Confessions From A Frustrated Health Insurance Shopper

I find it ironic that in a business that is all about your well-being, the process of buying health insurance is unbelievably painful.  Before you read too far ahead, I should warn you this is not a political story.  My tale is a lesson in how not to sell pure and simple and has nothing to do with the recent health care law debate.

Three months ago I started on what should have been an easy journey.  My eligibility for my current health plan was going to expire at the end of October.  My son was in the middle of some testing and I decided to stick with our current health care provider. Frankly, I was lazy. I didn’t want to switch plans and I didn’t care if it would cost me more per month. Easy – right?

I call up the sales department at my health care provider and ask them what it would cost for a plan closest to my current coverage.  This should not have been a hard question. And yet, it took 6 phone calls and 3 escalations to get an “unofficial” we can’t commit to you answer.

I’ll spare you the details of those conversations but let me tell you – three months later and one week after my health insurance has expired I am still awaiting a new health insurance number. I am not exaggerating when I tell you I had no less than 12 very frustrating conversations to buy their MOST expensive plan, not to mention 4 emails that went largely ignored.  Here I am – not negotiating, not being wishy-washy about wanting to buy and I can’t get them to take my money and move on!

At the risk of over simplifying my pain, let me summarize the golden rules of selling that this health care provider broke, over and over. The list is so long you may in fact question my sanity for sticking through the process. But I swear to you it is all true. Painful, awful truth.

Yet,  I was stubborn. I called a couple of other providers and found the beginning of the sales process almost as elusive. But more importantly, I was mentally committed to seeing through this process with my current provider. My son’s therapist was fantastic and I was determined not to disrupt who provides our medical care, or how much coverage we had as a family.

My stubbornness turned to determination. And frankly now amazement that a sales process could be so broken.  It’s a bit of morbid curiosity, as much as real need to protect my family, that has me seeing this process to the end.

If nothing else comes from this experience, this has been a case study in how NOT to treat your buyers.

Robotic Processes – When you are leading any complex sales process there are rules and guidelines that must be established. This is healthy. The problem comes when the process is followed at robotic pace. When irrational next steps are followed because “that is the way we do things”. When humans can’t speak to a frustrated buyer and actually do anything to help because the next step is to get you off the phone and talking to someone else.

Unconnected Systems – Every time I spoke to someone it was like starting fresh. I begged the person on the phone to read the “notes” on my account so I would not have to back step the previous conversations.  Since, talking to the same person more than once appears to be impossible, I was left to tell my tale over and over again. When they finally would acknowledge what I was recanting, they would claim they could not get me an update because my paperwork, or my request, or my email was with another department and no one there is available right now.

Setting Bad Expectations  –  After my first couple of conversations I figured out that this process was not going to rationally follow good sales 101. So when I spoke to someone I would ask them to clarify for me what was going to happen next.  Every time someone relayed a process to me it was different from the person before. Worse, they never seemed to follow any of the processes that were outlined in the timeframes described.

Ill Defined Escalation Practices – Inevitably after a few minutes on the phone it would be clear the person I was speaking with was not empowered to help. I would ask to speak with someone who could in fact assist. Either they would claim no one in that “department” was available, or they would escalate me to someone who appeared to be the right resource, but who ended up passing the buck of follow-up to someone else. Worse yet, they would promise to have someone call me back the same day and no one would follow through.

Never Admitting Fault – Mistakes happen. I make them. You make them. Everyone does. Good salesmanship acknowledges those mistakes and apologizes. About 10 days ago I escalated my situation to a manager who seemed to have his act together. Yet he argued for 10 minutes on the phone with me that my request for approval was sent to him the night before at 5pm. I told him that is in fact perhaps when he got the request, but it was not when I made it. In fact, I had made it three days before. After a lot of persistence on my part he took two minutes to do some digging. Frankly, I’m certain he wanted to come back off hold and tell me to go shove it I had made it up. Instead he came back on the phone and told me what I knew. I had made the request three days before. The customer service agent who took the request had computer problems and delayed putting it into the system. At this point you’d think a simple apology would be in order. Nope. As a desperate buyer I had to bite my tongue and beg this would be savior of my application to please accelerate processing my request since he only got it at 5pm. I confess I was steaming as I held back my honest thoughts.

No Empathy – By all standards I have gone through a painful buying journey. But throughout the process no one showed even a small sign of empathy. It was as if the people on the phone were trained to simply get you off the phone. Forget helping. Forget securing loyalty. Forget even being human. On occasion I would get acknowledgement “I know you are frustrated”, but at no point did anyone virtually pat me on the back and tell me my frustration was valid. No one seemed to care my son had a therapy appointment that was pending and no one seemed to give a hoot that I am a busy, mother of four, who runs her own business and that this stress was significantly disrupting my life. No one uttered even one word of sympathy that I spent 90 days trying to STAY a customer. For the record, if you are thinking all of this was because I was not a profitable customer, let me assure you that is not the case. Aside from one of my children who has extra therapy, we have had no major medical expenses. We go to our annual exams, and rarely treat anything else. Our prescriptions are not special and we pay our bill on time every single month.

Broken Promises – It appears there is a culture of breaking promises at this health care provider.  There was not one shining star in all of the promises that were made. Not one of the people who promised to call me back, not even when I made them read back my number two times, actually did. Not one person who promised to email me forms did so in the timeframe committed. Not one of the processes that a manager stepped me through was followed as outlined. When I was told it would take four days to process paperwork, it would take 10.  When I overnighted my check and enrollment form (at my own expense) and was promised it would be promptly processed within 2 days, 4 has gone by and I’m no closer to confirmation that the check was even received (despite having a delivery confirmation report from the postal service).

With this blog I confess to you my thoughts about this particular health care provider are not pure. I am frustrated, I feel trapped and I am reminded that customer first is not to be taken for granted.

For those skeptic readers who are thinking, yeah, those sales people stink, but you still bought so who cares? Think again. I can promise you three things. First, most people would have abandoned this process 60 days ago and you would not have made the sale. Two, once I feel secure we have coverage, I will immediately begin researching alternatives for next year. This company has lost my loyalty, which they had worked 3 years to earn.  Lastly, any time anyone asks my opinion about this health care provider, they are in for an earful – and it isn’t going to be a recommendation to use them.

Making a sale doesn’t mean you’ve won. It’s only one small victory in the battle for long-term market penetration. In fact, sales aren’t about winning victories. Instead you should be trying to EARN your customers business. And that’s a lesson this health care provider has forgotten.

May your sales teams never make the same mistake!