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Do Physicians Need a "Personal Brand"?

Only if you want to stand out from the crowd, and successfully build your reputation and patient base.

I have the pleasure of going to Chicago in few weeks to attend the Society of Interventional Radiology's annual scientific sessions, and to help facilitate a workshop for physicians on marketing.  While I know that "marketing" is not a new concept to most, the point I'm going to be making about how they, the physician, are the most integral part of the marketing equation, may be.  Shifting their perspective from only looking at what they do, to who they are and how they do things, may be a challenge.  But for docs who (perhaps for the first time) are recognizing the increased competition in the marketplace and the need for marketing to "keep up", it is a message they need to hear.

And why should they care?  Why worry about "brand"?  If you think about your overall goal as a professional, it truly is about growth.  For my IR crowd the bottom line is about leveling the playing field with other docs/specialties that have been marketing themselves longer and have a much higher comfort level with it.  It is about increasing referrals, increasing the number of desireable procedures that the IR docs perform, and establishing a solid patient base for future referrals and procedures.  For anyone, it is about developing a reputation that makes people want to work with you, that allows them to trust you, and gives them an expectation of quality and delivery that meets their unique needs. Creating your brand helps you do this.  And I'll tell you why.

I recognize that the word brand has a bit of a negative connotation for many people... it somehow feels fake, or superficial.  But the first thing that should be understood is that developing your own personal brand is not about creating a contrived image or slick packaging covered in snappy slogans.  It is not an artifical veneer that you put on yourself to disguise or change what's within.  Quite the contrary, your brand is about creating a relationship with others, in a way that is authentically you and connected to your core values.  It is about how you visibly express those values, and the consistency with which you demonstrate them in your work.  Your brand is about building relationships that are based on trust.

Recognize however, that your brand is only as strong as how others perceive you.  Perception of your value is key.  Your brand - what you bring to the table, your "whole package" - exists in the mind of others, based on who they've known you to be and what they've known you to do.  It is a factor of both two things:  your competence (what you do) as well as your character (who you are).  Recognizing this is critical.  How can you create the perception you want others to have of you?

In their book,  "Be Your Own Brand:  Achieve More of What You Want By Being More of Who You Are", experts David McNally and Karl Speak talk about the specific things that you must have to truly build your brand and create the perception of value you need to be successful.  For them, there are three core elements to your brand:

  1. You need to be distinctive:  where you decide what you stand for (your values) and you commit to act on them.  You recognize your unique value (based on your skills, experience, expertise, values, and point of view), and know what sets you apart.  You capitalize on that, not by selling yourself, but by connecting with others based on your unique value.

  2. You need to be relevant:  where you have figured out who your customers are (referring docs?  hospital admin?  patients?), and what their needs are.  You move out of your world and into theirs... you figure out what's in it for them, and how your unique value meets their needs.  Start asking yourself, what do they want?  need?  value?   expect?  ... and then connect those thing to your unique strengths and abilities.  Being both distinctive and relevant in the eyes of others that count, is truly what ignites a personal brand.

  3. You need to be consistent:  where you meet the needs of your customers, and you do that again and again and again.  This is the hallmark of a solid brand - every time you meet someone's expectation of you, you build your brand and you build trust and confidence in the relationship.  Consistency is established by the dependability of your behavior, and this builds your track record and reputation.

Improving Your Perceived Value:

Traditionally, many physicians have only focused on their competence, or what they do.... their skills, their services, their technical knowledge and expertise.   And truly, it is the basis for any brand relationship (you can't build a reputation if you don't have the comptence to back it up).  It is the fundamental reason why you will be in the professional relationship with someone else.  However, it is recognized in the competitive marketplace that one's competence is only the baseline expectation that others have of you. It is required, but likely it will be perceived by others as fairly similar to your colleagues (even as much as you would argue that!).  Standing out also requires bringing in the elements of your character that people perceive about you.

