Archelle Georgiou, MD

By Archelle Georgiou. At 9:55 am on a Wednesday morning. I was 15 miles from home and making good time getting to my 10:30 meeting until I realized that I’d left the power cord for my Mac computer at home. There was no way I’d have enough battery power to get through my presentation. So, I had a choice: turn around, go home and be late or run by the mall and buy a new power cord at the Apple store.  Since the mall was only ¼ mile away, I could arrive just as the store opened and likely be the first customer. The decision was easy.

As expected, the parking lot had a scant number of cars and I got a plum spot by the entrance. Racing past several stores en route to my destination, I noticed employees in the sporting goods store dribbling basketballs waiting for their first customers. Gap associates were folding and re-folding jeans while Sephora employees were sampling products and primping in the mirror. The mall was empty.

And, then I got to the Apple store…it was packed. No, this wasn’t the day the iPad2 was being released although the store had already received 200 calls since 8 am from people wanting to know if it was available. What were all those people doing there? Buying Apple products; playing with Apple products, taking classes on how to use Apple products, and getting expert help from the Apple whiz kids at the Genius Bar.

After witnessing this scene, it was no surprise that Apple was in the #1 spot on Fortune’s List of Most Admired Companies in America—again–for the 4th year in a row. Apple’s wildly successful performance is not new news to any of you; the high level themes are innovation, product, and brand.  We’ve read about them many times. But, how can CEO and leaders of companies translate these themes into their business? That’s the diplomatic way to tee up this blog. The real question is: What can health care companies do to be more like Apple?

1.    Fit in: In 2008, Apple leaped into the #1 spot in Fortune’s rankings (from #7 in 2007.) Steve Jobs himself said, “Apple products work, and if you buy more than one, they work better.” In other words: integration.

Yes, Apple has a fully integrated platform. But, Apple wouldn’t be as successful without the relationship and integration with Microsoft products. Early on, the company recognized they needed to fit into the prevailing system.

The number of new health care developments that are being generated are dizzying: billing programs to accelerate payment of patients’ copayments; software to maximize performance in pay for performance initiatives, IVR systems that increase patient engagement, incentive programs to enhance compliance with needed behavioral changes. The founders/developers are passionate that their cutting edge innovation will increase “quality and decrease cost.” However, too many of these great ideas aren’t designed to fit into the operational complexities of a hospital, doctor’s office, health system, or payor. And, despite the promise of more revenue and profitability, decision-makers can’t bear to layer any more chaos to an already chaotic system.

True systems integration may be prohibitively expensive for start-up or early stage companies, but at a minimum, be prepared to offer a feasible operational/process solution that achieves integration. How? Roll up your sleeves and invest time in learning how the system is wired: the back office operations in a doctor’s office, the politics of hospital revenue management, the benefits, claim and administration realities of insurance.  

2. Sell solutions..not technology.  Anyone who’s walked into an Apple store knows that the question the associates ask is: “What do you need to accomplish on your computer?”  Fast Company magazine published an article about how Apple employees are hired and trained after one of their contributors worked undercover. The company has a 3-step selling process:

  • Position: Understand the customer’s needs.
  • Permission: Get permission to ask questions.
  • Probe: Keep digging to ascertain which products would be best.

Avoid the temptation to sell your box, your widget, or your innovation. Focus on the customer, the problem they need to solve, and how you can help them accomplish that. Oh…and don’t forget to be intellectually honest. Don’t oversell. Don’t let them buy something they don’t need. In the end, you will sell more and have a loyal client.  Bottom line, Jobs says, “When employees become sharers of information, instead of sellers of products, customers respond.”

3.    Have a problem? Fix it. Now. In June 2010, sales of the iPhone 4 were so successful that it overwhelmed AT&T’s network capabilities resulting in dropped calls, error messages, and, as a result, negative national media attention. Heads must have rolled at 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino, but there was relatively little public response from Apple.  The immediate issue was quietly resolved and then—WHAM!—in January 2011 Apple unraveled its exclusive relationship with AT&T and announced that service for the iPhone 4 would also be available through Verizon.

How often have you seen heath care companies, particularly the larger ones, try to rationalize away their errors and waste time defending themselves? Claim delays, reimbursement underpayments, customer service issues, regulatory violations, security breeches. Intentional errors? No. Defensive cover-ups? Yes.

We are all at risk for making mistakes. Find them. Acknowledge them. Fix them. Like Apple, pay “meticulous attention to perfection.” Do it with stealth and speed.

Recommendations # 1-3 may be easier said than done. Number 4, however,  is simple. It just takes ego strength.

4.    Be Steve Jobs: Jobs is the face of Apple. He is the brains behind it’s success. But it wasn’t always that way. Jobs was ousted as the CEO in 1985 when revenues plummeted. While Apple started its turn around when he returned in 1997, the company’s success didn’t sky rocket until about 2006. So, what changed? Jobs. Take a look at 60 seconds of each of these videos:

How many times did Jobs say “I” or “me” in 60 seconds?

  • In 1996, prior to his return to the company: 13 times
  • In 1997, within weeks of returning: 5 times
  • In 2006, 2 times

Don’t EVER put “I” or “me” in a memo or a press release. Avoid these pronouns in your presentations. It’s not about you. Although you may be the face of the brand, the founder, the funder, and the brains, your messages should center around the company, the team, and how you add value to your customers.

All that from a $80 power cord. 

Originally published on March 28th on Archelle on Health.

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