Magazine Article | June 18, 2007

Keep The Customer Alive

Source: Innovative Retail Technologies

Retailers can learn lessons from the healthcare industry.

Integrated Solutions For Retailers, July 2007

A close family member's recent stay in the hospital afforded me a lengthy opportunity to observe the systems that make hospitals tick. As I watched the nurses, doctors, and various other specialists do their work, like clockwork, I began to draw parallels to the retail industry. I asked myself, what can a store learn from a hospital?

Aligning Employees, Skills, Customer Traffic
In retailing, success happens when the right people are at the right place at the right time. It's likewise, and with true life-and-death consequences, in healthcare.

My long-term visiting hours spanned Memorial Day, which dawned warm and sunny. By 9:00 a.m. the LifeStar helicopter had made its second descent on the helipad just outside the window. It was heading skyward again when I made a comment to the nurse about the busy day that helicopter would have on such a beautiful holiday. "That's why our ER is staffed up today," the nurse replied. "Nobody wants to work in a hospital on a holiday, but there'll be lots of people getting hurt." In fact, historical Memorial Day weekend hospital traffic trends led to the surge in staff.

Then, the primary care physician came in at virtually the same time he was there the day prior. Later, another nurse cruised in to hook up an IV, right on the hour to ensure perfectly spaced intervals between meds. Respiratory therapists made their visits every six hours as promised. Each morning at 5:00, housekeeping quietly swept floors and emptied wastepaper baskets without waking sleeping patients. The right person was in the right place at the right time; a feat accomplished by established systems and clearly defined roles. These are achieved via training. Just outside the nursing station was a door marked Medical Education. In that room, twice per month, each employee on that floor attends a full shift of mandatory ongoing education sessions specific to his or her function. There's a lesson for retailers there, specifically for general retailers and mass merchandisers guilty of proliferating the sales floor with nondescript employees.

The morning after Memorial Day, the floor I was spending so much time on seemed unusually well-stocked with nursing staff. Curious, I asked the head nurse if that looming avian flu pandemic had finally hit. She didn't laugh. (I've come to learn that medical professionals are generally callous to lame pandemic jokes.) "Yesterday we anticipated a busy day in ER," she said.  "Today we anticipate a busy day on this floor. All the sick people who were too stubborn to give up a holiday weekend will be coming in today, sicker than they were on Friday." Human nature can indeed be forecasted.

Technology Enables Knowledge
Hospital workers are exemplary information sharers. Patient records and instructions (high-stakes CRM [customer relationship management] information, indeed) are electronic, comprehensive, and mobile.

The hospital culture is built on helpfulness. The first couple of days, before I figured out the shift-to-shift hierarchy, I eagerly asked orderlies and floor sweepers questions about the patient's condition. These questions should have been asked of a doctor or nurse. I didn't know any better. They all wore scrubs. Helpfully, the service workers found people who did have the answers and sent them in to see me. Hospitals generally do this better than stores. The return on anticipated spikes in traffic, proficient employees, and tech-enabled information is the same for retailers as it is for healthcare providers. It's all about keeping the customer alive, willing, and able to come back and buy more.