Your character is really comprised of two things:  your standards (how you do things) and your style (the way you interact and communicate with others).  Your standards are what drive the way you deliver your skills/services.  They tend to set you apart from others - e.g., are you known as a meticulous, perfectionist?  or someone who has a high tolerance for ambiguity? ... no matter what they are, they are based on your values, and highly influence how others perceive you.  Importantly, your standards cannot only be lip-service - until you demonstrate them on a regular basis, people will not be completely bought into your brand.  They will not fully trust that you do what you say you do.  For example, if you want to be perceived as committed to excellence, what are your quality standards and how do you demonstrate them?  Recognize that people cannot see your intentions, only your actions, so delivery of your standards is critical.

Your style tends to be the piece that most people think of when they think of "brand".  It is your personality, and often has a strong, emotional connotation for people.  For example, people may see you as friendly, easygoing, strong, aggressive, etc.  It can carry a heavy weight for people when deciding when/how they want to work with you.  While style is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to your overall brand, it is the most visible to others.  As such, it can be used as an important navigational aide when it comes to figuring out how you want to be perceived.  The good news is that there are many things you can do to strengthen your skills in this area.

In my work coaching physicians we often do a lot of skill development in this area, and here are my top 5 suggestions for improving your brand by enhancing your "perceived value": 

  1. Become an expert communicator.  Your ability in this area is one of the key factors that affects how you are perceived by others.  The greatest skill you can have in order to instantly and significantly improve your communication skill is to understand other person's point of view.  Do this through collaborative listening, where you pay attention (no multi-tasking while someone's talking to you!), clarify what you think you heard, and ask for more detail.  Poor listening is the key ingredient in many communciation breakdowns.  If we don't listen and clarify, we are likely to misunderstand the facts, which can have negative results.  You can also improve your communication via the use of open and positive body language - e.g., keeping arms relaxed, making eye contact (not "glazing over", but genuine eye contact), leaning into the speaker, but maintaining appropriate physical space/distance.  Managing your assumptions when communicating is also critical - be aware of any assumptions you bring into the conversation, and try to double-check them with the other person (e.g., I've assume XYZ, is that accurate?").  Good communication is often sabotaged by too many unconfirmed assumptions. 
  2. Be congruent to build trust.  Congruence = Integrity.  "Walking your talk" allows people to see that there is no gap between your intent and your behavior.  Inner congruence to your belief system and your principles (which is an essential part of your brand), inspires trust in relationships.  People see you as strong, solid and dependable, they know what to expect and it validates their confidence in you.
  3. Have a consistent professional presence.  There is power in your professional presence - it is an inherent part of your style and your brand.  Do you have the ability to make a good first impression and keep it?  People will start to see you in this way, and reputation follows.  Small things can make a huge difference: e.g., respecting other peoples' time as well as you own, demonstrating body language that shows you are comfortable in professional situations, making good eye contact and demonstrating interest in others, being organized and in control of what you present, smiling appropriately and using professional language, keeping a professional distance until it is appropriate to be more familiar.  Your professional behavior needs to follow you in all avenues:  in-person, over email, on the phone, and online ... you must be consistent.
  4. Be honest and transparent in your intent.  This is about establishing a balance.  Being transparent, or clear and truthful in your dealings with others does NOT mean that you have to "lay all your cards on the table" with others.  It means that you are transparent with appropriate information and with what you're trying to accomplish.  When people perceive you this way, there is no fear of hidden agendas or having to second-guess you.  There is no misunderstanding (whether unintentionally or not) your intent.  Bottom-line:  figure out what is appropriate to share in each situation, and do so with truthfulness and authenticity.  Err on the side of disclosure vs. keeping things hidden.  People will appreciate it, and trust in your relationships will increase rapidly.
  5. Deliver the results you promise.  The best thing that you can do to establish a new relationship and build trust with a customer is to deliver results.  It gives you instant credibility and  demonstrates that you can add value and perform, and live up to your brand.  If you can do this consistently, you build trust, or what the experts call "brand equity".  Every time you deliver you create a deposit into this account.  The best way to ensure that you deliver is by doing two things:  1)  clarifying "results" up front and managing expectations from the get-go - sometimes people deliver but don't get the response they expected because they didn't take the time up front to establish clarity... don't assume that you know what "results" mean to the other person!, and 2)  ask yourself whether the commitment is realistic - you must make sure you always  underpromise and overdeliver.  To do it the other way around is the quickest way to blow your credibility and to diminish your brand.

