by Ed Meyercord

Winter 2014-15 – Steve Jobs famously said, “customers don’t know what they want until they see it.” He wanted nothing to do with market research or customer feedback. And, while it is difficult to argue with his successes at Apple, Jobs was only right in a narrow yet large B2C market where his innovations redefined traditional product categories.

This approach is the polar opposite of what is required to market successful new technology solutions to U.S. hospitals. Time and time again we hear the adage that, “if you’ve been to see one hospital, you’ve seen one.” In other words, no two hospitals are alike. There is not a “one size fits all” product that can be pushed into the hospital market like the iPod and iPhone. And yet, surprisingly, we always see companies pushing new technology solutions that fall well short of their hospital customer’s expectations.

We often hear complaints from different departments at hospitals about companies who are slow to respond to their needs and suffer from “product push.” Clinicians who want fewer instruction manuals and fewer pieces of clunky complicated hardware in patient environments say, “this [new technology] takes me away from the patient.” IT teams say that they didn’t realize that their new system would require a third-party integrator along with a service contract to interoperate with other systems. And, administrators learn that buying the latest version of old technology winds up being much more costly on many fronts.

Given the macro trends affecting hospitals today, customer-driven software and hardware development by healthcare IT suppliers is more important than it’s ever been. Suppliers have to be flexible. The adoption of the ACA, and enforcement of HIPAA and HITECH regulations is in full swing. Advances in wireless and networking technologies are bringing an onslaught of new-networked devices and equipment. The complexity factor has gone way up along with the rapid pace of change. And, what works for one hospital might not work for another across town.

To be successful in supplying new technology in this environment, companies have to figure out how to do at least two things well. First, it is vital to gather meaningful product development priorities from customers. Although it sounds textbook 101ish, it means understanding user needs and balancing the interests of clinicians (ease of use, quality of care, patient satisfaction) with IT staff (tech standards, interoperability), facilities (ease of installation and maintenance) and management staff (cost effectiveness, patient/caregiver satisfaction). These groups do not always agree with one another and each can have mutually exclusive veto rights over vendor selection. So, it’s key to figure out how to balance the needs of all of these important players in the process of determining development requirements for marketable products.

It is equally important to have the right team and process in place to bring the voice of the customer to all product development initiatives. This usually means fostering a process of constructive conflict between sales, service and the R&D team. Aside from going to work for their paychecks, engineers usually take pride and ownership of what they are building. Along with that comes their own vision of what the end product will be and, hence, what R&D priorities should be. It’s also fairly common for engineers with superior technical knowledge to feel an air of superiority over the sales and service professionals who live with customers every day. While passionate, they don’t always hear or listen to what the customer facing organizations are saying.

This is where having the right team and a balanced process for setting internal development priorities can make or break a company. A software coding all-star from the R&D team might say, “we can’t change that feature, it will cause a safety issue” or “adding that capability could compromise system integrity.” How many times have we heard these kinds of dismissals of real customer issues or real customer requested improvements? A process is required to drive constructive conflict between these groups and to empower a customer facing team to challenge R&D to avoid becoming product push. This requires active management, candor as well as professionalism to keep the conflict productive.

One approach is to hire clinicians to amplify the voice of hospital end users. It will likely be eye opening. And, you have to let the clinical team fuss it out regularly with the R&D team in setting priorities. Some companies find annual user conferences as effective venues to listen to their customers. Although many customer ideas may not seem whiz-bang or generate game-changing excitement, the R&D teams are better off in the long run when customer-generated development initiatives result in higher sales of more marketable products.

What is the overarching signal that we hear from our hospital customers today? They are begging for platform flexibility. In addition to specific feature requests or performance enhancements from end users, our technology solutions have to be modular and easily adaptable to “what comes next.” Suppliers that push old archaic, fixed and inflexible platforms put hospital customers in an untenable position.

Net/net: success in healthcare IT hinges on finding a way to make your customer an integral part of your product development process and building in flexibility with the knowledge that today’s technology solution will have to support new requirements by the time it’s installed.

About the Author

Ed Meyercord is the co-founder and CEO of Critical Alert Systems. Critical Alert has transformed its messaging business into a high growth “connected care” platform being used by hundreds of hospitals to drive patient and caregiver satisfaction and operating efficiencies. Critical Alert’s technology solution extends beyond traditional nurse call systems to include middleware, software-driven clinical workflows, locating and enhanced reporting capabilities. The company’s customer-focused culture in service, technical support and product development has led to triple digit growth in 2014.

Ed is also involved with other companies in the technology and healthcare industries. He serves as chairman of the board of Extreme Networks (NADAQ: EXTR). Extreme is a premier global provider of wired and wireless network infrastructure and security solutions. He is also an advisory director for VoxTelehealth, a company that is redefining the process of patient recovery and reintegration through the development of procedure specific, patient education and recovery programs that are delivered via web-based patient and provider portals. Previously, Ed served as CEO of Cavalier Telephone & TV and CEO of Talk America (NASDAQ: TALK).



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