What does Warren Buffett know about customer experience that we don’t?

by Burl Stamp

Within moments of the recent announcement that Berkshire Hathaway, Amazon and JP Morgan Chase would team up to form an independent health care company for their employees, predictions around their likelihood for success were rampant. Central to the debate was one key question: would the fact that none of the partners have significant experience in the provider industry be a roadblock or an enabler to thinking differently about how health care should be delivered?

Quickly, many focused on Amazon’s expertise and power in logistics, technology and online retailing. But perhaps Berkshire Hathaway is just as intriguing to study. The massively successful conglomerate has broad ownership of successful companies across diverse industries, ranging from manufacturing and transportation to retailing and insurance. Maybe looking at the common threads of success across Berkshire’s portfolio and the personal philosophy of its Chairman Warren Buffett would be enlightening.

On Saturday afternoon as I was surfing through college basketball games, I had the good fortune of stumbling onto the rebroadcast of a C-SPAN program featuring the graduation ceremony of “10,000 small businesses” at LaGuardia Community College in New York. This innovative program funded by Goldman Sachs works to develop and support entrepreneurs in their quest for business growth and profitability. Warren Buffett was one of the speakers. His brief remarks were the best 20 minutes I’ve spent in weeks.

In his remarks, he highlighted the stories of several unlikely entrepreneurs who achieved amazing success, including Jack Taylor, the founder of Enterprise Rent-a-Car in my hometown of St. Louis. I appreciate the fact that Taylor and his family not only created an amazing company, but have truly transformed St. Louis through their philanthropy and vision for what this historic Midwestern city can and should be.

Following are three quotes from Buffett’s remarks that anyone can learn from. I selected them because I believe they are especially important for those of us who care about improving the experience our fellow human beings have when they turn to health care providers for service.

“He (Taylor) didn’t worry about whether the Federal Reserve was going to tighten or ease. He didn’t worry about whether the stock market was up or down yesterday. He didn’t worry about things he couldn’t change. He did worry about and focus on the one thing he could change. And that was the customer’s experience.”

Especially in the past year, the future for health care providers has grown even more uncertain. Demands for better outcomes at a lower cost are tangled up with fights in Congress over whether elements of the Affordable Care Act are essential or misdirected. While health care industry leaders can and do weigh in, what Congress ultimately does – or fails to do – is unpredictable.

Even within our own organizations, we sometimes focus too much on “the numbers” fed to us from our patient satisfaction surveys. My friend and colleague Pat Herrmann, PhD, who was the director of Experience Research and Metrics for Ascension Health for many years, often would recommend to frontline managers that they not be so obsessed with the ups-and-downs of the scores from the survey. Instead, Pat would encourage them to focus on the attitudes and specific practices that we knew would make a significant difference in the patient’s experience.

 “You have to not only be able to project that interest in people’s well-being, in delighting them yourself, but you have to do it through other people.”

In our work, we often find that organizations spend too much time thinking and talking about how the patient experience should be and not enough effort on how the vision will be achieved. Developing skills and changing the behaviors of every employee that patients and family members come into contact with is hard work. It requires strong, supportive, consistent leadership to create a culture that nurtures and sustains an exceptional care experience.

“You won’t be able to do it through people who themselves do not feel they’re being fairly treated … that their views aren’t appropriately considered.”

While research on the link between patient experience and employee engagement is somewhat mixed, I have seldom seen an employee who feels unappreciated or ignored by his/her organization provide exceptional, compassionate service.

My best examples of this principle at work come from the airline industry. In the early days of Southwest Airlines, it was clear that founder Herb Kelleher’s philosophy of “take care of your people and they’ll take care of your customers” was lived every day on every flight. And after American Airlines bought my hometown airline, TWA, out of bankruptcy in 2001, their degraded employees provided disappointing service.

Yes, the new health care venture envisioned by Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos and Jamie Dimon will surely lean on the financial expertise of JP Morgan Chase and the powerful technology of Amazon. But perhaps its success will be just as dependent on how well Berkshire Hathaway’s philosophy of customer service is leveraged in building a truly patient-centric rather than provider-centric organization.