Daniel Burstein

Selling and Marketing to Senior Citizens When Your Team is Very Different From the Customer

April 26th, 2018

“Nobody reads direct mail letters anymore.” “Everybody has the latest iPhone now.” “I would never read that.”

Let’s unpack these sentences. What they are really saying is:

  • “Nobody (I know) reads direct mail anymore.”
  • “Everybody (I follow on Instagram) has the latest iPhone now.”
  • “I would never read that (but I’m not the ideal customer for the product).”

We humans, we’re a self-centered lot. And we think other people are much more like us than they really are. Psychologists call this false-consensus bias. And it is a significant challenge for the CMO or other sales or marketing leader in charge of a team that is very different from them.

I discussed this topic with Denis Mrkva, general manager of Aetna’s HealthSpire subsidiary, right before I interviewed him about a landing page optimization effort that increased leads 638% for a call center. Denis’ ideal customer is interested in Medicare Advantage. So his fairly young team is selling to senior citizens.

We also discussed hiring and creating the right culture, how senior citizens use digital channels, and how Denis’ team helps his customers navigate the digital environment. You can watch the video below or jump to the full transcript.

Customer-first sales and marketing

In discussing the customer, Denis had some good advice:

“Put them and their needs first — and listen. And try to understand not only their needs for the product they want to buy, but their lifestyle, the important things in their life.”  — Denis Mrkva

This step can be crucial to sales and marketing teams that are very different from their customer. People are three-dimensional. They don’t wake up in the morning only thinking about your product.

What is the customer’s day-to-day life like? In what environment do they interact with your marketing and your product?

Thinking about the customer’s overall lifestyle helps professionals in sales and marketing better empathize with the customer. (The Introductory Guide to Developing Your Customer Theory can help a team increase and disseminate their customer wisdom internally and with business partners).

Leading a customer-first team

As I said at the beginning of this blog post, people see their interpretation of the world. And that view is often skewed by self-interest. As the Talmudic saying goes, “We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are.”

Denis described the leadership challenge that presents, “The hard part is how do you refocus people from being product- and self-centric, because most of us are self-centric, to actually being customer-centric.”

His goal is to build a strong, customer-first culture and retain a talented sales and marketing team with transparency and a collegial atmosphere.

On transparency, Denis says that it’s important to share “everything from how much money we spent, to our return on investment, to our cost of sale, so the people always feel and cannot only feel but can actually see and hear that their work is part of something bigger. And they know what that bigger is.”

Lastly, Denis describes a collegial atmosphere:

“People should be able to express their opinion and disagree with whomever, their peer, their boss, their general manager, doesn’t matter. And have an open discussion about the actions that need to be taken for the best of the enterprise without any fear of repercussions on career, on performance, on money. It’s just an opinion of a person, and we need to assume that everybody is here for the best of the enterprise.” — Denis Mrkva

You can follow Daniel Burstein, Senior Director, Content & Marketing, MarketingSherpa and MECLABS Institute, on Twitter @DanielBurstein.

You might also like …

Landing Page Optimization: How Aetna’s HealthSpire startup generated 638% more leads for its call center

The Marketer’s Blind Spot: 3 ways to overcome the marketer’s greatest obstacle to effective messaging

How to Move Beyond Industry-Speak, and Start a Conversation with Your Customers

Full transcript of video interview

Daniel: So how often have you heard this in a marketing meeting? Maybe you’re brainstorming, coming up with an idea, and someone says, “Oh, I would never do that. I don’t like that.” Well, here’s the problem. You are not necessarily your customer. Sometimes there are certain customers that are very different from ourselves. So, let’s discuss that right now.

Hi, I’m Daniel Burstein. I’m the Senior Director of Content at Marketing at MECLABS Institute and MarketingSherpa. And I’m joined now by Denis Mrkva, the general manager of HealthSpire, an Aetna subsidiary. So, Denis, thanks for joining us.

Denis:   Thank you for having me. Thank you, Daniel.

Daniel: Tell me a little bit about HealthSpire and want customer do you serve?

Denis:   Well, HealthSpire is a subsidiary of Aetna, and Aetna is a provider of healthcare insurance services. One of the segments that we provide services for is the Medicare segment. People, that most of the time, are 65 years or older or have certain medical conditions below that age. So, it’s a senior population that we serve on a daily basis.

Daniel: OK, so 65 and older. How many people in your company are 65 and older?

Denis:   Not many. Nobody is at that age group. But I think what we are trying to do is find a way how to service that age group in a way that actually helps them understand not only the products that we have to offer, the importance of the decisions they make when they buy this product on two things. Emotional well-being, there’s a peace of mind that you have if you have the right product that can protect you from having certain conditions at an unexpected time.

And there’s also financial protection that you get. With the peace of mind goes the ability to really plan your budget to a certain extent and protect yourself from the unforeseen expenses that can happen to the person if, God forbid, life brings some unfortunate event.

