But I won't shut up about Ritz-Carlton, Nordstrom and Zappos.

Not only am I now less likely to talk about St. Joseph Medical Center in a positively radiant way, I'm less likely to recommend it so vehemently. More importantly, it's losing status as my mom's default destination for hospital care. This is not extreme. It's how most people react when a brand doesn't live up to the expectation it created.

I'm sure management at St. Joe has their excuses. Perhaps, staff reductions and other cuts. As a customer, I could give a rats tail. Likewise, your customers don't care about your problems. We want to know, no expect, that every time we come into contact with something that matters to us, it's the exact same experience unless it's been made even better. Not different, but better. That would mean deepening it, the most important thing you can do for your brand. Not widen it, not reduce it, but deepen it. Much like Volvo continues to reinvent automotive safety.

Even more disconcerting is my familiarity with St. Joseph Medical Center from the inside. I was working for a small local agency 10 years ago. It was one of our accounts and I was a part of the strategy team. While it has a CEO, it's really run by nuns. The two in charge then wouldn't have allowed what I experienced. It makes me wonder who is in charge now. It makes me wonder if they have a brand mission. When you have a brand mission, you know exactly who's in charge.

To that end, I did see some familiar signage around the halls of St. Joseph Medical Center that spoke to its commitment to care. When I saw them a few months ago, I remember thinking, "Yes, and then some." Yesterday, as we exited, I thought, "What happened?" No longer a promise of value, those posters were now just taking up space on the wall.

St. Joseph Medical Center needs to figure out its identity and get back to outstanding. Because it's clear from my collection of experiences with it, those on the inside don't really know or understand the expectation, particularly how to live it every single minute of every day, regardless of shift, department, employee or volunteer, CEO or nun, etc. Everyone must be oriented, trained, tested, retrained, and constantly immersed in how to deliver upon the brand mission. Even external partners and vendors. If a brand mission doesn't exist, it needs to create one to crystallize it for everyone, and create internal programs that will bring the brand mission to life. This is how you build a powerful brand. From the inside-out.

Everyone must also be held accountable to the brand mission. If they aren't, rest assured, they will be by their customers and prospects. I'm using a blog to speak to the two different St. Joseph Medical Centers I have now experienced. Management may never read it. Rest assured, there are other vehicles available to people today that can create groundswell faster than you can say, "Uh, oh."

Bottom line: You can't afford to let your brand become a Jekyll and Hyde.

These are my Guts feelings.