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Customer intimacy – it’s all about caring

June 12, 2012

Over the last eight months I have touched and been touched by the NHS. In sequence my TouchPoints have been: my GP’s practice, ambulance staff, the A&E crew and the Neurological Ward at the Royal Blackburn Hospital, and After Care services & support – full house really!

As someone who had previously only entered hospital to be born, for minor rugby injuries and to visit family and friends as patients, the care, competence and authenticity of the people involved have provided some clear insights into how businesses in comparison treat their customers.

The standout features were the sincerity, humanity and attention to detail in the treatment and care I was afforded – the encounter was life changing, literally, but also memorable for the way that complete strangers went about their business, and in their very being and in their doing, they transcended the merely functional – the task of giving me the necessary medical treatment – into something that was personalised and authentic.

They put their humanity into the encounter – they smiled, they struck up conversations beyond the merely routine, they took time out to reassure me, they did their job with thought and consideration, they kept me informed at all times – they simply went the extra mile and beyond, time and time again. Hey, it was a joy to get out of hospital, it wasn’t a great time, but they made a terrifying experience such that I can say I felt that they wanted me to get better and recover as much as I did for myself. In business terms, they showed customer care, but beyond that, what I’d call customer intimacy.

Customer Intimacy is based on the concept of customer TouchPoints – defined as the physical, communication and human interactions that a customer experiences over their relationship with a business. For example, the TouchPoints regarding a hotel visit: the online booking system, was it user friendly? The actual check-in process – was it effective and welcoming? Was the room allocated per your reservation? Was the concierge service helpful? Were there enough towels in the room? All ‘critical non-essentials’ to the product purchased – accommodation – but they determine the overall customer experience, and your decision to repeat purchase and recommend to others.

Day…whatever, all a bit blank. In fact my mind is totally blank, with the odd flicker…how odd. I reawaken later and notice that I am in the Neurological Ward as my brain is a bit poorly – the phrase I try to keep an open mind, but not so open that my brain falls out seems an appropriate description for that time. My last memory is of the nurses hooking me up to equipment and assuring me that they will be monitoring my vital signs constantly. They are friendly. The nurse inserts a needle into my hand, the intravenous elixir flows I can feel a warm glow.

Later the Consultant who is going to do the rewiring of my head comes to see me with the nurse trailing behind. He asks me some questions, I answer. I think I got most of them right. The Consultant smiles, and it occurs to me that he is happy, if not proud at what he has accomplished; he has a big smile on his face and his tone of voice is different. He was confident-resourceful-helpful as opposed to cold and robotic.

I’d say that the Consultant showed up for me, and instantly changed the context from follow the script and procedure to here is challenge, let’s make it happen. Furthermore, after the Consultant finished, the nurse was also there, giving me reassurance that she’ll be just over there sat behind her desk, keeping an eye on me.

The nurse offers me a cup of tea, I refuse. She gently and confidently tells me that the right thing to do is to take the tea. I agree – she comes across as she knows what she is doing and she is doing it out of care for me. After finishing the tea and the paperwork, she tells me more about what’s going to happen over the next couple of days, and that someone will be along soon to give me the next medication.

I reflect on what happened today and my life is at risk – in the hands of the medical profession. But I trust them. I trust that they will act in my best interests, to safeguard my life by doing the right thing. What is the bedrock of this trust? Three things:

 Firstly, it’s personal. I am convinced that the doctors and nurses are here for me for my specific needs, my welfare, not a routine case. Secondly, the level of competence and expertise being shown, they know what to do, they haven’t just walked off the street.Finally, their focus is on me, and I am the most important person to them at this time, and its sincere.

Now lets take a look at the business world, how do business organisations show care for their customers?  Does care show up for customers like this? In what sense do customers feel cared for? Can you honestly say that the focus is to have this intimacy with customers and give them such an experience?

My local branch of my bank is such a contradiction to this, there are so many ‘customer prevention strategies’ in place. Or a national consumer technology store brand where the majority of staff cannot accurately answer the top 10 FAQs about the PCs in their world?  And the customer facing staff in mobile phone shops – most of them do not have the requisite product knowledge nor the skills to listen and talk with customers. I’m not NASA, just how much data transfer and storage capacity do I need?

Many markets have changed dramatically, with previously successful brands running out of juice due to the scale of choice and frenzied competition. Now, consumers demand great value on customer experience and market leading companies have responded to this dynamic and evolved from ‘make and sell’ to ‘sense and respond’ based around the needs of individual customers to implement a ‘mass markets of one’ strategy.

TouchPoints encourage a business to develop a Service Personality that can be recognised instantly – the way we do business, and the style of customer interaction. This helps a business to focus on its moments of truth – those points where the customer decides if the service personality has delivered on its promise and met (or exceeded) expectations. This creates trust, and Customer Intimacy, creating a meaningful long-term relationship. It gives a business the opportunity to know, in detail, what their customers want and how to treat them, offering personalised products and services based on an intimate knowledge of them as individuals.

The growth of online interactivity and self-service have had a huge impact on customer intimacy. It creates direct, one-on-one conversations between the organisation and their customer base, and provides crucial information needed for long-term growth and potential future sales – the Amazon.com model, as well as its customer facing systems and a key Service Personality trait – are we ‘easy to do business with’? So while banks focus on coffee and iPads for customer interaction in the branches, retailers use loyalty card schemes and points to retain frequent shoppers, and social media strategies abound to inform and interact, if not to track, what are the lessons I can see from the TouchPoints in my journey with the NHS?

Firstly, the difference that makes all the difference? It’s care.

The brain: it’s mind boggling said the Consultant on our first meeting, when he explained in a clear, concise and non-condescending way what and how they were going to do for me. He took over 45 minutes informing me, answering my questions and generally chatting. He had all the time in the world for me, and finished the conversation when I was completely satisfied. I genuine felt he cared.

The nurses talking to me, explaining what was about to happen, pointing out that they were hooking me up to equipment to monitor my vital signs and what they needed to be, showed up as care. What showed up in my experience was authenticity in behaviours and attitude. I knew they were doing their job, but it felt like they weren’t just going through the motions, it was authentic caring for me not as patient ABC, but as a fellow human being. There was no indifference, this mattered.

Authentic caring involves doing what is right including going against the wishes of the customer if that is the right thing to do.  After my first procedure, when I woke up I was ready to get dressed and literally walk home – I felt fine, so I would not take up a bed that someone else needed.  They ignored me.  Why?  They had a better map of the situation – they knew that I was not lucid, not fit to make decisions, not fit to look after myself.

One other thought occurs to me, the level of caring varied from one person to another.  Put differently, caring did not show up as an organisational trait, it showed up as personal quality, which suggests to me that the NHS is consciously, deliberately cultivating a culture of patient caring.

Sounds obvious doesn’t it, and whilst my NHS journey was positive, I know others are less fortunate in their medical care. But set against my business experience, the attitude, behaviour and actions of the staff at the various TouchPoints all showed a degree of customer intimacy that went way beyond anything I’ve experienced as a customer.

A company that delivers value via customer intimacy bonds with customers like good neighbours. It doesn’t deliver to the market, but what a specific customer wants, and makes sure of knowing the people it sells to and the products and services they need. They don’t pursue transactions, rather cultivate relationships.

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