The Evolving Role of the Consumer Voice in Transforming Industry

Today's consumers are empowered, connected, and know where to look for information about practically everything. In an engaging and passionate discussion, AF4Q meeting attendees heard from a diverse panel about how industries seek out and respond to consumer attitudes, needs, and demands.

Moderator Wendy Lynch, director of the Center for Consumer Choice in Healthcare at Altarum Institute, opened discussion by describing a transportation system known for getting people where they want to go. But what if it didn't always take you to the right address, use the best route, only told you the cost of the trip after you arrived, or took unneeded detours? Would you keep traveling the same way?

Using transportation as a metaphor, Lynch was actually describing the many challenges consumers face in our health care system. "It's clear that we can't always depend on the experts to be right," said Lynch. Empowered consumers are vital for high-quality health care.

Travis Bailey, program manager, social outreach services at Dell, came to Dell as a disgruntled customer. He quickly was brought on board to help Dell better partner with customers to improve their experience. Many of the lessons he shared translate to health care, including his belief that "if your company sees a complaint as something annoying or to be ignored, you may as well go out of business." Businesses across the country are paying money for surveys and focus groups to determine what consumers want, and then turn around when a customer calls and dismisses that person. According to Bailey, "This is the best kind of feedback, and it's free."

Another way businesses outside of health care engage with their customers is through customer advisory committees. Panelist Kate Warr, former staff director for Amtrak’s Customer Advisory Committee (CAC), knows this firsthand. Warr worked with CAC for more than 16 years, through seven CEOs to ensure the consumer voice was prominent in decision making. Amtrak's Quiet Car is an example of a customer-driven idea emanating from CAC.

Final panelist Michael Manganiello is a consumer-board member for Whitman-Walker Health, a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) in Washington DC, where he advocates for active, empowered consumers every day. "I don't think patients should ever be passive in health care," he told attendees.

One thing all panelists agreed on is that consumers have a place in businesses across industries—and the approach empowered consumers should take depends on how well an organization listens. "Consumers on Amtrak's CAC found that listening and being collaborative worked better than pounding fists," said Warr.

Impassioned, Manganiello told attendees, "I wouldn't be alive today if there wasn't a militant movement in health care." Adding, "This is a social movement that is being driven by consumers."

Bailey told attendees, "If your customers need to be militant to get your attention, you aren't doing your job." Warr added that if you want to succeed in today's world—regardless of industry—you need to be soliciting and welcoming consumer involvement.

The approach you take is also important. Warr told members of the Amtrak CAC during her tenure, "I don't care what you say, but I do care how you say it."

Bailey described three types of consumers who reach out to Dell: 1) those who come to you belligerent, 2) those who try to fix things for themselves, and 3) those who want to correct a system-level problem so that it won't impact anyone else in the future. In his view, the best approach is number three. "It's a real win-win."