You have been Yelped.

If you do not understand the significance of this phrase then listen up.  If you run a business — in a big city or small town, it does not matter — what your customers are saying about you is pretty important, especially if you operate a business in which customer confidence is critical to your sustainability

Hospital CEOs, this means you.  Yelp is investing a lot of resources and emphasis on healthcare. 

If you are not clear about Yelp, read what John P. David, President of David PR Group, wrote in the HuffPost in last month:

“Founded in 2004, the online review site, Yelp, often confounds business owners. It is, without question, one of the dominant review sites and one that often outperforms company websites on search results. What that means is that a search for a particular restaurant on a search engine, for example, could pull up a Yelp listing ahead of the restaurant’s actual site. Now, if the reviews on Yelp are positive, this may increase the chance of a customer booking. However, if reviews are largely negative, the opposite could be true.”

So, when I questioned emergency department employees at a rural community hospital in the Southwest about mounting criticism of poor service and indifferent care that I had read about on Yelp, they quickly became defensive. Their first line of defense was two-fold:  the customers had unrealistic expectations, and they do not understand how our emergency department operates.

Finally someone asked me:  “Where are you getting your information?  Who is bad-mouthing our hospital?”

When I explained that I had been reading Yelp reviews, the employees resorted to:  “That’s not fair. They do not understand”  As that argument evolved and then faded we arrived at the real truth of the matter:

“Who cares what a few jerks think about us.  We know we are competent, what they think doesn’t matter.” 

That point of view, I would argue, is a fool’s errand.  Consider this from  Los Angeles Times writer Andrea Chang.

“The San Francisco company [Yelp] will provide statistics for 4,600 hospitals, 15,000 nursing homes and 6,300 dialysis clinics in the U.S. The information is compiled by ProPublica from their own research and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and will be updated quarterly.

“Now the millions of consumers who use Yelp to find and evaluate everything from restaurants to retail will have even more information at their fingertips when they are in the midst of the most critical life decisions, like which hospital to choose for a sick child or which nursing home will provide the best care for aging parents,” Yelp CEOJeremy_Stoppelman_LeWeb_conference Jeremy Stoppelman said in a blog post.

This is revolutionary.  Aside from the fact that Yelp’s instantaneous customer feedback could change the offerings of the more traditional customer service survey companies, this service will require hospitals, from the smallest rural facilities, to the large health systems, to have digital awareness and a response strategy.  The smart companies are listening digitally.  If you do not believe that, launch an on-line rant about bad service, sit back and wait.  It may take a day or two but sometimes you will get a message of concern from your target in a matter of hours. 

Not knowing what your customers are saying about you in virtual real time is a prescription for a loss of the public’s confidence.  There is only one outcome from that development:  irreversible outmigration to a neighboring hospital that understands how to treat customers. 

The upshot is this:  Regardless of the size of your hospital, you must pay attention to your organization’s digital profile.  If you do not have a strategy and a messaging plan, then get one.  But more importantly, let uninformed employees know that the negative reviews customers are posting on sites like Yelp are real and do matter.