Often Imitated Podcast: The Art of Anticipating Needs with Ali Diab, CEO at Collective Health

February 21, 2022 | 19 minute read
Nicola Fairhead
Content Marketing Specialist, Oracle Advertising and CX
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If you’re a history buff, a customer experience aficionado, or anything in between, you’ve come to the right place.

Oracle Advertising and CX is proud to sponsor Often Imitated, a podcast produced by Caspian Studios that delves into history’s most unique experiences and how they relate to today’s CX strategies.

Every month, we plan to share an episode of the podcast, along with a complete transcript.

In this episode, host Ian Faison explores the elusive art of anticipating customer needs. It features the fascinating history of Lee Iaccocca—a legend in the auto industry—plus an eye-opening interview with Ali Diab, co-founder and CEO at Collective Health.

Listen to the episode or read the transcript below:

Ian Faison: Welcome to the 1960s.

JFK is in office, the moon landing is making history, and the invention of the Pop-Tart is taking over toasters all over America. The Civil Rights Act was passed, the female workforce had grown by 50%, and America was booming. Literally.

The Baby Boomers were the largest demographic in the country, and their spending budget was increasing. For businesses, this river of financial good fortune meant that there was a whole new set of consumers who’d be loyal customers down the road.

With the middle class growing, many families moved to the suburbs chasing the white-picket-fence ideal neighborhood, and for a variety of reasons both good and bad, which we don’t have time to get into on this episode, the suburbs were growing—and fast. 

There were supermarkets, fast food restaurants, theater chains, shopping malls, all setting up shop, appealing to a new batch of customers in a new type of neighborhood.

While the neighborhoods were manufactured, they weren't exactly walkable. So new families were buying up cars left and right. Over 20% of families were buying second cars.

And for single folks who wanted to show that their lives were a little more exciting than their married counterparts, buying a fancy car was a great way to do it. With all the social changes that were going on, cars were beginning to take a more central role in the lives of Americans.

But there’s one thing that didn’t change much: the cars themselves. The cars in the 50s were these big, hulking things resembling boats on wheels. It’s crazy to think about, with how much variety we have today, we just didn’t really have that back in the 50s. Shoot, today you can even buy a car in a vending machine.

So, by the time you get into the 60s, most of what’s on the roads is really similar. Until one man changed all of that. He would invent the Ford Mustang, the compact car, the minivan, AND the SUV. With every significant change in driving behavior, he was one step ahead, preparing a new vehicle for the new times.

So how does one person revolutionize an industry three separate times? Buckle your seatbelts; we’re going to find out.

Welcome to Often Imitated, a podcast about remarkable experiences from the past, and how they inspire people to create great customer experiences today.

This episode is all about anticipating your customers’ needs. We cover how Lee Iacocca did it in the automotive industry, how Ali Diab has done it as co-founder and CEO of Collective Health, and how CX leaders can do it today.

How Lee Iacocca drove change in the auto industry—three times over

Growing up in a steel production town in Pennsylvania, Lee Iacocca always loved cars. So it was no surprise when he went off to college that he decided to study industrial engineering, and it was no surprise that he took a job as an engineer at Ford when he left college.

However, Lee quickly realized that something was missing in his job. Lee believed that everything was about the customer. So he transferred to sales and marketing so he could be closer to the people using the product—the same product he had previously helped design.

As a salesperson, he was constantly in contact with consumers, hearing their needs and keying in on trends before they became industry-wide knowledge. As he quickly climbed the ranks of the corporate ladder, he stayed connected to the factory workers, dealerships, and salespeople he met along his meteoric rise.

Stay connected to your customers, whatever your role

Unlike his competitors, who were so far removed from their employees that they quickly fell out of touch, Lee always had his finger on the pulse of the consumer trends. And he was able to anticipate where they were headed before they even got there.

When Lee was responsible for training car salesmen, he tailored his training to each individual car model, dialing in the pitch to serve that specific car. He never brushed over any details, especially when it came to sales data.

Lee was obsessed with data. He kept close contact with the dealerships and the sales teams so that he could understand what was happening on the ground level—what the customers were talking about, what cars they were buying, and what different types of sales approaches were working.

From the beginning of his executive career at Ford, Lee made landmark decisions that made him one of America’s first celebrity CEOs. He was a key player in bringing the Ford Mustang to the masses. He also developed the Ford Pinto, a car that was seen as a failure at the time, but ushered in an era of cheap, fuel-efficient compact cars.