For some, the points above are second nature.  There are people out there that are inherently gifted in these things.  But physicians - as a group! -  have not traditionally been on the higher part of the bell curve in this regard, which is understandable.  Medical school doesn't choose you for your ability to relate to others - you get chosen because you excel academically, and then are taught to be technically skilled.  Unless you were lucky enough to have a mentor that was good at these things, no-one was teaching you how to relate to your patients, colleagues or staff in a way that built these skills.  Continued individualistic practice keeps many physicians limited in their ability to build these skills and perform to their highest capability.  Many don't understand why they have such a difficult time keeping patients happy (even though their technical skills are excellent), or why they tend to have conflict after conflict with peers.

But, the good news is that these things can be learned and practiced.  You can become experts in these "soft skills", the things which are now understood as what distinguishes the top performers from everybody else (true across industries and geographies - see Daniel Goleman's work on Emotional Intelligence).  They can truly be what sets YOU apart from your peers, and an inherent part of both your standards and your style.  They can set your personal brand apart.

How do you build these skills?  Find a mentor - someone you know that excels at these things, and learn from them.  Model their behavior and ways of interacting/communicating - see if you can can become more comfortable doing it.  Or, work with someone like me - a coach who is skilled at helping docs enhance these skills and attain higher levels of performance and professional fulfillment.  Or, do it yourself - do your own self-guided learning through books, readings, exercises, and practicing new skills. See if it starts to make a difference for you and how you are perceived.  I guarantee it will.

Reader Comments (3)

Ashley, you have done an outstanding job of applying the personal brand concepts for physicians. As the author of Be Your Own Brand I know good writing on personal brand when I see it! Over the years our firm has worked with many health care organizations, helping physicians align their personal brands with the brand of the health care provider where they practice. Your understanding and application of personal brand is truly exceptional.

Mar 22 | Unregistered CommenterKarl Speak

Ashley, I concur with Karl. You've done a nice job of communicating the essence and importance of a brand.

Our firm is always quick to point out to our physician clients that, at the end of the day, they are the "product". Obviously, being referred to as a "product" is a concept foreign to most, especially physicians. However, for physicians to begin to understand their brand, they must first understand what sets them apart from others within their market - it's them.

Yes, patients expect good customer service from the practice's staff. Yes, patients expect to be billed accurately. Yes, patients prefer a comfortable practice environment.

However, what brought the patients through the door, and will keep them coming back, is their confidence in their doctor's ability to manage their care, be their advocate and communicate with them in a common sense manner. After all, the physician is the "product".

Mar 22 | Unregistered CommenterNeil Hoyt

Thank you both for your kind words. Karl, I have found your book on personal branding the best out there on the topic, and I often both refer to it, and recommend it to my clients. It's great to see the new version out this year! I'm so pleased that you feel I did your concepts justice, and I appreciate your comment.

Neil, I agree that the concept of being a "product" is new to many physicians, particularly those within specialties who historically have not had to compete with other docs for referrals/procedures/business (such as IR). And as you know, it is amazing the power that creating and maintaining a recognizable, consistent brand has on a physician's ability to build the relationships that drive reputation and growth/profitability. It is critical with patients as you mention, absolutely... patients need to trust their physicians and feel that they are looking out for their best interests. It is also true with their physician colleagues ... this truly can be a paradigm shift for many docs who do not (or have not... but perhaps are willing to?) err on the side of collegiality, collaborative communication and trust with their fellow physicians. While fostering growth in their practice, It also has the dual benefit of enhancing their overall professional functioning and personal/professional fulfillment... not a bad outcome.

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