Transcending the Transaction: Resurrecting Customer Experience Post-COVID

The COVID-19 pandemic has become the catalyst for companies to condense their digital transformation journeys — from a matter of years to the course of several months. However, it's important to note that the pandemic did not instigate these changes. What it did was finally convince many CEOs to urgently prioritize their resources to address evolving customer expectations. For many companies, the pandemic continues to transform their very business models, bringing them closer to the consumer.

ANA Marketing Futures is pleased to introduce a new series of thought leadership articles, exploring why most companies are being disenfranchised by a tsunami of digital disruption and "mega startups" — especially for the post-COVID era.

We examine how the new generation of brands has reprioritized customer experience as a differentiator to capture record market share and customer traction at a speed not seen before. Consequently, we recognize that a new playbook is needed for marketers to lead the way as the market adjusts to a post-COVID reality.

In this piece, we will focus on one vertical in particular: the health care industry, which has borne much of the brunt of the pandemic's disruption.

Over the course of a few decades, health care in the U.S. has become a largely transactional — and therefore impersonal — industry. This has left the vertical ripe for disruption, as major health care organizations scramble to rise to the level of their customers' expectations. To remain relevant in this industry (and in any other, for that matter), brands must tackle the following customer experience shortcomings:

  1. Inconvenience. Quickly peruse the 2019 edition of Qualtrics' Healthcare Pain Index and one thing becomes glaringly apparent: Patients were used to spending a lot of time in waiting rooms. And while 50 percent of survey respondents reported having spent more than an hour waiting for urgent or emergency care in the past year, the top reason for a patient to choose not to return to a health care provider was an unpleasant waiting room, not long wait times. The report further speculates this may be due to "patients having few alternatives." At the time, 74 percent of respondents had never experienced virtual care in any form, which might account for the perceived lack of alternatives. But the other proposed reason for the survey results, "very low expectations," is a major problem not just for the health care industry, but businesses across the board.
    • What this means for marketers: The rise of vertical-busting, direct-to-consumer brands over the last few years has largely been due to the convenience of the D2C experience. Marketers' success is more than ever dependent on enabling (D2C) experiences based on customer insights and co-creating with data science and market intelligence teams. Startups are "consumerizing" health care – across all categories – with mega investments behind them. H1 2021 secured $14.7B in digital health funding, already surpassing all of 2020's funding. The days of "few alternatives" and "low expectations" are quickly passing as health care consumers are waking up to an ocean of options, and expect every brand experience to be as frictionless as Spotify, Amazon, Lyft or Netflix, regardless of the category.
  2. Trust Erosion. While low expectations may have allowed the health care industry to maintain the status quo for decades; it is increasingly being disrupted by — what else — the internet. The combination of long waits in unpleasant spaces and the prohibitive cost of care, particularly for the uninsured and underinsured, have led many consumers to self-diagnose via online research. In the Qualtrics study mentioned above, respondents were 4.1 times more likely to trust the internet over an urgent care employee than they would a primary physician. Couple that with the fact that fewer and fewer people even have a primary physician, a larger problem begins to crystalize.
    • What this means for marketers: Consumer empowerment through the rise of digital means is hardly a new development, but in the wake of COVID-19, many legacy brands across verticals realized how much they have fallen behind their digital counterparts. The only way for these behemoths to regain market share is through an obsessive focus on the customer experience and engagement — which is currently happening almost completely in digital space. Marketers should focus on building branded experiences that put the customers on a path to reach their healthier selves using their products, solutions, or facilities. Marketers are expected to do more than advertising. Marketers are expected to instill trust in their brands, products, and every customer touch point.
  3. Shock to Loyalty. According to a study by the JAMA Institute, 25 percent of Americans did not have a primary physician as of 2015, representing over 80 million individuals. There is no data pointing to this trend changing in the foreseeable future, which should concern health care providers. Having an established relationship with a trusted physician was a patient's introduction to the health care industry for generations, engendering trust in the industry itself. As that trust continues to erode, patients are increasingly taking their health into their own hands. When vaccines became available for the COVID-19 virus in 2021, health officials had to compete with conspiracy theories and junk science shared across social media. This erosion of loyalty is hardly unique to health care, however. Since the pandemic began, brands across numerous verticals experienced what a McKinsey & Company study refers to as a "shock to loyalty," as 73 percent of American respondents reported changing their shopping habits. With consumers stuck at home, it's unsurprising that nearly all these new purchasing habits were digital. In the health care space, this meant that telehealth needed to make a quantum leap from a special feature (typically reserved for the most affluent patients) to a cornerstone of every medical practice.
    • What this means for marketers: What brands need to invest in is long-term customer loyalty and creating lifelong experiences that delight customers every step of the way in their unique journey. When actual customer experiences don't live up to the marketing that promotes it, consumers will more quickly leave brands without a second thought (and tell their friends). Gone are the days of over-messaging patients with EOB (evidence of benefit) mailers. Marketers should focus on luring customers back not by sending messages, but by delivering the right experiences at the right time — and by honoring customers' channel of choice. Loyalty is built around value, not volume. And loyalty is built through trust.
  4. Inaccessibility. Much of the current health care industry is full of friction that reduces its ability to focus on providing (not just episodic value-based care but end-to-end) highly engaged experiences. Unquestionably, this has eroded industry trust and loyalty. That's only the experience for people with access to it. According to the CBO, more than 80 million Americans are either underinsured or completely uninsured. For these individuals, even a minor medical emergency could have severe implications on their financial stability. For those who don't qualify for assistance, the emergency room becomes their primary point of health care service, the cost of which is disseminated to all consumers through taxes, and increased health care premiums and costs. All of this combines to create a health care system that is the most expensive on earth, and a staggering 37th-place in quality.
    • What this means for marketers: Above all else, this is an opportunity for marketers to create digital-first experiences that address the needs of those sitting outside looking in. These are eager participants, coming in at a different price points and expectations. And just as digital transformation in other sectors, like retail, is guiding the health care experience, so too can health care marketers adopt the strata of pricing we see elsewhere across the consumer landscape. Marketers should bring the power of the four Ps (product, pricing, placement, promotion) back to serving brands and customers. The insights, the data, and the foresight marketers can bring to the executive table is not only incomparable but absolutely necessary to help transform brands and stay relevant in the post-COVID era.

As the market and our realities continue to shift, a new generation of health care companies are set to disrupt the industry by prioritizing the customer experience, convenience, and value over all else. In the second part of our series, we'll share why and how this "health care renaissance" came to be, and what the future holds.


"Transcending the Transaction: Resurrecting Customer Experience Post-COVID." Shiva Mirhosseini, Digital Experience and Marketing Technology Executive. September 2021.