But Lee had a bit of a problem. He and Henry Ford II butted heads quite a bit, and ultimately, Lee was fired from Ford. In 1978, he was hired as the president of Chrysler, which was failing on a spectacular level. On Lee’s first day on the job, there was a reported quarterly loss of $155 million. Not exactly what you want at your new hire orientation.

Know when to switch gears in your CX strategy—and when to start over

Lee knew that Chrysler had to be changed on a structural level, so he fired 33 of Chrysler’s 35 presidents, he did an advertising marketing overhaul, and hired new upper management—many of whom came straight from Ford.

And finally, he got a chance to explore some of the ideas that he dreamed about doing at Ford, but at the time Henry Ford II had shot them all down.

Imagine the legendary Lee Iacocca coming into his first boardroom meeting. This is the maker of the Ford Mustang and he’s ready to unveil his new idea, something so radically different it had been refused multiple times at Ford.

You can just imagine the boardroom getting ready for this.

He unveiled…the Minimax project, which essentially was a restyled version of the minivan.

Now, minivans are so commonplace that we would never really think that this is something revolutionary. But at the time, a few companies were making them, but the minivan wasn’t what it is today.

Lee sensed that the customers' tastes were shifting toward a more practical family car, especially for those in the suburbs. Anticipating that change and delivering on the customers' needs early made Chrysler’s release of their minivan so successful that they led the industry in car sales for 25 years.

Focus on changing conditions and customer behaviors, not trends

The thing about Lee is that he wasn’t anticipating trends. He was pulling insights directly from a changing world and creating better products that were on the market.

There was another behavior that he saw on the rise. Jeeps were selling really well. Lee looked at the Jeep and noticed something particularly interesting. He thought there might be a bigger market for people who wanted larger cars and at least the possibility of taking their car off road. So Lee got Chrysler to buy American Motors Corporation (AMC), which included the Jeep brand, and immediately got to work on making another hit: the Jeep Grand Cherokee.  

Though problematically named, the Grand Cherokee ended up being an absolute smash hit success, and ushered a new age of the SUV.  

How Collective Health applies anticipatory CX to the healthcare industry

Lee retired from Chrysler and left a lasting impact on the industry. At every turn, he was able to anticipate the needs of his customers.

Just as more Americans wanted a new sports car, he delivered. Just as more people needed something smaller and more economical, he delivered the compact car. Just as many baby boomers were having their third and fourth children, he released the minivan. Just as the booming economy of the 80s meant they could afford something with a little more size and adventure, he helped bring the world the SUV.

More industries could use a forward-looking figure like Lee Iacocca.

Your customer is the most important thing. Your profit is not the most important thing. Without your customer, you've got nothing."

We wanted to take a look at an industry whose customer experience is severely lacking; an industry that seems more reactionary that anticipatory. So we spoke to Ali Diab, co-founder and CEO of Collective Health, a technology company that is driven to make understanding, navigating, and paying for health care effortless.

One of the reasons Ali is able to anticipate his customer needs is that, like Lee Iacocca, he’s passionate about his field. For Ali, that comes from an unfortunate experience he had back in 2013 where he was hospitalized out of the blue. Ali had a life-threatening condition, and it put him in the hospital for over a month, racking up bills. It ended with him getting an incorrect bill for hundreds of thousands of dollars that should have been taken care of by his insurance company.

Ali Diab: I came home from my horrible ordeal and then three or four days later, I got a call from a totally unrecognizable1-800 number. It was somebody from that same health insurance company that I was battling to understand why they denied hundreds of thousands of dollars of billed hospital charges, calling me to ask if I’d had my annual physical exam.

And I was like, “Wait, do you not know that I was just hospitalized for several weeks? Do your systems not talk to each other? Do your people not talk to each other?” To me, it was a small…but still very important reflection of just how little my customer journey mattered.

Ian: Imagine you’re in Ali’s position. You’re fighting for your life. You’re trying to recover. You’re getting hit with bill after bill, which should be covered under your health care. And then…they have the nerve to ask you if you’ve had your annual physical?

To Ali, it became clear. To his insurance company, the most important part of Ali’s journey was the bill that had to be paid.

