VOC: Using Customers’ Interviews to Inform Decision-Making

How the Residents of a Small Community Are Shaping the Future of Healthcare

December 13, 2012

What can you do with your Voice of the Customer findings? How should you organize it? To whom should you provide it? What will make busy executives really pay attention to what customers need and want?

In this not-for-profit community-based healthcare example, we used the court of public opinion. Customers’ VOC was shared widely and publicly in order to convince executives to reverse (or at least delay) their decision to close the community’s hospital.


Here’s how I used Voice of the Customer interviews to help support a grassroots community effort: the movement to save our town’s hospital. The parent healthcare organization had announced their decision as a fait accompli on July 31st, 2012. They told us the change would take effect on April 1st, 2013. They had not involved community members (nor employees) in their decision-making.

By reaching out to people who had used the hospital and gathering their stories, concerns, and ideas, I was able to clearly capture the voices of the community members. They felt heard. They felt empowered. This VOC outreach was one of many grass roots efforts that have taken place in our community over the past five months. And it worked! By publicizing and amplifying the voices of the end-customers and making sure that our needs were being heard far and wide, we got the attention of hospital management and board members.

We have now gained a stay of execution of 6 months. The closure date has now been moved to October 1st, 2013. That may give us enough time to take legal action and/or to co-design a healthcare system for our peninsula that will better meet our needs.

You’ll read part of an interview, see how interviews were analyzed and summarized, and get a sense of how you can use quotes from interviews to let customer tell their stories and to offer advice.

You’ll discover that qualitative interviews provide invaluable context, identify customer-critical issues, provide insights you might never have gained, and identify lead customers you’ll want to engage in your strategic initiatives.


Community Issue: Planned Closure of Community Hospital

In late July, 2012, the members of my community in Boothbay, Maine read an article in the local paper announcing that the “parent” company that owned our 100-year old community hospital, St. Andrews, had decided to close its Emergency Room, to stop accepting ambulances or inpatients, and to turn our hospital from a Medicare-approved Critical Access Facility it into a daytime-only walk-in Urgent Care Center. Apparently, a study had been done to determine that the usage of the hospital’s ER was declining, and the number of inpatients was also declining. The company, Lincoln County Healthcare, a subsidiary of MaineHealth, expected this trend to continue. Their spokesman explained that it was dangerous to operate an Emergency Room that sees few patients in the course of a week or a month, because the ER personnel will lose their edge. Of course, it’s also expensive to run an Emergency Room that nobody frequents. The management proposed that if any of us had a medical emergency after hours, we could call 911 and the local ambulance would take us to the nearest other hospital—about 45 minutes away on a single road that is often clogged with traffic in the summer and/or blocked due to ice and accidents in the winter months.

The members of our communities (there are four towns on our peninsula—Southport, Boothbay Harbor, Boothbay, and Edgecomb) were shocked and angered, not only by the plan to close the hospital and to lay off 30 to 50 people, but also by the way in which the announcement was made. It was announced in the paper as a fait accompli. There was no community involvement. No hearings. No discussions. No opportunity to voice an opinion or to offer alternatives.

 St. Andrews Hospital in Boothbay Harbor, Maine

St. Andrews Hospital in Boothbay Harbor, Maine

1. St. Andrews Hospital is a Critical Access Hospital with a 24x7 Emergency Room and 25 beds. It used to provide many services, including surgery, inpatient care, and chemotherapy. But since its merger into Lincoln County Healthcare, which is, in turn owned by MaineHealth, most of the hospital’s services have been moved away to its “sister” hospital, Miles Memorial in Damariscotta, Maine. Now, Lincoln County Healthcare wants to close it down as a hospital and turn it into a walk-in clinic.

Opportunity to Document Peoples’ Concerns

Community members began to organize to oppose the closing of the hospital and to complain about the fact that our concerns were being ignored. I became active in a number of the working groups that sprang up to take action. I decided that one thing I could offer would be to document the concerns of the people on our peninsula by interviewing them and getting their stories and their reactions. I chose to do this by interviewing people in the least obtrusive way. I didn’t bring a video camera. I wasn’t trying to make a documentary. I simply wanted to get peoples’ opinions and to capture their stories. This is the same technique we use whenever we engage with a client who wants to understand what their end-customers want and need. The fact that nobody had asked hospital patients and community members for their opinions and feelings seemed like a major oversight to me. I wanted to fix that, and I knew how to do it.

Of course, the best time to have interviewed community members, patients, year-round residents and seasonal residents about their health and wellness needs should have been before a decision was made that would impact the quality of their lives. Early needs-gathering interviews should have been done as part of a process to engage with members of all ages in the community to co-design a viable healthcare and wellness plan for the community members. But, unfortunately, that’s not the way “Corporate Healthcare” works these days—even not-for-profit healthcare organizations, whose charters are to serve their communities. But, since that didn’t take place, I decided that I would do what I could, even though it was late in the process…

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