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‘Better to be customer obsessed than competitor focused’: Q&A with NRC Health president Steve Jackson

The following article also appears on the Becker’s Hospital Review website and can be found here.


It’s difficult to imagine a time in history in which healthcare experienced as much change as it did in the concluding weeks of 2017. Super-mergers — CHI and Dignity — unforeseen combinations — CVS and Aetna — and the looming threat from outsiders like Google, Apple and Amazon entering healthcare reveal a deepening battle for today’s consumer.

Only those who most quickly achieve scale, convenience and the delivery of a frictionless patient experience will survive. This will require health system leaders to make big shifts in 2018 to retain the loyalty of today’s consumer. In this Q&A session, Steve Jackson, President of NRC Health, pinpoints five ways bold organizations will manage these shifts.

Question: Do you feel health systems will need to do any restructuring to prepare for a more customer-centric operating model?

Steve Jackson: Most definitely. From the boardroom to the bedside, health systems will need to massively restructure their organizations to become customer-centric. Healthcare’s traditional siloed approach to marketing, patient experience, clinical delivery and population health has only propagated fragmentation. Design-thinking requires organizations align from the outside-in to serve the customer. Expect an influx of “chief consumer officers” to work with clinical leaders to redesign care pathways, as well as centralize the historic functions of marketing, patient experience and consumer innovation.

Q: What tactics will help health systems stand out against nontraditional competitors like Amazon and CVS?

SJ: Despite competitive threats, health systems still enjoy a brand halo and tremendous trust with the communities they serve. The year ahead will require an expansion of marketing investments to build on health systems’ strengths to keep competition at bay. Beyond logos and taglines, 2018 marketing efforts will center on understanding consumer awareness and preferences, personalizing individual interactions, and creating seamless continuity between online and physical environments to get closer to the customer.

Q: What can organizations do to strengthen relationships with patients?

SJ: Most customer interactions with a health system represent a string of fragmented encounters and remain far from relationship building. Establishing loyalty will require deeper learning, where each interaction is compiled to build a better understanding of the patient —both clinical and experiential insights. In 2018, health systems will shift from being budding adopters of CRM solutions to synthesizing each interaction with patients — their preferences and behaviors — driving predictive, highly personalized engagement plans.

Q: How do you see benchmarks of patient and consumer experience evolving in the next year?

SJ: We truly believe Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems-focused efforts will be placed appropriately on the backburner. The measurement system, while a useful early indicator of a patient’s experience, will be exposed as an incomplete predictor of customer loyalty. A fresh start like the consumer healthcare loyalty index, which blends multiple factors of a customer’s interactions with a brand, will slowly replace compliance-based measurement. Today, nearly 70 percent of patients rate their healthcare experience at a 9 or 10 on the HCAHPS instrument. Yet at the same time, more than 50 percent of healthcare users cite frustration with their healthcare experience. Understanding drivers of loyalty requires closer examination of access issues, healthcare affordability and clinical outcomes through the patient’s eyes. Out-of-industry leaders recognize that benchmarking the customer experience across all industries is more valuable than trying to keep up with traditional competitors. Taking a note from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, it is better to be customer obsessed than competitor focused.

Q: How do nurses, physicians and other hospital staff fit into the changes health systems will need to address to succeed in 2018?

SJ: Successful organizations understand that nurses, physicians and staff largely determine the customer experience. To deliver experiences that foster trusting relationships, these professionals need to be allowed to return to their original purpose: caring for others. Barriers to fulfilling that purpose — administrative burdens, redundant tasks and insufficient staff-to-patient ratios — must be reduced or eliminated. Coaching, engagement and resiliency programs are important, but first we must allow all caregivers to spend more time with patients — the joy of their work.

Q: What is one piece of advice you can share with health system boards or leaders to get them started down a path to make their care delivery more customer centric?

SJ:  My advice would be to have courage. You will be one of the first — there won’t be many examples of operationalized customer obsession in healthcare. Done correctly, the changes will be widespread and transformative.