Events | August 2019 Hearing Review

Engage 2019: Unitron’s mission to change the customer experience and the patient journey

There’s some exciting talk at Unitron about a new way forward in hearing healthcare—and the company’s employees and loyal advocates believe they’re spreading the word about something revelatory in terms of the product experience and the customer journey, as they unveil a renewed path for Unitron FLEX and the company’s latest hearing aid line, Discover.

Unitron FLEX and Discover, which uses Sonova’s SWORD 3.0 chip, were the focus of the Engage 2019 conference held in Amsterdam on May 16-17 that was attended by over 200 hearing care professionals from Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and the Benelux countries. The company has also been showcasing FLEX and Discover in various cities throughout North America, including at their Minneapolis headquarters, hosted by Unitron US President Mike Dittmann, on June 5-7.

Reorienting the Patient Journey

In some ways, Unitron appears to be moving from being a “product company” to an “innovative services company,” focusing more on the process of quality hearing healthcare. They point out that clinicians working in hearing healthcare during the past 10 years have seen revolutionary changes in hearing aid technology: algorithms and directional microphones for better hearing in noise and reduced listening effort, feedback reduction systems, form factors that ameliorate cosmetic and stigma issues, rechargeable batteries, wireless connectivity and app-driven functionality, and much more. Yet, market penetration has remained relatively low. Additionally, some statistics suggest that only about 40% of customers return to the same dispensing office, and customer satisfaction has increased only modestly.

Unitron Canada General Manager Darren Farry welcomes about 200 dispensing professionals to Engage 2019 in Amsterdam.

Unitron Canada General Manager Darren Farry welcomes about 200 dispensing professionals to Engage 2019 in Amsterdam.

In a lively and funny game-show format, baby boomer/hipster “Alex,” played by Shaun Coghlan, is tasked by hosts Krista Koktan and Nicola McLaughlin, with trying to decide which key benefit of hearing aids on the Discover platform will best suit his lifestyle: Fit (played by Douglas Baldwin), Love (Leah Vusich), or Go (Corey Banham).

In a lively and funny game-show format, baby boomer/hipster “Alex,” played by Shaun Coghlan, is tasked by hosts Krista Koktan and Nicola McLaughlin, with trying to decide which key benefit of hearing aids on the Discover platform will best suit his lifestyle: Fit (played by Douglas Baldwin), Love (Leah Vusich), or Go (Corey Banham).

Why? Unitron thinks a good deal of this is because the customer experience has remained the same for decades. Unitron Senior Manager of Global Learning & Development Douglas Baldwin, AuD, explains: “Traditionally, the customer experience in the last 40+ years has followed the same basic sequence: Bad news, bad news, shock, followed by more disappointing news. First, our clients receive the bad news that they failed their hearing test and have a serious hearing loss. Once they’ve wrapped their brains around this idea, we then tell them that, in order to hear well again, they’ll need to purchase hearing aids. Then, we give them the shock that it’s going to cost quite a bit of money for them to buy something they never really pictured themselves wearing in the first place. Fourth, and finally, we give them the disappointing news that—should they take the monumental step of buying a hearing aid—they won’t be able to receive their new devices for another 2-3 weeks while they’re being made, and they’ll have to ‘get used to them’ once they do receive the aids. So, you can see why [the current dispensing process] can be a frustrating experience that even the best clinician or patient manager sometimes can’t overcome.”

Senior Manager of Global Training and Development Doug Baldwin, AuD

Senior Manager of Global Training and Development Doug Baldwin, AuD

When the customer journey is placed in this light, maybe it’s a testament to the skills of hearing care professionals that we even have a 30% market penetration rate. In fact, the customer journey often appears not to revolve around the customer or their needs at all, but more around the device. And that’s not a good situation for what most would like to view as a professionally driven field.

Vice-president of Global Marketing Lilika Beck

Vice-president of Global Marketing Lilika Beck

So what’s the solution? Unitron VP of Global Marketing Lilika Beck points to a 2011 CEB survey which indicates the key driver behind any product’s customer engagement and loyalty is not branding (19%), product/service delivery (19%), or even the value of the product (9%). Indeed, the counterintutive key driver of customer loyalty (53%) is the sales experience—or how the patient perceives the product and how it solves their problems, particularly at the outset of the consumer journey. In hearing healthcare, she observes that the customer experience has not evolved as fast as our field’s technology or kept pace with trends in consumer behavior or general healthcare that reward patient-centric care.

Beck cited three ways we can change the customer experience:

1) Don’t make a specific recommendation on the patient’s first visit—a process which traditionally has relied heavily on the audiogram instead of the patient’s perceptual and lifestyle needs;

2) Instead, rely on real-world subjective data gathered by the patient’s responses while using the hearing aid and the objective data collected by the system for an evidence-based fitting approach, and

3) Use the right technology for the specific needs of the patient in an upgradable solution that does not force the patient into a decision they’re unsure about and/or cause a lack of trust and confidence in the dispensing professional.

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FLEX: Using Data to Move the Patient to the Center of Patient-centered Care

The FLEX experience is designed for hearing care professionals who want to give patients immediate access to a sophisticated hearing aid trial tailored to their specific needs. Using the system, hearing clinicians are able to program a single hearing aid to higher or lower levels of technology, as many times as needed, for the time period they choose, in order to provide a trial solution for the client. Patients newly diagnosed with hearing loss can experience the benefits of amplification at their first appointment, and then access the product and technology level best suited to their needs following a real-world assessment.

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But, in truth, FLEX is now over 6 years old. So, what makes it so important today?

