Fostering Empathy as a Service Innovation

Innovation in industry is often led by technology. However, service innovation can be led by one’s people. This is especially true in the retiree health benefits space. My company employs Advocates that need to improve the health and happiness of our 65+ members—which requires empathy. We all know family members and friends who have struggled with understanding their health insurance. The work of our employees becomes personal. As Retiree Advocates, they are solving real needs for human impact.

I recently sat down at a roundtable with my service team to discuss the significant role of empathy at our company. Specifically, how do we search for it in the hiring process, and how do we nurture it in our existing labor pool?

Providing Opportunities for a Demonstration of Sensitivity and Empathy

Empathy is an essential quality for our Advocates, but how can we identify it in a paper resume or a brief in-person interview? Jeannette, a seasoned Member Service Manager, had advice for the team.

If anyone understood empathy firsthand, it was Jeannette. She often shared her own experience as an Advocate with new hires. On Jeannette’s very first call, a member went on a rant. Jeannette knew this elderly man had to be tough to have worked for decades as a manual laborer who helped build New York City into what it is today. The man was hurting physically, emotionally, and financially—so she let him voice that pain. Over time, Jeannette helped this member get the care he needed and the relationship grew. Our client, the Labor Union Fund Manager, eventually called our office concerned because the member’s daily complaints suddenly stopped. I had to assure him, “Your member is doing great. He’s with Jeannette!”

When combing through resumes, Jeannette advised my team to search beyond the obvious experience of working in healthcare settings: hospitals, doctor offices, pharmacies, or health insurance carriers. We also needed to search for experience in roles that might inspire empathy by helping customers who were weathering major life difficulties.

One example was a resume from a candidate named Melissa that listed almost fifteen years in a mortgage lender office—that’s working with families in default across a subprime mortgage crisis and a pandemic. Jeannette invited Melissa in for an interview and asked about this experience. Melissa explained that she put herself in the shoes of a customer who was losing their home because she herself knew what it was like to live paycheck to paycheck. “Really, anyone can find themselves in that position,” Melissa had said. “You have to feel for them.” Jeannette hired Melissa as an Advocate because she could show this same emotional intelligence toward our members.

Dave Zawrotny and team are constantly evolving their hiring for empathy practices and interview questions

Theresa Bell, SVP of Service—and my right hand—offered best practices for call scenarios in the interview stage. Hiring managers will role play with candidates and pretend to be a member calling in with a common concern. Their scripts also include a brief mention of a hardship to see if candidates have enough sensitivity to react.

Theresa demonstrated for us, “Hello, I’m calling in with a question about a bill from my insurance. I haven’t gotten to it in over a week because my dog Pepper just died, so my payment might be late. I don’t understand some of the costs, and I’m hoping you can help me…” Of course the hiring manager will note how well the candidate gives assistance—but they will also note if the candidate gives condolences for Pepper and asks after the member’s emotional state. Demonstrating empathy in that moment is very telling and an important indicator in the hiring process.

“It’s vital that we hire Advocates who will care for our members like they care for their own families,” Theresa said. “Every interaction has to build a personal relationship, gain trust, and ease anxiety. Once members know they are in capable hands, they can relax and enjoy their hard-earned retirement.”

Fostering Empathy in Our People Through Collaboration, Training, and Reward

Our 100+ Advocates are all US-based and in house. We designed our open layouts to give each Advocate natural light at a spacious desk grouped into quad cubicles. Proximity helps Advocates collaborate on understanding the complex Medicare landscape, where there can be multiple plans, confusing language, and constant change. We also set up a Slack channel for Advocates to post questions and get answers in real time while on the phone.

All Advocates undergo extensive onboarding and participate in annual geriatric sensitivity training. We help Advocates develop empathy for our elderly members by experiencing age-related sensory challenges themselves. As a simulation, Advocates try to:

  • Hold a conversation with cotton balls stuffed in their ears to create a hearing impairment
  • Read a bill wearing special glasses that mimic cataracts
  • Walk with corn kernels in their shoes to experience discomfort on every step

RetireeFirst Advocates wearing special glasses that mimic cataracts for their annual geriatric sensitivity training.

Retiree Healthcare Advocacy is our hallmark. Service at RetireeFirst consistently receives a world-class 90+ Net Promoter Score from member surveys, far above the industry average of 60. To show how much we value Advocates and their contribution, leadership provides financial rewards. Every month, two Advocates receive $500 for going above and beyond for members. Annually, ten Advocates with the highest service scores receive prizes ranging from $5,000 cash to a new Apple Watch.

In the long-term, leadership ensures that talented Advocates achieve their professional goals. Some of our homegrown employees that began as Tier I Advocates and are now Vice Presidents. Our very first Advocate, Caitlin Bailey, was hired in 2005 and is now a Senior Vice President. She continues to spot and champion talent she sees on the floor. “Our company was born from going above and beyond for our retirees,” she says. “Empathy is the most important quality in an Advocate, and it is at the core of our service. Strong Advocates have a clear growth path at RetireeFirst.”

As my Service team ended the roundtable and exited through the corridors of our building in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, we passed hand-written ‘Thank You’ notes from members pinned to the walls. These notes are a great point of pride with all of us. Every signature marks a member that was upset and confused until our people reached out with the clear message: You are not alone. We are your Advocates, and we will get you the help you need.

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