Considering all of the technical advances and new complexities in marketing today (such as social, digital, and automation) I see the major opportunity for most organizations to be a decidedly analog one. Customer conversations—those interactions in real time, generally face to face—are ripe for improving engagement, service levels, loyalty, and growth. A remarkable study of the conversations between doctors and patients also shows that more proactive face-to-face interactions can even lower costs.
The study comes from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, the Duke University School of Medicine, and several other institutions. The research team studied actual recorded dialogue from 1,755 outpatient visits that occurred between 2010 and 2014. The patients were dealing with breast cancer, depression, or rheumatoid arthritis—all conditions with potentially high out-of-pocket costs. The conversations involved 56 oncologists, 36 psychiatrists, and 26 rheumatologists.
Cost in the Doctor-Patient Conversation
The researchers wanted to learn how often cost came up in the conversation, who brought it up, and what the results were. Among the findings:
- Cost was part of the doctor-patient conversation 30 percent of the time. This was an increase from studies conducted several years prior.
- Doctors were just as likely to bring up the topic of cost as were their patients.
- The cost component of the conversation usually lasted one minute or less.
- In nearly half of those times when cost was discussed, either the doctor or the patient came up with a simple strategy to lower cost.
The most typical areas for cost savings included switching pharmacies, using co-pay assistance or drug coupons, switching to lower-cost tests, and using free samples of new medications. The patients’ overall care plans were usually not affected.
Doctors are Becoming More Proactive
Duke Professor Peter Ubel said, “A lot of doctors are becoming much more aware of the financial stress patients face…they are being proactive, throwing around ideas that can help patients get more affordable care.”
This is a promising trend. The very notion of “improved patient conversations” has seemed like a double-edged sword to many of the physicians with whom I’ve spoken in recent years. Doctors certainly want their patients to see them sooner (before small issues become larger ones), be more forthcoming, and ask questions. At the same time, more patients have come to those conversations already armed with assumptions (often picked up online) and preferences (based upon advertising for prescription drugs). Doctors complain that patients pressure them for unnecessary drugs, tests, or procedures—or don’t follow their instructions after the visit. In response, medical groups are trying to regain control of the conversation. As one example, the “Choosing Wisely” campaign is a nationwide initiative through which medical specialty societies have created lists of evidence-based recommendations for doctors to make when discussing common tests and procedures.
Implications for Important Customer Conversations
There are important implications in all of this for anyone marketing complex and/or higher-priced products and services. Issues like cost are uncomfortable for potential buyers; they feel vulnerable because they believe they are at an information disadvantage. You might lose a sale just because the potential buyer isn’t aware of options and does not want to bring up the topic.
Are you being proactive in your customer conversations, especially around topics that are uncomfortable (such as cost) or where customers feel they are in the dark? This might be your best opportunity to stand out and build stronger customer relationships.