Interview: Neal Reizer on Customer Advisory Boards

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As part of my Customer Advisory Board Expert Interview Series, I would like to share some of the ideas and insights shared by Neal Reizer, the Senior Vice-President of Revenue Cycle Management R&D at MedAssets-Precyse in Plano, Texas about the planning and execution of Customer Advisory Boards.

Impetus Digital:
What are you presently doing at MedAssets-Precyse?

Neal:
I am currently SVP, R&D with MedAssets-Precyse. We are an end-to-end revenue cycle management solution for US healthcare providers. My primary priorities include fiscal management, people leadership, and providing strategic technical direction for our suite of enterprise applications.

Impetus Digital:
Tell me about your background in the planning and implementation of customer advisory boards.

Neal:
As VP, Product Development at MEDHOST, I was responsible for the design and development of our next generation Physician Experience. Our priorities centered around bringing a new electronic health record (EHR) to market, conceived and designed by physicians for physicians. If you are familiar with the US EHR market, you will know that physicians are highly critical of EHR usability. They often site the fact that physicians have little to no input, or that the systems are designed to comply with regulations and billing needs, and secondarily for clinical practice.

Impetus Digital:
Sounds like it was very challenging and inspiring! Tell us why you found advisory boards to be so valuable.

Neal:
Quite honestly, I was fortunate that we hired Dr. Frank Newlands to be our Chief Medical Officer. Within months of Dr. Newlands arrival, he initiated the physician advisory board (PAB) and recruited colleagues from around the country. It was (pun very much intended) exactly what the doctor ordered. For the first time in the company’s 25+ year history, we had a collection of practicing, senior physicians providing strategic guidance and vision to our product development roadmap.

Impetus Digital:
Starting an advisory board for some organizations is a big leap of faith. How did you socialize the idea of running a customer advisory board within your company?

Neal:
Again, I was lucky. Dr. Newlands did the heavy lifting with the company executives. He was masterful and spreading the board seats among our most influential customers (always a way to win their support!) as well as to physicians using other systems. Once we had our first PAB meeting, the organization was sold. Both because of the caliber of the PAB members, but also because of the highly positive feedback we received from key organizations that we were finally listening to physicians about their needs.

Impetus Digital:
Who to invite to an advisory board is always the first question to arise. How did you decide which stakeholders should participate?

Neal:
We carefully balanced participation among customers and non-customers. We also ensured geographic, specialty, and system use diversity. We had a pretty firm rule that if you missed enough meetings, you would be asked to resign from the board.

Impetus Digital:
Tell us how you typically planned and executed your customer advisory boards.

Neal:
We met in person once per quarter. Before I go on, I want to emphasize how remarkable that was. Certainly we paid expenses and a modest fee. But recall, these are practicing physicians who volunteered to stop practicing for 1-2 days and spend time with us. These live meetings ran all day, often with a dinner the evening before for those who could come in early. You might think the dinner was just fun and drinks, but we would spend hours talking about physician workflow, treating patients, and the challenges physicians around the US face. And, we did have a drink or two…

In between live meetings, we would engage the PAB if a time sensitive or relatively straightforward topic emerged. For example, something as simple as particular data to show on a screen might be resolved with an e-mail to the PAB with a couple of questions. We would consolidate the responses, validate the opinion with Dr. Newlands, and make our decision.

Impetus Digital:
With all of those experiences, what are some of the key best practices you think need to be employed to make boards truly successful?

Neal:
Be prepared. Physicians are highly paid, highly skilled professionals. They don’t like their time wasted. Several weeks in advance, our teams would begin to develop the agenda. The agenda was loosely always three main themes: product features completed since the prior PAB meeting, product features in development, and discussions about future direction. This become a process, as product features in development at one PAB were shown when completed at a future PAB. And the discussions about future direction led to our teams demonstrating that direction in terms of feature in development at a future PAB meeting.

This lead to a second, critical learning. If you are going to have an advisory board, you better listen to them. If you don’t implement any of their input, you either have the wrong advisors or you have an advisory board just so you can claim that you have one. Showing actual, working, delivered product to the PAB months after they had seen the concept and provided input made the result theirs, as much as ours. Our development teams would view an upcoming PAB meeting with the same energy and excitement people have when doing a large product launch event. I could offer no greater motivation to the team than when the PAB would unanimously declare a new feature “better than the system we are using now.”

Impetus Digital:
Looking back, would you do anything differently with your customer advisory boards?

Neal:
I’m not sure I would do too much differently. That said, I would attempt to make it clearer that board membership may not be permanent. I think a healthy turnover – not of the entire board at once – could be healthy. You need a certain amount of new thinking. The most significant obstacle we ran into was physicians having killer time schedules. In spite of that, we achieved a very high attendance rate meeting after meeting. As for best practices, I’ll summarize what I outlined above: be prepared and use their feedback. Even if you disagree with the advisory board, if they universally believe something – go with the board.

Impetus Digital:
Have you ever considered running virtual customer advisory boards with an online platform so “multiple touchpoints” with customers could be employed seamlessly and cost effectively?

Neal:
In essence, we did this. Albeit, lo-tech with WebEx meetings to supplement the quarterly live meetings. The advantage was keeping the PAB engaged mentally between live meetings. The key is for these to be a single topic, short (30 minutes or so), and use a subset of the board. By mixing up the ad-hoc virtual meetings, your members won’t start to feel as though their membership is a burden.

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