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Applying the Zappos model to healthcare

Stacy State-headshot
Stacy State, Director of Enterprise Marketing, ZirMed

Others have written about what healthcare can learn from online retailer Zappos—but it’s worth taking another look at how Zappos’ core values can be applied to any organization, whether a small family practice or a multi-billion-dollar health system. Even billing services and other medical-service organizations can apply the customer- and culture-focused lessons that are at the core of Zappos’ growth and success.

First, a disclaimer: this article isn’t meant to imply that healthcare organizations aren’t already applying these values. It’s simply an examination of how a successful organization in another field approaches the challenges that healthcare providers also face—attracting and retaining talent, building and maintaining a healthy and productive culture, and strengthening customer satisfaction (or in the case of healthcare, patient satisfaction) through exceptional service.

Zappos has 10 core values. For this post I’ll focus on two:

  • Deliver WOW through service
  • Do more with less

Delivering WOW through service

Delivering WOW means delivering a pleasantly surprising experience—something that stands apart from (and above) what consumers have been conditioned to expect. Those expectations differ drastically depending on context. In healthcare, for example, many patients are accustomed to only finding out their total financial obligation after the fact—sometimes weeks or even months later. In any other sector of the economy, this wouldn’t even be conceivable…can you imagine going into a store, picking out a new suit, and walking out with it as the retailer waves goodbye and promises to be in touch soon about price and payment?

Of course not—but in many healthcare settings, that’s still the norm. Patients might expect to be asked for their co-pay when they arrive for their appointment, but they don’t expect providers to know or be able to estimate financial obligation at the point of care—much less request full or partial payment up front!

So to WOW them through service, healthcare providers must coach these patients-as-consumers through the new experience and help them adjust to it—and appreciate the value of it. Here are a couple ways your staff could approach this potentially tricky conversation—at the point of care or over the phone as part of the scheduling/pre-registration process:

  • [in person at the point of care]: “We can actually go ahead and run an estimate for you—we like to do that up front rather than make you wait for a statement. Then, if you have any questions, I can answer them today…that’s often easier than having to sort it out over the phone later.”
  • [over the phone]: “Dr. [Physician Name] doesn’t want patients to have to worry about financial questions when they come into the office—do you have a few minutes so I can review your coverage with you? I’ll also be able to give you an estimate and make sure we take care of anything that we need to get pre-authorized with your insurance…”

Asking yourself what other things your patients don’t expect can help you identify additional opportunities to WOW them. Do you help your patients find coverage they may not be aware that they have, or that they don’t know they’re eligible for? Do you proactively provide financial counseling and make it easy for patients to set up a payment plan as needed? When patients do receive their electronic or printed statement, is the statement easy to understand—and can patients pay electronically using their preferred payment method?

Doing more with less

I want to rephrase this Zappos value slightly to make my meaning clear.

“Empower your staff do more with less hassle.”

If you haven’t shadowed front- and back-office staff recently, you might be surprised at how manual and cumbersome some parts of their day-to-day work still are—pain-points and frustrating inefficiencies that they have to deal with even while being measured on productivity! Intelligent automation and the right software can, quite frankly, make a world of difference, both in terms of the demands on staff and their ability to excel at their job.

Questions you might ask to help uncover opportunities to “do more with less” include:

  • What data has to be manually entered? Is that data available directly and automatically from a payer or third-party?
    • What data is being manually entered more than once or into multiple systems?
  • How much time do staff spend gathering information and compiling paperwork related to denial and appeal management? Do they have to log into individual payer websites or work in multiple internal IT systems?
  • Are work-queues automatically populated and prioritized—or are staff forced to spend part of their day just trying to figure out what they’re “supposed to” focus on?

Taking it one step further—what if your patients want pizza?

You might be familiar with the tale of Zappos CEO Tony Hseih laying a pizza-related bet regarding his company’s customer service. The story goes that one night—a late night out on the town, to be precise—Tony made a bet with a someone from another company that if they called Zappos customer service, the person who answered would help the group locate some after-hours pizza.

True story, apparently.

The Zappos customer service rep, although initially confused, called back five minutes later with a list of nearby pizza joints that were still open and serving. The guy who’d taken Tony’s bet? He was dumbfounded. But Tony said he wasn’t surprised at all—the rep had done exactly what he or she had been trained to do: WOWed through service that defied expectations.

Now, I’m not saying that your staff should be willing to answer any question or act on any request no matter how far afield it is from your primary mission of providing care—but creating an environment where staff feel encouraged to go above and beyond can break up the monotony of day-to-day work. It can also give leaders some great stories to tell—stories that demonstrate their organization’s unique, unexpected WOW factor and that spotlight the staff who are always, behind the scenes, seeking to do more for patients.