Audiologists and dispensers flew to the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic for Elite Hearing Network’s annual convention February 7-9. Somehow Barb qualified to go. Lacking a better alternative, she asked me to go with her. Somebody has to save that gal so she doesn’t have to ask me to go the next time a meeting comes up.
The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino is a sprawling, all-inclusive resort on the east coast of an island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti. With luxurious rooms, friendly staff everywhere, a large number of restaurants and bars scattered across the massive resort offering
free pre-paid food and drink, and a half dozen pools flanked by a wide, sandy beach, I imagined there would be quite the temptation to skip classes. I witnessed bathing suits peeking from beneath clothing of a few who checked into a class then bolted ten minutes later. Gauging by the stains on their clothing they sprinted from a pool bar to repeat the process, but by-and-large the sessions were well attended despite the attractions outside and sunny, 80 degree weather. Kudos for being a mostly dedicated group of professionals. Hopefully the normal people who attended the Elite event will post their own thoughts about the convention on their blogs. From all appearances, the event went well.
Beach at Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, Dominican Republic. (click to enlarge)
I have just a few observations about subjects covered during the conference. Keep in mind Barb went to all the classes offered. I didn’t. I was a fly on the wall during presentations, usually sauntering in late or escaping early, standing or sitting on the floor at the back of the room to observe both attendees and presenters. With that caveat, here’s what crossed my mind while simply listening and watching.
Ethics: This subject never came up, for obvious reasons, but couldn’t help but wonder whether it is appropriate to accept an “earned” trip from a buying group. Hearing aid manufacturers and a distributor helped sponsor this convention, with a few ancillary suppliers chipping in too. From scuttlebutt I’ve heard at previous events from employees of buying groups, manufacturers pay the lions share of the expense though I don’t know if that is the case in this instance.
Here’s the dilemma. There are studies that show accepting a gift alters ones opinion favorably towards the giver, no matter how inconsequential the gift is. The mound of overwhelming evidence stands in stark contrast to the belief you can control your urge to reciprocate. You can’t. Reciprocity is coded into our DNA. Should we insist on paying full fare if we want to attend events offered by Starkey, Oticon, Elite and Audigy (to name but a few)?
Marketing: Presenters extolled their wares, and attendees talked about their experiences. It became obvious the single common factor that lead to success of a campaign was longevity. Not whether it was good (or bad). Those who talked about their success seemed oblivious to this fact. They described their marketing in detail. Others chimed in that they had tried the same and it didn’t work, always being careful to add “in our area” to not offend someone.
The simple fact is their campaigns worked because they stuck with it for years. When shopping for a marketing plan the question should not be what is the campaigns message and how well it has worked. The first questions should be, how long has this campaign been running and how many iterations have been produced? Not talking about how long a marketing firm has been selling a product. Rather, how long has a practice been running a campaign with favorable results? Any campaign running for less than a year is suspect.
Marketing to Physicians: Overheard a comment, with no lack of sarcasm, made by a presenter talking with a buying group member after the session ended: “Audiologists will spend $5000 on a newspaper ad but won’t spend $250 on a hand-held screener for a doctors office.” Draw you own conclusion what that says about us on the front lines.
MarkeTrak 8: Sergie Kochkin, former Executive Director at Better Hearing Institute, presented results from his eighth and perhaps last survey for the industry. For part of Mr. Kochkin’s presentation couldn’t help but think about Swiffer, the cleaning product made by marketing behemoth Proctor and Gamble. The product was researched to within an inch of its life by pro’s who really know their stuff. Market analysis, surveys and focus groups, the whole nine yards. All looked good. The product bombed when introduced. Was almost killed until a young exec decided to follow a few people home who bought Swiffer. Turned out the research was myopic. P&G thought Swiffer was a cleaning product, and asked people to evaluate it as a cleaning product. However, real customers bought it to disinfect their homes. A small shift in how Swiffer was being advertised turned Stiffer into a very profitable line.
Mr. Kochkin presented results from a series of “What if?” questions asked of hearing aid purchasers. If they haven’t experienced what the question is getting at (the testers of Swiffer held and used the product, yet still lied), how will users answer honestly? This problem has dogged every attempt to understand future behavior of consumers and results are wrong more often than right – by a wide margin. Responses are usually what a person perceives as will be pleasing to the person administering the test, survey, etc. I suggest ignoring every prediction-based response while reading MarkeTrak VIII.**
Ask The CEO: Man, this was the session I really looked forward to. Eight CEO’s, seven from manufacturers and one a distributor. Lined up on stage in front of roughly five hundred audiologists and dispensers. Answering questions the members asked. Unfortunately, the hour didn’t turn into a free-for-all. The execs went out of their way to not offend a counterpart.
