A doctor reviews a patient’s lab results. She texts the patient to discuss them. What’s the most important difference between these two events?
The answer: engagement. Those lab results are contained in a database that exists to store and retrieve information. The text messages, on the other hand, require both patient and doctor to actively participate in the process. And that difference isn’t just functional: it has big implications for the way that we interact with and experience information.
A new era
In 2011, influential technology expert Geoffrey Moore argued that enterprise IT—the information and technology that’s designed to support larger companies—was on the verge of undergoing a massive change. The era of what Moore termed “systems of record”—basically, anything intended for information storage—was giving way to a new age of “systems of engagement.”
A system of engagement, essentially, is anything that’s designed for you to interact with it. Its primary objective isn’t to hold information, but to let you communicate or learn. That’s a pretty broad definition, but it represents a huge movement toward thinking about the person—most importantly, the customer—using the system.
So why the transition? For one thing, systems of record are just no fun: they’re databases, accounting or project management systems, or analytical tools. For another, they’re almost exclusively intended for back-office use, not for customers. And while they’re important, focusing too much on your system of record means that clients get left out in the cold, without a way to connect to you or your business.
Engagement in business
The business world has quickly embraced new ways to engage people. It’s a brand-new era, one that the prominent research firm Forrester has termed the Age of the Customer. The idea is that consumers and users—not companies—dictate how businesses work and what they provide. That means that successfully cultivating relationships with the people who use our products and services is more important than ever. “Businesses now cannot only focus on selling products. They should be able to fulfill the needs of their customers,” says Melika Kordrostami, a professor of marketing at CSU San Bernardino. “Customers’ expectations are rising: they want a valuable experience, they want transparency, they want customized treatment.”
Darcy Peters is a customer advocacy lead at Buffer, a San Francisco-based company that helps businesses connect with their customers on social media. “In order to keep customers coming back, you have to show them that you’re responsive, that you’re listening,” she said. “It can be a very long play for a company. You have to be consistent and genuine, but in the end it can really help with brand awareness and brand loyalty.”
Customers’ expectations are rising: they want a valuable experience, they want transparency, they want customized treatment.— Melika Kordrostami
Assistant Professor of Marketing, CSU San Bernardino
And some brands have made that responsiveness a fundamental part of their business models. Zappos is a good example. While the company encourages customer engagement through website reviews and Q&As—which are designed to foster a sense of community among their users—their main trademark is the personal connection they develop with the customers who email, call, or live-chat with them asking for help. Rather than just answer a customer’s questions or resolve tough situations, “we go above and beyond with a personal emotional connection,” says Andre Narcesse, a customer loyalty team manager. “We see with customers that contact us that they have a better customer life cycle, because they’ve interacted with us and had a great experience.”
The healthcare space
But the healthcare industry tends to lag behind, and it’s staying true to form in this case. “We struggle with how to do that, because we have to steer around privacy and other concerns,” said Scott Joslyn, senior vice president and CIO of the MemorialCare Health System. However, he says, “to remain in the jobs that they do, [doctors] are going to have to do better.”
Hospitals and doctors’ offices have their own version of a system of record—in this case, the EMR, which captures and allows providers to analyze clinical data. However, most healthcare providers are juggling several, uncoordinated methods of communication. They’re reaching out—often repeatedly—to unresponsive patients over the phone, and they’re sending out automated reminder texts through outmoded platforms. There’s no way to keep track of communications between patients and office staff. It’s no wonder that, in a 2015 Ipsos poll, healthcare was third on a list of industries with the worst customer service—right behind telecommunications and government offices.
It’s not just a problem of inefficiency. It’s a branding issue. When customers encounter high call volumes and harried staff, they associate their healthcare provider with unnecessary hassle and stress, and they’ll be more likely to ignore the office when it calls—and not reach out themselves. “They want to have a relationship that’s meaningful to them, that’s a form of consumption,” Joslyn said.
That means that providers who use a successful system of engagement will have a tremendous advantage. “For sure, it will increase the competition, because people will like going to the businesses that provide them with customized offerings,” said Kordrostami. Those providers are able to provide a concierge-like experience, in direct comparison to what most patients encounter. They’ll make patients feel that their doctor wants to communicate and cares what they have to say. And they’ll empower patients to take better care of their own health—and enjoy the process.
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Talya Meyers is WELL’s Health Editor. Talya began her career in academia before transitioning to writing full time. She has written for Smithsonian Magazine online, BBC Future, Refinery29, and the Los Angeles Times, among other venues. She is a graduate of U.C. Berkeley and Stanford University.