Ali: That just precipitated in my mind a lot of thoughts like, “Okay, you know what? This is just terrible. I'm going to go start a really user-friendly health insurance company.” But it also sort of started in my mind, “Why do companies like this continue to succeed and why do we give them our money if this is how they treat people?”

I remember thinking two or three weeks in, “This is like really perverse. Don't these people understand that I've just been through something that's pretty harrowing? Isn't there any desire to want to help me understand this? [Or] any kind of proactivity to help me figure out an answer or get a solution versus just reading me what was clearly a call center script [and…] clearly just trying to get me off the phone?”

And, naively, I was like, “Wow, that's a really crappy customer experience. I would never treat a customer like this, especially somebody who's going through what I went through.”

Ian: After recovering fully and settling that half a million-dollar mistake, Ali kept true to his word and founded a company to deliver the exact opposite of the experience he just had.

But where to start?

Finding the customer pool with the greatest impact

Ian: Improving healthcare sounds like an insurmountable task. So, Ali narrowed his focus on a very specific, but extremely large population that carries the biggest healthcare bill: employers.

Why? Because more than 151 million Americans count on their employer for coverage. And those employers watch the healthcare bill go up and up and up and up and up every year and have virtually no idea if their employees are actually having a good healthcare experience at all.

Ali: Replacing a company health plan is not a low-risk endeavor. You're dealing, again, with people's health benefits and health insurance. And those have real consequences if not done correctly and with a lot of thought.

We're having a really positive effect on the benefit managers themselves—our customers, if you will—within the enterprise, and their confidence in being able to make a decision and to recommend a change like this, whereas historically, they might've been more nervous to do that.

Ian: The frontline worker here is the benefits manager. Benefits managers within most organizations are responsible for deciding or recommending which health insurance plan their company will buy.

Legacy insurance companies might give benefit managers a wealth of information about the coverage they can provide, but the information is incredibly difficult to parse through. And it’s even more difficult to understand for the actual employees.

Collective Health's business is built differently. It's architected to have aligned incentives with the company it works for. For example, Collective Health doesn't make money from hospital visits, prescriptions, or reimbursements. They get paid a simple fee from the employers they work with. That's it.

Everything at Collective Health is built differently from traditional healthcare companies, down to the titles that they have for Collective Health employees.

Ali: You're engaged in a sort of “war for talent” that a lot of these great organizations that we work with are in. Like I said, health benefits packages are a big part of what you use to differentiate your organization from others.

And it's not just how much you spend on health benefits, but also what you spend them on. There’s a lot of signaling effect that comes from the kinds of things that you choose to invest in with respect to your employee health benefit plan. And so, for us, I think one of the things that we've really enabled employers—and benefit teams within employers—to do is to really understand what their employee health benefit needs are in a way that traditional health insurance companies just haven't allowed them to do by keeping the data so close to the chest.

We don't make money in hidden ways like a lot of health insurance companies do, like reselling drugs or making money from hospital claims and the reimbursement of those claims. We just get paid a simple fee from the employers that we serve.

Again, back to my point of putting the customer at the center of your focus, we have every incentive to make that customer as successful as we can.

Ian: When you talk to Ali, you realize that even as a CEO, he dives super deep into the lives of his customers. Like Lee Iacocca, Ali isn’t content to be in a back room thinking of ideas and toiling away on the product in solitude. He’s able to anticipate his customers’ needs by being present with them.

Ali: I remember when we even chose the term for our customer success organization, people in the health insurance industry almost scoffed, like, “What does that mean? That sounds like a cheesy California new-age thing to call an account management team.”

But, to me, account management isn't actually the right way to describe it. Your job isn't to manage the account and to manage that person. They're their own person. They're their own manager. Your job is actually to make them successful.

But people in health insurance looked at us literally like we were a bunch of freaks from the Valley who didn't know anything about healthcare. But that orientation then leads to you developing products and capabilities, like, in our case, powerful analytics, data warehousing, and data analysis tools.

If benefit managers can be given the tools to craft a health benefits experience, using data, and then using really, really good user experience design and technology in a way that really maps to their needs and anticipates their population's needs, they become a truly strategic asset and strategic part of the enterprise that they work in.

And that's our mission—to empower those benefits teams to be truly viewed as equally strategic as any other function within a company, whether it's engineering or marketing or sales or anything else.

