What your medical office can learn from Norman Rockwell

This past summer I got a chance to visit Washington DC. While I was there, I saw a Norman Rockwell exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. As it turned out, the exhibition was the private collection of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. The exhibition highlighted Rockwell’s masterful storytelling.

I didn’t know much about Norman Rockwell before that day. I knew he was a famous American painter and I had seen a few of his replicas in restaurants. But after seeing the exhibition, I got a deep, deep appreciation of Rockwell and especially, how he was able to communicate an entire story with a single frame.

The old days

My 75 year old grandfather was with me that day and told me how, back in the day, he couldn’t wait to get the Post Magazine to see Rockwell’s cover and to read it cover to cover. He also shared with me how Rockwell’s pictures told stories about growing up, how they instilled patriotism and depicted American family values.

The influence of storytelling

The exhibition and my grandfather’s account reminded me of how powerful storytelling is. Rockwell did it with pictures and to some extend he moved a nation. But could we use storytelling to do other things such as inspire patients, communicate with customers or stir up emotions in people? I think so. Companies do it all the time. And the ones that have stories that resonate with the public are generally some of the most recognizable companies in our society.

Toyota, Hummer, Harley Davidson, American Express & Target

A perfect example of companies telling stories are car manufactures. When a person buys a Prius, they are telling a story to others about themselves. They are telling others, (and themselves) they are environmentally conscious and are doing their part to contribute towards the “green” cause. The opposite end of the spectrum is Hummer vehicles. The person that drives a Hummer is not concerned about the environment. We know at least that much.

On a Prius, one might find a sticker that reads, “my kid is an honor roll student at George Washington Elementary School,” whereas on the Hummer, you may find a similar sticker but it reads “my son can kick your honor roll kid’s ass.” Each car tells a different story.

Harley Davidson motorcycles tell a story of freedom, ruggedness and loudness. American Express tells a story of class, success and refinement. Which is the complete opposite of “Capital One’s” story. Wal-mart’s story is low prices. But despite being in the same business, Target has a completely different story. Target’s story is “design democratization.”

What is the story?

The story is essentially how we think and feel when we see a product or a service and what we tell others (and ourselves) about us when we use the product or service. Clear as mud, right?

What does all this have to do with our medical practices?

Glad you asked. Just like Starbucks creates a warm, hip, comfortable experience to support their story (different from the Dunkin’ Donuts experience), we too can use some of these storytelling elements I learned from the Norman Rockwell exhibition to help us define the narrative we tell our customers and patients.

Lessons From Rockwell

1. Define the story. We have to characterize what our narrative is going to be. For example, Subaru has had multiple advertising campaigns to support their story. Recently, they’ve used: “Love. It’s what makes a Subaru, a Subaru.” That slogan reinforces their story that people who own a Subaru, LOVE Subaru. It also talks about the Love that goes in to making a Subaru. It is not just an ordinary car. More recently, they’ve focused a lot on “safety.” That’s a story as well.

In our medical practices’ we too can define our story. We can have a customer service story or our story can be about being compassionate, loving and caring.  We can tell the story about how we embrace holistic medicine or even be known as an obesity and nutrition clinic. A while back I met a dentist that wanted to have a high-tech dentist office. That was his story.

Answer this: What do you want others to think when they hear your practice’s name?

2. Paint the picture. Rockwell used a canvas to tell his story; Spieldberg and Lucas use movies; Apple Inc uses design  to tell their story of sophistication, simplicity and innovation.

In a medical practice, we too can paint our picture and tell our story by how we decorate our offices, how we design our advertising, how we answer the phone and how we treat patients.

Painting the picture is simply the vehicle we choose to tell our stories. It can be done in many different ways. It doesn’t matter how we choose to tell our story. Heck, it could even be a simple as creating a blog for your practice. But always have the story at the center.

3. Cast to support your story. One fascinating tidbit about Rockwell was that he casted the people in his paintings much like a filmmaker cast an actor for a role in a movie. Once he found the right person or group of people, he used them as stand-ins while drawing the picture. He knew that the characters he choose would support his vision for the story he wanted to tell. This was brilliant in my opinion.

Let’s say your story is customer service … do you hire people that can support that story or do you have Ms. Grumpy McGee as the front office clerk?

At their retail stores, Apple “cast” geniuses (if you’ve been to an Apple store, you know what I’m talking about) and Starbucks don’t just have servers, they have “baristas.” Both of which help reinforce each company’s story.

4. Pay attention to detail. Norman Rockwell did not leave anything to chance. Everything in his painting was there for a reason. Every single little detail, every prop, even the supporting characters helped tell the story. In fact, for some, the details were what really emphasized the story. In other words, often it was a little detail that made the story complete.

As Walt Disney once said, “There is no magic in magic, it’s all in the details.”

In a medical practice, there are details that can enhance our story or detract from it. It could be the cleanliness of the waiting room chair or the old magazines or the pictures hanging on the wall. It could be how we answer the telephone to how the doctor is dressed to the manicure of the nurse.

We often underestimate details because, well, they are details. But I’m sure many of you can agree that sometimes, one little detail is the difference between a good story and a bad story.  Don’t leave the details to chance.

Well, what do you think about this correlation between Norman Rockwell and a medical office?  At first, there might not be much of an association when you first think about it. But I think there are many lessons.

Brandon Betancourt manages a pediatric practice and blogs at Pediatric Inc.

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  • http://myheartsisters.org Carolyn Thomas

    Brandon, thanks so much for this.

    Your comparisons between Rockwell and the average medical practice may at first blush seem a stretch. But you are so right – there are many lessons to be learned here. It’s what we call “branding” in PR, and is a well-recognized factor in all customer service sectors.

    But I suspect that physicians rarely see themselves as being in the customer service business, so your essay may well fall on ears that are covered tightly with both hands while practitioners sing: “LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU….”

    As a heart attack survivor, I’ve been referred for cardiac diagnostics and treatment provided by a number of people who neither make eye contact nor even introduce themselves, and whose ancient waiting room magazines look like they were rummaged out of the recycling bin. Each of these details does register with patients. And like it or not, each detail can speak volumes about quality of care.

    For example, my own family doc of 30+ years has recently opened a ‘clinic within a clinic’ that now offers Botox/Juvederm injections and other age-defying skin procedures. I can tell that she “gets” this branding concept because of one simple indicator: the two separate but adjoining waiting rooms.

    Her old family practice patients have to sit in the tiny windowless waiting room (a corridor really, lined with six straight-back wooden chairs, which means when anybody needs to walk down the corridor between these chairs, we all have to uncross our legs and turn sideways). Meanwhile, across the way, her cash-only Botox patients get the large adjoining waiting room with big bright windows, leather couches and tasteful white orchids on the teak credenza near their cappuccino machine. It’s like the difference between first class and steerage – and it sends a powerful message that’s not lost on any of us about which patient group is clearly more important to her now.

    When I recently interviewed dozens of heart attack survivors about physician-patient communication, one woman described her cardiologist as “leaning against a table, filing his nails” while discussing the diagnosis with her. Is a man like this even thinking about what his actions are saying loud and clear to his patients? (More on this at “Stupid Things Doctors Say To Heart Patients”: http://myheartsisters.org/2011/01/13/stupid-things-doctors-say-heart-patients/ )

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