Daniel: So how do you learn about your customer to get the right language to talk to them, to set up the right scenarios? I know you have an extensive background in economics, analytics. How do you use some of these tools to learn about your customer?

Denis:   That’s a good question. And Daniel and I were talking before and he asked me this question, and I said, “I’m the oldest one, but I will not tell you my age.” Well, the way to describe that is, really, take yourself out of the business environment and go back to each one of us as people. Most of us have parents and many of us have grown up around our grandparents and the neighbors and family that actually have been that age group or were the age group. So the truth is, we know that population. We know their habits. We know the way of how they perceive important decisions, how they make important decisions.

So it doesn’t really … it’s not necessary to be that age group to service them. It’s just necessary to be able to, when talking to them put them and their needs first and listen. And try to understand not only their needs for the product they want to buy but their lifestyle, the importance of things in their life. There are people who like to travel. They have their grandkids in other parts of the United States and they will stay there for two weeks, so if they want to be protected, we have a product for them. Versus people who mostly locally stay, not travel, do not have any needs for extensive coverage.

But the needs of a person, for the product, also need to align with understanding that person’s lifestyle. And if you just take a minute and think about, what do we know about our grandparents or our parents who are at that age? We’ll realize we know a lot.

Daniel: So it sounds like empathy is important, using your personal relationships. Are there any analytic tools or data or some things you use to arm your team to help them better understand that segment?

Denis:   Yes. Yes. HealthSpire is a startup within a much larger corporation that started in June of last year. And the idea of the company is to have a digital presence powered by analytics and data. In other words, the decision that we make on a daily basis, especially the decision to buy something, will most of the time end up being a decision about the numbers. And to know that the numbers are not only the product itself, but what this person is telling us on that call?

There are questions that we ask that allows us then to look at those needs and using the numbers that we have in the background, so to speak, to understand from the lifestyle to the needs, what will the optimal product for the person, not only from what they’re telling us, but from the portfolio that we have to sell another customer that bought that before? And then as we start engaging, remember, once they buy our product, it really becomes about understanding the lifecycle of the person as well as the lifecycle of the peer population that we service. And trying to use numbers to identify potential needs and then offer them products that we have.

Daniel: OK, great. So, it’s before the sale, right? But after the sale, you want to continue to build trust with them and use the numbers you see. Do you have any examples of some of the things you’re looking for from your customers?

Denis:   Yes. Most of the time, since the very first decision is always a financial decision, and you start competing on price. And we learned quickly in the beginning that unless you have a price that’s in the ballpark of the competition, you don’t have a lot of chance to close and to actually sell that product to the member. But once you start understanding and realizing that after that first touch we have to make the decision, either we stop, or we continue to work with the person and educate them on some of the things that may be coming their way that not necessarily align with the product that they currently have, it allows us then to start sharing the information we have with them digitally via emails and calls if they want to call us — to outline to them some of the positives as well as negatives of the current coverage.

For example, many people who age into Medicare (which means if you turn 65 and if you’re retired, you’re paying your taxes, Social Security taxes), [the] government will provide to you the Medicare Part A, which is a hospital coverage if you’re going to [the] hospital. In order to get a doctor coverage, you have to buy from the government what’s called Medicare Part B. Once you get that coverage from the government, then you can go to any doctor or any hospital pretty much in the country and get services.

The problem there is that government pays only 80%. So the 20%, whatever is left, the consumer has to pay without the limit — and educating people on what does it mean. If you just take an example, a simple procedure that commonly occurs in the population, regardless of what it is and the cost, and try to bring that to life to the customer … “Yes, the coverage you have allows you access to care.” But in an unfortunate event of a fall and breaking your hip, for example, the share of the cost that the consumer has to pay becomes pretty fast, pretty high and not feasible.

And from that point we try to package to them products that we have to understand how to limit their exposure and how to maximize access to health care and how to then, over time, help them with other products and other needs they have, whether to buy or replace a product, if they can.

Daniel: I’ll start in from that question again. OK. So you also mentioned HealthSpire trying to educate and tell your customers a story and help them understand their options. But you also talked about HealthSpire being through a digital channel. Now, from probably what we think about seniors, I don’t know if it’s true or not, but what we think about seniors, older Americans, they’re probably the least likely to understand and trust using digital channels. So what have you learned or what have you done to communicate with them, through digital or perhaps other channels as well?

Denis:   That’s true, but if you think about the population we serve, it’s anybody 65 years of age or older, for the simplicity. There are some exceptions there. Which means if a person is at that life stage, 75 or 80 years old, you’re absolutely right. Their ability to use digital simply because of the way they live their lives and the way they acquired information shared is not at our level. However, you’d be surprised how many of them are actually realizing  “this is what I need to learn.”

So it’s interesting because a lot of times we spend more time on the call trying to educate a consumer to whom we sent an email application, how to open up an email, how to read through the documents, how to sign an edocument. And it’s something actually that creates a trust between the customer and our agent because in addition to spending 55 minutes on the phone trying to explain a product, educate them, find the right product for you, we’ll spend as long, as much time as it needs to educate you how to use now that email that we sent you.