Ian: Ali is obsessed with going above and beyond-to be proactive and help their customers before they even know that they need help

Ali: Look, health insurance industry execs operate at a 70,000-foot level and they are so divorced from what's happening to their customers on the ground that attention to detail just doesn't exist in their companies. If the top of the food chain within that company doesn't really care about the details, or isn't spending much time diving into the details, why should anyone else care about them?

Whereas people at Collective Health know that I care very, very deeply about the details. I want to know, “Why did that person call about that issue?” “What do we do specifically for that person?” “What are we taking from that experience and applying to the rest of our customer interactions?”

I read all our Net Promoter surveys in gory detail. I read all our employee surveys in gory detail. I just don't think you can build a great experience or a great enterprise anymore if you, as the CEO, aren't really interested in the actual details of the experience.

Crafting a thoughtful, transparent CX that serves every customer need

Ian: Empowering benefit managers is just one piece of the puzzle for Collective Health. On the other end are the thousands and thousands of employees that their customers all have–and those employees demand a seamless digital experience on the Collective Health platform.

Ali: I'd say the thing that we really pride ourselves on at Collective Health, and focus all of our energy on from a customer experience philosophy standpoint, is anticipating our customers’ needs. Healthcare, as you know, is quite complicated. It doesn't lend itself super well to consumer-type purchasing behavior.

Taking the time to really understand and model [what], in the future, a person's care journey will likely look like, and then anticipate that person's needs in ways that are serendipitous [and] sometimes unexpected, but obviously in a very positive way, is something that we really pride ourselves on and […work] toward.

Ian: Ok, so what does this all actually look like in practice?

Ali: What it looks like in practice is an app and a telephonic customer service experience where everything related to your employee health benefit plan is aggregated in one place.

[It’s] where you basically have a porthole or a front door to the healthcare system, where you understand at every moment in time what's covered and what's not by your health plan, what options are available to you, [and] what the health and financial implications of any of those options are for you specifically. Then you can access any and all aspects of your healthcare plan that your employer—because we serve employers principally today; we might serve other people in the future—has furnished for you.

Whether it's a digital program to help you with some stress that you're dealing with or behavioral health issues you might have, or whether it's a fertility program, or whether it's just finding a primary care physician or a place to go get your labs, Collective Health is the place that you go to find that, access that, and then obviously pay for it and understand what your employer’s going to cover or your health plan’s going to the cover, and what you're going to be on the hook for.

Tackling new challenges with a proactive CX strategy

Ian: Anticipating the customer’s needs changes the equation from reactive to proactive. This is a critical difference. It gives Collective Health the flexibility to step up during times of crisis.

Ali: I think one of the best examples of anticipating a customer need was actually what we did earlier this year, once it became pretty clear that this current virus was not a fleeting or passing phenomenon and would likely be here for a while. We anticipated just based on the signals that we were saying, even if they weren't necessarily being articulated, that our customers would need help understanding when [would be] a safe time to reopen their workplaces. And we anticipated that our customers would very likely need a technological … consumer-facing capability to enable their people to understand what it meant to safely go back to work.

[In] early March, my co-founder was like, “Hey… we can probably use our same health plan administration infrastructure to deliver a workplace risk reduction product, because there are a lot of shared similarities between the two things.”

When you're administering a health benefit plan, your job is to organize and make accessible all of the different kinds of healthcare options that an enterprise has bought on behalf of its people, and then to make really, really clear and understandable the best option for an individual given their current circumstances.

Similarly, when you're trying to figure out when to reopen an office, your job is to assemble a bunch of resources to help you understand that, including a network of COVID testing centers and labs so that people can get tested if they need to. And then, a set of rules or equations that help you understand, based on the data that you've collected—How are people feeling? What are their symptoms? Who have they been in touch with? What are their tests results showing—whether or not, in that population, in that location, it’s safe to allow them to go back to the workplace? And again, all delivered in a really easy-to-use app.

We had a lot of consternation internally, like, “God, are we thinking a little too ahead of the curve here? I know we always talk about wanting to ‘skate to where the puck is,’ the famous Wayne Gretzky expression, but are we skating before the puck has even really been played? Are we sure we want to go here?”

I was like, “Yeah, we know enough.” We just, given our heritage, can anticipate enough that this is going to be an issue. Interestingly, we had a debate—also internally—like, “Okay, well, what's the cost of waiting?” And for us, we felt like the cost of waiting was just too great. Because we're talking about a matter of weeks or months at most where the decision to reopen or to close could have pretty catastrophic consequences, kind of the same way that covering someone's health benefits can have catastrophic consequences if you do it or if you don't do it.

