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Marketing Disability Services – Focus on What Works

Originally published by Lina Caneva on 2 September 2014 in Pro Bono Australia.

There’s a pressing need to clarify the jargon and to understand the unique nature of marketing in the disability sector – which is entirely different to marketing in any other industry writes Penny Knight, Research Director with the Curtin Not-for-profit Initiative.

I was at a conference recently where the topic of marketing of disability services was being discussed.  It was clear that people in the audience were interpreting the terms used quite differently, and that some of the marketing advice given to them was simply not right for the sector. Many disability service providers will soon need to start actively marketing services, so it is worth clarifying the jargon and understanding the unique nature of marketing in this sector.

Firstly, it is important to separate the concept of ’market orientation’ from ‘marketing’ as they are two very different things. Being ‘market or customer oriented’ is very similar to being person or customer centric.  It’s a matter of culture, attitude, mood and practice and it can’t exist at the front line if it isn’t well established at the board and CEO level.  A customer oriented organisation is obsessed with providing people with what they want or need and we sense it when we receive service.  For example, we can immediately tell the difference between the shop assistant or waiter that genuinely wants to serve us and the one wishing he or she (or you) were somewhere else.   No amount of fancy logos or websites will make up for a lack of caring about customer satisfaction at key ‘touch points’.

Marketing is different.  Marketing is a discipline, like law, accounting or plumbing.  Marketing experts get trained at Uni in a wide range of skills and techniques required to help an organisation to meets its strategic objectives.  Only a tiny part of this is building a website or printing some brochures.  Marketing professionals use skills including market and competitor research (to predict user needs and wants), market segmentation, product/service design and testing, pricing strategy, supply strategy, quality control, channel selection, communications, public relations, promotion, advertising and sales.

Once they have these skills, marketers specialise in sectors. ‘Fast Moving Consumer Goods’ marketing is used by organisations such as Nestle, and Proctor and Gamble which differs from the ‘Consumer Durables’ marketing used by organisations such as Bosch, Ikea and Sony.  Retailers use retail marketing and insurance companies use financial services marketing (some of which is controlled by law). There are specialisations in professional services, health services and of course, in online marketing.

Regardless of the sector, the marketer’s job also includes maximising the return on investment of marketing dollars.

The point is, marketing in the disability sector is entirely different to marketing in any of these industries. To start with, many disability service providers have a small number of customers (often from 30 to 1,000) who are very sticky – that is, they don’t want to switch providers unless they absolutely have to.  As such, marketing of disability services falls into the discipline known as “Relationship Marketing”, which is the type favoured by banks and is all about trust, loyalty, subtlety and long-run returns.

But unlike banks, disability service providers can have intense monthly, weekly or daily contact with clients and develop relationships at a level the banks can only dream about.  If you want to take lessons from another sector, disability services marketing is probably most similar to the marketing of private schools.

Not all marketing tactics work in these sectors and if you get it wrong, it won’t just be ineffective, it can backfire.  For example, for disability services providers, managing your reputation and getting word of mouth referral is absolutely critical.  This means your top priority is marketing to your existing clients, their families and others in their circle. And what do they want?  In addition to getting great service and value for money, they want to feel respected, stable and valued.

They want to know that your business is most interested in looking after its existing clients, and they will be turned off if they see you chasing after new customers, or seeing ‘their’ fees being spent on slick advertising or glossy self-promotion. (These tactics can also turn-off donors.)

Similarly, existing clients want their tenure with you respected and at the very least they want to be offered any special service packages and ‘pricing’ you offer to new ones.  With relationship marketing, before starting a new service or investing in PR, branding or communications you should always ask yourself ‘how will my existing clients feel about this?’

In competitive environments, it will be vital for your organisation to have both a strong market orientation and excellent marketing skills.  Most disability organisations will be new to using the marketing discipline, so it is worth investing in training for senior management and the board so they understand what marketing really is and what tactics are right for your business.

Otherwise it is easy to get distracted by the ‘bells and whistles’, take the wrong advice or appoint the wrong kind of marketing staff.

About the author:  Penny Knight is Research Director with the WA Curtin University Not-for-profit Initiative which researches areas of government and Not for Profit performance, regulation, governance, financial reporting and economic history. She is also Director of BaxterLawley.