It's Thursday, November 8th, 10 days after Hurricane Sandy came through New Jersey. Our practices, in Scotch Plains and North Brunswick were both harmed from the hurricane, its aftermath and the loss of services we take for granted, including electricity, Internet and fuel.
We were on our way to finishing the year with an incredible increase over last year's numbers.New patients, updates and general office volume was up about 15% to 20% prior to the hurricane, something that we hadn't been seen before. Much of the increase came from referrals and from our Internet strategy, as well as the many relationships we have developed with doctors, attorneys and the local running stores. As a habit, our yearly marketing plan is refreshed every January and we program it into Outlook to give us reminders on when to send out our patient mailings, since part of our marketing strategy is to make sure we are "top of mind" with our active patient base.
But a storm like this renders most advertising useless. What saved us in the hard period were relationships that keep your practice at the top of a patient's mind and improve the odds they will be returning to you.
Storms pass. You recover. But what made us strong to begin with, was our brand awareness. It is the reason why our practice has grown markedly, with a trend that began three years ago and picked up steam as the economy has improved.
Another thing that has helped us was our ability to change, as insurance companies have begun to sell high deductible consumer-based plans. We were blind-sided by this last year and saw our receivables' increase by 20k at the end of the year. We have totally re-thought our financial procedures and front desk methods to better handle these changes. This has resulted in improved cash flow, fewer people to bill and better control of the patient financial experience.
Dealing with The Storm
While there was little water damage to our office, our Scotch Plains office had many trees down that littered both the roadway and the driveway that patients use to park. Fortunately, I had many of the right tools to cut wood and some guys with chain saws had helped us clear one of our two driveways of fallen trees. The streets had many electrical lines down and many of the roads were closed to all but local traffic. North Brunswick, on the other hand had sustained some minor damage to shingles and had a down spout that was thrown off the building. However, we were able to run the office at a minimal level for emergencies because we plugged in a standard phone.
Thursday, November 2nd, we regained power and Internet and were back in the North Brunswick office but few people came in. In both areas, fuel was in short supply because the supply line from the gulf of Mexico was without power and because the local fuel refineries also were powerless until the weekend and were not filling gasoline delivery vehicles.
Recovering from this required some thought and outreach from myself and our offices. Staff began to call patients on Thursday, November 2nd, and let them know we were open for business in North Brunswick and Scotch Plains would have normal Sunday hours by appointment. I sent out newsletters and added blog posts regarding the fact we had Internet and a warm office and that if you needed to charge your phone, or just use the Internet and have someone to talk with, we were available. (www.backfixer1.com/blog/helpful-ideas-to-add-comfort-in-the-aftermath-of-hurricane-sandy/). By the next day, the phone began to ring for afternoon appointments for both existing and new patients.
By Sunday, we had 11 people visit us as we treated them in my home office without electrical power. Luckily, my CA's husband was able to come down the day before and wire in our heat from the house to the generator. I ran an extension into the home office and powered up a small heater, my Lloyds flexion table and a small lamp. This worked well and people were glad we were back.
Monday, the phone was beginning to ring some more and people were coming in, but at a much reduced volume from what we were doing previous to the storm and to make things worse, they were now calling for a Wednesday Nor'easter. The storm helped to minimize our business but many people called to come in during the morning instead and we saw a few in the home office that was still on generator.
On Wednesday, the night of the Nor'easter, we closed the Brunswick office early and were set up in Scotch Plains to receive patients Wednesday evening, using the generator and lights to keep the office open. Since we had no land line service, we used our billing sheets to bill credit cards when I returned back in the North Brunswick office the following day. The storm only dropped some snow on the ground without causing damage so we were back in business Thursday in Brunswick and by generator in Scotch Plains.
Scotch Plains eventually had power return the following Monday, but our phones were still out. Since we have always run this office on the iPhone, the lack of credit card availability was a minor inconvenience that we worked around by doing these charges when we returned to North Brunswick. Other than the phone service still being out, our Scotch Plains office was fully operational. Business gradually returned to normal in North Brunswick by the third week.
We learned about insurance and what it would and would not cover. I found out that we have business interruption on the policy which they are going to cover. Since a lost week will cost most offices thousands, having coverage for this can be invaluable. The lesson learned is that your insurance is a life saver and will greatly reduce the financial harm caused by a storm, allowing you not only business recovery but also financial recovery as well.
Where We Go From Here
The business climate should improve from here. While it is understood that those who have been harmed financially will put off their uses of all types of services including chiropractic, many of them will eventually return as their lives return to normal. Long term, I am bullish on the trend that had the office up 15% to 20% this year. While dealing with insurers has been a long term issue for all of us, it is important to make sure you are properly insured. While FEMA offered to help businesses with loans, proper insurance should make this unnecessary since your insurance will fill in most of the gaps in cash flow and the losses incurred. We are well prepared for the future, with the only unknown being the weather.
Dr. William D Charschan, DC, CCSP, runs two practices in North Brunswick and Scotch Plains, New Jersey. For more information, visit www.backfixer1.com, www.njrunningdoc.com, www.politicalpostures.com or www.whypeoplehurt.com.