We were like, “Well, a lot of people in essential service categories have to go back to work. They have to serve us. They don't have a choice. If we could help mitigate the risk of an outbreak for those people—weeks matter, even days matter. So, let's index toward anticipating more versus anticipating less.”

And I think that that was the right bet to make. The feedback that we've gotten from not only our existing customers who use our health plan administration product, but new customers— customers we've never talked to in the past—is “We are so glad that somebody thought about this earlier. Somebody thought about this sooner rather than later.”

Especially in a situation like we're in right now where, at a government level, we’re not getting consistent information and we're not getting consistent messaging in terms of what best practices are. There was this vacuum of really good information and practice that we were able to fill.

Fusing clinical understanding and technical capability for a seamless, scalable customer experience

Ali: I think one of the things that's made Collective Health a really cool technology company story is that amalgamation of deep, clinical, scientific medical knowledge and really deep, scalable technological software and data science capability—fusing those things together to create these really amazing products that are really deeply grounded in both medical science, but are also very deeply technologically capable and innovative, just from a software standpoint.

Ian: Know your customers inside and out. Know the data. Be enthusiastic about your market, and dive into the details. These are the principles that allow you to create a great customer experience, whether you’re feeling the purr of an engine while sitting behind the wheel of your Ford Mustang or developing a customer experience that will make life easier for suffering patients.

Ali: I was not a customer. I was a nuisance. That, just in and of itself, that philosophical belief, and the shift that we're creating in health insurance, where your customer is the most important thing. Your profit is not the most important thing, your customer is the most important thing. Without your customer, you've got nothing—or you should have nothing.

Like that famous Henry Ford quote, “If I'd asked people what they wanted, they would've said a faster horse.” Yes. There is some truth to the innovation that comes from within and the innovation that just comes from a spark, but that's rare. I would say the best innovation actually comes from listening to what your customers are telling you.

And it's not necessarily the words that come out of their mouth. It's oftentimes those subtle, subconscious, tacit things that they do where they're signaling that there's a need that's unmet, even if they can't verbalize and articulate it.

For me, the best customer success people are able to tease that out from their interactions with their customers and bring that information and that knowledge back to home base so that you can build new products and new experiences that, again, anticipate what your customer's needs are. And really, then as a result, deliver almost a sense of magic or wonder, like, “Wow, how did these people figure out what I was thinking when I didn't even know what I was thinking?”

Create more opportunities to delight your customers

Ian: The right customer experience does feel like magic. Whether it’s the person who walks by and drops the check off before you finish your meal, it’s those little things that really matter. This is something that Lee Iaccocca saw when he was trying to develop cars for the utility in which they would be used.

And it’s the same thing that Ali did to try to figure out all the things that he could do to predict where his customers were going and skate towards that puck, as he mentioned.

You might have heard of surprise and delight. It’s something that I think perfectly encapsulates what Ali and Collective Health are trying to do—give that little bit of magic and anticipate exactly what their customers’ needs are.

This is your host, Ian Faison. Thank you for listening to another episode of Often Imitated. If you like what you’re hearing, hit subscribe. If you really, really like it, give us a rating and review. This podcast was narrated by me, Ian Faison, and produced by Ben Wilson with support from Kyle Kelly-Yahner and Mackey Wilson.

This podcast is brought to you with the generous support of our friends at Oracle. Creating data-powered, seamless marketing experiences that delight your customers. To learn more, go to Oracle.com/cx.

To anticipate customer needs, you need the complete picture 

By anticipating your customers’ needs, you can provide better service, make more compelling pitches, and enhance the customer journey at every stage. First, though, you need to have a clear understanding of your customers.

With Oracle Advertising and CX, you can follow every interaction a customer has had with your company and base your decisions on a complete picture, whether you’re scheduling a field service repair or helping them place an online order.

 Check out our complete Oracle Advertising and CX suite of applications to learn more.

This is a transcript of Often Imitated, episode 5: “The Art of Anticipating Needs with Ali Diab, CEO at Collective Health.” It has been edited for clarity.

Nicola Fairhead

Content Marketing Specialist, Oracle Advertising and CX


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