On the other end of the spectrum, people aging into Medicare today were born in 1953. That generation is actually very technically savvy and digitally savvy. Now fast forward 10 years from now, because one of the reasons HealthSpire was created by Aetna is that we won’t anticipate what is going to happen 10 years from now. People who were born in the ’60s, they live their lives using digital. So we’re just trying to learn how to serve the population the right way, as well as to how to optimize our, not only business processes, but our culture and our people to be able to service people when the time comes at a large scale digitally.

Daniel: Yeah, I think you have three really good lessons there that I think, one, not all senior citizens are the same. It’s probably true for all of the generations too. Millennials, for example, are 23 to 37. There’s probably a big difference between a 37-year-old and 23-year-old. If seniors are 65 to 85, there’s probably a big difference in how they understand digital.

I really like how you educate them on how to use the channel, not just on your product, but educate them on how to use the channel, email, digital, whatever that is, to interact with you, probably gives them a little more confidence. And lastly, looking forward, right? Because the seniors, as we keep going, they’re going to become more and more and more digital savvy. At one point, seniors are going to be people who use Snapchat as teenagers, right?

Denis:   Before you know it. Then HealthSpire’s going to be sending Medicare to you and me. Time goes by fast. That’s the hardest part, actually doing something today that’s pretty limited with the opportunities out there, but knowing that we are trying to do this real business yet learn how to be ready even when 90% of our customers are actually involved digitally. And the communication between the agent and the customers is minimal. But most of these things happen digitally so that agents become just a supporting member throughout the lifecycle.

Daniel: Let me ask you lastly about the digital. So with digital, what a lot of marketers get, a lot of companies get, is lots of numbers, right? There’s a great thing about digital interaction is you can measure a lot, but then what do you do with all of it? And also, how do you hire the people, build the right teams, build the right processes to make that work? Data scientists and the digital people, they’re very sought after now. So do have any advice on how you hire, on how you find the right analytics people, how you train them, how you build that culture or process within your organization?

Denis:   I think there are two different areas, I would say. There’s the skills of people that you need. And those skills are pretty easy to identify on a resume, which … if you know what is it that you want to do with the role and with the capabilities you’re building, then we’ll realize that there are certain skill sets, technical, or the profession that you need to have in that role. And that’s the easy part.

The hard part is how do you refocus people from being product- and self-centric, because most of us are self-centric, to actually being customer-centric. And then that goes back to how can you build the culture that actually, not only acknowledges, but also rewards meritocracy, which is “we are all equally important.” And the only thing that differentiates us is performance, and based on that differentiation, how compensation is differentiated.

Anything else, there should be no difference between general managers, somebody on the phone from the place they sit and work, to the rules that apply throughout the company. Transparency, it’s very important to have an environment for things, shared with others, everything from how much money we spent, to our return on investment, to our cost of sale so the people always feel and cannot only feel, but can actually see and hear that their work is part of something bigger. And they know what that bigger is.

Then the third thing is what we call collegial atmosphere. People should be able to express their opinion and disagree with whomever, their peer, their boss, their general manager, doesn’t matter. And have an open discussion about the actions that need to be taken for the best of the enterprise. Without any fear of repercussions on career, on performance, on money. It’s just an opinion of a person and we need to assume that everybody is here for the best of the enterprise.

And then you also have to have people who are, I would say, courageous because to build new things it really comes down to the attitude of the people, not only leading people, there has to be a certain level of courage to do things differently. There has to be a certain level of stamina. Physical and mental stamina. There has to be a certain level of trust that can only be built by understanding that we follow-up on what we promise, and what we promise is transparent.

It’s not in one-off conversations. It’s in front of everybody. And then adaptable. We try new things. If the things don’t work, we try different things. As long as we keep searching, we’ll find the answers. So technical skills, how do you look for people, and what do you want the culture to bring is what defines your success in the short and the long term.

Daniel: Okay, excellent. Well, thank you very much, Denis, for joining us.

Denis:   Thank you. Thank you, Daniel.

Daniel: And thank you for watching. I hope you got some good tips on how to help serve a customer who is very different from yourself.

Daniel Burstein

About Daniel Burstein

Daniel Burstein, Senior Director of Editorial Content, MECLABS. Daniel oversees all content and marketing coming from the MarketingExperiments and MarketingSherpa brands while helping to shape the editorial direction for MECLABS – digging for actionable information while serving as an advocate for the audience. Daniel is also a speaker and moderator at live events and on webinars. Previously, he was the main writer powering MarketingExperiments publishing engine – from Web clinics to Research Journals to the blog. Prior to joining the team, Daniel was Vice President of MindPulse Communications – a boutique communications consultancy specializing in IT clients such as IBM, VMware, and BEA Systems. Daniel has 18 years of experience in copywriting, editing, internal communications, sales enablement and field marketing communications.

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