Elite CEO panel in Dominican Republic.(click to enlarge)
The first thing I noticed while arriving fashionably late was, the CEO panel looked wrong. Eight middle-aged upper income white folk. Seven men, one woman. Tom Peters (author of “In Search of Excellence, and general thorn in the side of business traditionalists) has proof that a diverse team at the top results in better corporate performance. Financially and product-wise. I guess the board of directors for the companies represented on stage that day haven’t seen the memo. It is only a decade-plus old.
Questions were screened and selected beforehand… by somebody. Read to CEO’s by a moderator who then sat idle until each exec had their say. No challenges, no jogging for more information was done. Not too surprising, though. The moderator’s future is tied directly to not ruffling the feathers of his CEO guests. A third party as moderator, knowledgable of the industry, would have been nice to see. As it was, questions were dutifully and efficiently read, while audience members were by-standers. They could just as easily have watched the proceedings on a screen in another room, for participation was not expected or invited.
The only applause (or reaction of any kind) came after a couple CEO’s talked about making sure independent professionals are protected from interlopers. Wow. Is that the manufacturers role as far as audiologists and dispensers are concerned? We are but a cog in their profit machine. Manufacturers and distributors walk a tight-rope, balancing expanding their sales against pressure from audiologists and dispensers to help protect them and grow their practice. Ours is a misplaced hope. We need to learn to fend for ourselves.
A sole dust-up, if one could call it that, arose while Kim Herman, the new CEO of ReSound and seen on the TV screen flanking the panel in the photo above, stated they don’t purchase private practices and turn them into corporate stores. A member of the Starkey contingent (who, I’ll leave unnamed because it looks like the tweet may have been deleted), not on the panel, tweeted ”Not so!”, referencing Beltone. Kind of accurate and kind of not. A lot has changed since ReSound bought Beltone so hanging a noose around innocent necks is uncalled for. The five people in the audience monitoring Twitter noticed because a few of us chortled at the same time, but that was as far as it went. Either nobody from Elite was monitoring Twitter, or there wasn’t a mechanism in place to alert the moderator of tweeted comments/questions. Here I think you will find tweets made during the conference.
The CEO of Siemens deserves a moment of applause. He described in no uncertain terms why Siemens is buying practices. They were watching as long-time customers were retiring and, given a paucity of buyers, were selling to groups that compete with Siemens. He stated Siemen’s purchases of offices is an effort to retain the market share they could lose if the practice owner sells to somebody else. While it didn’t look like the audience was happy with his explanation, you have to give him credit for laying out his case for all to see and it is hard to argue with his logic.
Kudos also to the exec whose name I don’t know (he’s on the right side of the shitty-quality picture above) and Jerry Ruzicka of Starkey for making comments that were uncomfortable for the audience to listen to, but needed to hear. They addressed the pressures manufacturers face, and related those pressures to how it could effect their dispenser base – both positively and negatively.These two spoke in a forthright, unedited manner that we need to hear from our industry titans more often.
Getting there: A surprisingly large contingent from the Northwest showed up. All shared similar stories of flying to an island peeking out of an ocean just a few miles from Cuba. Usually there isn’t a problem an airline won’t solve as long as you are willing to empty your wallet onto their desk. Not so this time. Fleeing the damp cold of the northwest proved to be a lengthy ordeal. Airport to airport, it took an average of 18 to 22 hours sitting in concourses and planes to get to Punta Cana.
Rather than reimbursing for transportation, Elite could look into chartering a couple planes for next years convention in Hawaii. I have no idea now much chartering planes would cost but given this years allocation of $750 travel expense per person, chartering may be feasible. One plane leaving from an east coast location, another from the west coast. Getting to either jump-off location would be the members responsibility. Or pay for the entire package if ethics is considered, but wonder if the number of members attending would then shrink to near zero.
That is all.
** A high level exec standing next to me must have read skepticism on my face during Mr. Kochkin’s “I guess this is what patients want.” section, for he leaned over and whispered into my ear “Sergei says what he’s told to say.” Not sure I would believe his statement at face value but given the corporate position of a guy I have known for years, there is likely an undetermined degree of truth to his words.