I spent a summer in Weaverville, North Carolina, just outside of Asheville. (I couldn’t find it on the map either.) That summer, I was the head wrangler at Windy Gap, a summer camp for high school kids. I’m not sure I’d ever seen a horse, much less ridden one, so I guess that’s why they put me in charge. I thought that maybe if I dressed the part that would help. I bought a hat and borrowed a pair of cowboy boots from a friend; the boots were a half size too small, and I spent the better part of the first night stuffing sticks of butter down them trying to get them off my swollen feet.
The ranch’s full-time hand taught us how saddle the horses and little bit about how to ride. In the mornings we had to collect the horses from the fields, bring them into the corral, and saddle them. The other wranglers would ride out to the field to bring in the horses, while I being the least experience of the wranglers would race after them in my running shoes trying to coax them back to the barn. We would take the children for a breakfast ride along a mountain path where we would let them rest and cook them a breakfast of sausage and scrambled eggs.
One morning a group of fifteen high school girls was sitting on the fence of the corral. I walked up behind them carrying two saddle bags filled with the breakfast fare. I slung the saddlebags over the top rail of the fence, and hoping to make a good impression I placed one hand on the rail and vaulted myself over. I landed flat on my back smack dab in the middle of the pile of what horses produce when they’re done eating—so much for the good impression.
I brushed myself off and saddled my horse. The moment I gripped the reins the horse reared on two legs, made a dash for the fence and jumped it in one motion. I could tell the high school girls were impressed as I flew by them. Both of my arms were wrapped around the horse’s neck, and I had my hands locked in a death grip. I yelled, “whoa” and stop”, only to learn that the horse didn’t speak English. The horse raced the two hundred yards to the dining hall, stopped on a dime, and raced back to the corral, as the girls continued to cheer. One final leap, and I was back where I started; on the ground, in the corral, looking up at the girls. I took a bow and quickly remounted my steed. The full-time ranch hand came over and instructed me rather loudly, “You can’t let the horse do that. You have to show the horse that you’re in charge.” After that piece of wisdom he grabbed my horse by its bit, pulled its head down, and bit a hole in my horse’s ear. I’m not sure what kind of in an impression it made on my horse. I guarantee you it made an impression on me.
Horses aren’t very intelligent, but they know when you don’t know what you’re doing, when you’re bluffing—dressing like a cowboy didn’t even fool the girls, much less my horse—I guess he hadn’t seen many westerns. Here we go—you had to know where this was headed.
Patients are a lot like horses. (I just Googled that phrase and it appears you heard it here first.) You can’t fix stupid. Putting lipstick on a pig won’t make it any more attractive. Patients don’t like being ridden; don’t like being saddled with extraneous fees. One example—mobile phone providers offer many pricing options. They know their customers can’t predict how many minutes they will use. They penalize their customers for using too much time and they reap the benefits if they don’t use all of their time. Fifty percent of mobile phone providers’ income derives from those fees.
Customers know when a company doesn’t know what it’s doing—those companies who require their customers to sign a contract in order to prevent them from defecting. Do you have a gym membership? Their favorite customers buy long-term memberships but rarely visit the club. That allows health clubs to sell more memberships than they can accommodate, and they make it difficult for their customers cancel the contract. Long-term contracts almost guarantee poor service; after all, it’s not like the customer can up and leave.
Patients know when a company is bluffing. That’s why most people hate calling. Want to really get on someone’s nerves—make sure the recorded message mentions that the call may be recorded for purposes of quality. If it’s me on the phone, that’s when I know that I’m really going to have a difficult time getting the results I want. It appears that there is an inverse correlation between how much a firm states that it wants to help a patient and the amount of help the patient actually receives. Given a choice, sometimes I’d rather be the horse.
Paul M. Roemer
Chief Imaginist, Healthcare IT Strategy
1475 Luna Drive, Downingtown, PA 19335
+1 (484) 885-6942