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Customer Experience in Healthcare – How Bupa Arabia has created extraordinary performance growth using customer innovation principles

“World-class” is a term that should only be used for those companies that perform way above the norm. When you drill down to what “world-class” companies do differently, the logic that drives performance seems so obvious you wonder why every company is not performing that way.

Ghaith Al-Johani, head of marketing operations at BupaArabia gave us an insight into a world-class example of customer-driven innovation which shows what can be achieved by thinking differently and not following the traditional best practice norms.

Conventional thinking would define BupaArabia as a cooperative insurance company. Unlike Bupa in the UK (which has a minority stake in the company) it does not operate any of its own hospitals. The insurance business model is one that has an inbuilt conflict: customers always want great value which translates to “wanting cheap premiums”; profitability is maximised by spending as little as possible and that makes it hard to always meet customer expectation in their hour of need!

Background and expansion

Bupa Arabia for Cooperative Insurance originally launched in 1997, as a partnership between Nazer Group and Bupa Global. This strategic partnership has resulted in the largest and most successful healthcare in the country. We found the company has tripled its customer base in the last 7 years whilst at the same time improving their customer satisfaction scores to 92% – approximately 20% ahead of any of their competition. The privatisation of the Saudi health sector offers massive opportunities. Less than 4 million Saudis have health insurance so there is an emerging customer base of approximately 15 million – roughly 50% of the population that will either “pay as they go” or more likely move to the private sector within the next 3 years.

As impressive as this expansion has been in the last 20years it has even more ambitious plans to become the leading health insurance company in the Middle East by 2020. This is the sort of super company growth that only the minority of companies ever achieve. How have they done it and, just as importantly, does the company have the chance to accelerate its growth by three times the figures it has achieved already?

How has Customer Experience made a difference?

Ghaith explained: “My job as head of marketing operations can only really succeed if we find a way to bring the customer to the centre of everything we do”.  This sounds great, but most organisations also make that claim. Companies who have a Voice of Customer and Journey Mapping programme will also make that claim.

Ghaith expanded: “The way we do this is a little bit different. We don’t see the business we are in as insurance although technically that’s the case. We see ourselves as being in the business of healthcare and the outcomes that we create for our customers are aligned to everything we do”.

Three Guiding Pillars

What we stand for at Bupa Arabia is driven by three guiding pillars:

A) Exceptional experience at every customer interaction point

B) Going beyond insurance – “the extra mile”

C) International expertise

Exceptional experience is not achieved by simply mapping customer journeys and then measuring and improving associated emotions. It is about deeply understanding what the customer truly needs and aligning this back into everything the company does. Traditional operational excellence measures largely go out of the window. This means effectively the customer outcome becomes everybody’s responsibility and customer outcome measurement becomes embedded in every process. Ghaith went further: “This focus on customer challenged my role as Head of Marketing. We are not a separate function looking at enhancing the propositions – that would not go far enough. We have to embed customer needs into every process. We are effectively helping to guide the operationalization of the customer experience”

Going “beyond insurance” has taken BupaArabia through a 180-degree change in the way they view themselves. The customer does not simply want good value comprehensive insurance cover – although if asked that would be exactly what they would say. The customer wants immediate access to great quality healthcare when they want it. They don’t want to wait. They don’t want to be constantly interacting with call centres either fighting their corner to be covered or asking questions. They want to be seen immediately and have all their questions plus next steps in one sitting. They want the comfort that they will be looked after with the best available treatment immediately they need it. I asked Ghaith how they achieved that. He told me: “20% of our workforce are doctors. We have used that to reduce the number of people calling the call centre with follow-up inquiries by 70%. Pre-authorisation for treatment has now risen to a level of 93% of requests occuring within 10 minutes. If a patient needs for example – a hip replacement – it is entirely feasible this could be achieved in a matter of days.”

International expertise and global experience is another area BupaArabia focusses on. Many healthcare providers build their home-grown talent and use people from overseas that are good value and bridge only where there is an identified skills gap. BupaArabia constantly identifies premium talent. They place a high value on accessing the best global experience it can find. The cost to the company is high so the service is not the cheapest on the market but is positioned to be the very best available anywhere.

The figures speak for themselves.

As impressive as these are, this sort of progress does not happen overnight. Ghaith admitted: “We are justifiably proud of what we are achieving but it is far from easy. My personal mantra is to be relentless -but it is how we try to lead that makes the difference. We have had the full support of our CEO to becoming a truly lead customer company for some time now. This of course helps but it does not automatically mean everybody automatically falls into line. Aligning and integrating different departments is hard and simply using authority to demand movement does not work long term. Persuading other stakeholders is as much about giving them value as taking it. The more value we can give to our colleagues and employees the more likely they are to support us when it really matters. Staff engagement is so important – the more I can build trust with my staff and stakeholder colleagues the more we can achieve. I always try to give value before I take. It can often be hard work but ultimately it is very rewarding.”

NextTen Comment

I took some to reflect on this interview. The sort of growth that BupaArabia has achieved is undeniably impressive.

What struck me was the level of customer obsession that was the cornerstone. Operational excellence measured through what was most important to the customer with a continued theme of going the extra mile struck a deep chord.

I see so many companies who talk about the importance of customer but then defer to short-termism – focussing purely on profit.

The need to be relentless also struck a chord. People and companies who uncover new ideas to drive great performance and, for want of a better term, “make a movement” i.e. create that ever-increasing group who share the beliefs and values and adhere to them even when times are tough.

Finally – as simple as it sounds – changing your view on who you are: away from the basic product/service you provide to the outcomes you create for your customer can change every aspect on how you operate. A company which sees itself as producer of product X or service Y may have a customer experience department, but that department will have considerably less impact than the company that starts at the customer outcome and works backward.

Companies like BupaArabia deserve to be at the top of their market and if the relentless focus on customer continues then they will be up there for a very long time.

My thanks to Ghaith Al-Johani for the insight he provided for this interview.

Charles Bennett

Founder & CEO. Charles is an acknowledged leader in customer-driven performance change using both best practice and emerging next practice perspectives. He leads, mentors and coaches in both strategic and operational initiatives. A strong believer is the potential for "supercompany performance" he innovates using next practice thinking and methods to enhance the business. He researches heavily to retain his reputation as a thought leader, which he has applied across 40 countries, multiple sectors and companies such as Citibank, Nielsen, Microsoft, Vodafone, Tracker and governments in Middle East and Asia. Contributes to business journals and often invited as a speaker or chairman to events all over the world.