Shaun Coghlan says Unitron has been shifting its emphasis from a product to an innovative process for two key reasons: 1) Moving to a patient/family-centric approach in hearing care is the right thing to do from a professional and business standpoint, and 2) Alex is the future of our customer base (see sidebar). He says Alex and his youthful (at least in spirit) peers want voice, choice, guidance, and ease of use. And, to attain all of these, big data that is easy to understand, persuasive, and engaging is required. “Our world would be much better if [patients] felt good about the entire hearing experience,” says Coghlan. “To do this, you need information and evidence for a concrete conversation about their hearing needs.”

Much of the big data revolves around Unitron’s Log It All system, designed to provide personalized information about the patient’s experience while they wear the hearing aid. Log It All captures information about patient’s real-world hearing experiences across seven unique sound environments and shows them how much time they spend in those environments, as well as what the hearing aid is doing to help them. The patient can also use the smartphone-based Patient Ratings that provide subjective in-the-moment insights into their perceptions of the hearing experience—in situ. When this data is analyzed by the FLEX ecosystem, a more personalized and patient-centered hearing solution is presented.

In speaking with dispensing professionals who regularly use FLEX, the one thing that kept surfacing both in the United States and abroad was that they no longer felt like they were “selling” a hearing aid. Instead, the FLEX system, with input from Log It All, provides the patient with compelling data that reveals their hearing needs in an objective manner that they can combine with their first-hand experience of amplification to form their own informed observations and judgements. Ultimately, this creates a self-guided pathway to the best hearing aid solution for their unique lifestyles, eliminating the “selling” process.

“What people really need with a hearing aid is real-world assessment—the kind you can only partially replicate in a clinic,” says Baldwin. “It’s all about linking lifestyle to real-world use.”

Product Manager Leah Vusich and Director of Product Management Nicola McLaughlin

Product Manager Leah Vusich and Director of Product Management Nicola McLaughlin

“The world would be a better place if people felt really good about their entire hearing experience,” says Unitron Product Manager Leah Vusich, who along with Director of Product Management Nicola McLaughlin, helped create a series of professional guides to using Flex effectively in a hearing care practice. She says that although Unitron did a great job in developing the FLEX ecosystem, the instructions about effectively using it as a system—in a step-by-step “FLEX formula”—were largely missing until recently. Thus, Vusich, McLaughlin, and their team members developed the FLEX formula, an easy-to-follow guide made up of four components: An introduction to the formula, a clinical appointment guide, TrueFit best practices, and finally tools and support materials to promote your practice using FLEX. According to Vusich, the program emphasizes new and better methods that, in her view, represent “silver bullets” for practice success, including:

1) Allowing the client to trial the devices immediately after the hearing test—before you’ve even started to address the test results;

2) Eliminating the need to “sell” during the first appointment;

3) Providing an entry point for a patient regardless of “where they are” in the acceptance or decision-making process regarding amplification, instead of convincing only those people who are already “on the fence” and open to using a hearing aid;

4) Coaching that paves the road to higher help rates for patients and greater job satisfaction for professionals.

Engage 2019 keynote speaker Scott Stratten—an unconventional Canadian marketing guru who sports a tattoo on his right forearm that says “Unlearn”—emphasized that the patient’s initial experience is often what defines your practice’s brand. He says customers’ experiences are largely driven by their most recent and/or most extreme encounter in your office. Usually, this produces three types of customers: ecstatic (your marketing apostles), static (those who say your service is only “fine”—a warning word for “about to move on”), and vulnerable (those who will readily seek another provider). This means focusing on the patient experience is key. Industry wide, Stratton asserts that the hearing healthcare market is a place ripe for disruption: high margins, low overhead, and a perception of low customer satisfaction. Citing the new generation of successful companies, such as Lyft, he observes “Disruption doesn’t look for profit. It looks for market share.”

Better First Sound

Hearing aids on the Discover platform, backed by the FLEX experience employ a faster-acting acclimation process and new sound processing designed to improve first impressions. A faster fitting process requires as few as 5 clicks for the system to provide a first impression of sound quality which was not previously experienced, according to Baldwin. A starting point with a flatter frequency response is designed to provide a more natural response without “tinny” or distorted sound. The new automatic adaptation manager, with guidance from the clinician, is capable of moving the patient from the first-fit target to the final fitting in 4-6 weeks, with the notable side-benefit of providing a better real-world assessment as part of the diagnostic fitting process.

Vusich and Senior Design Manager Corey Banham detailed some of the finer points of Discover’s sound performance. The new hearing system relies on SoundCore, made up of SoundNav 3.0 to classify the acoustic environment, Sound Conductor to balance features for better listening in any environment, Spatial Awareness to restore cues for localization in quiet environments, and Speech Pro to improve listening in the most challenging environments while still maintaining a natural sound experience. The SWORD 3.0 chip also provides for hands-free streaming and phone calls to both iOS and Android devices. The lithium-ion rechargeable battery available in Discover reportedly charges fully in 3 hours for 24-hours of amplification.

Donald Hayes, PhD, Director of Clinical Research

Donald Hayes, PhD, Director of Clinical Research

Of particular importance is the SoundNav 3.0 classification system which is said to utilize artificial intelligence to categorize sound into the seven listening environments. Unitron Director of Clinical Research Don Hayes, PhD, provided an overview of the multiple benchmarking studies supporting the SoundNav 3.0 system. With as many as 45 different detectors that interact and combine with each other, he explained that it’s difficult to predict exactly how AI and fuzzy logic work within any system that classifies acoustic environments; however, what is clear is that if the system is not good at classification, the hearing aid stands little chance of appropriately applying the right algorithms within the various listening situations. Thus, these types of systems have to be extensively tested and fine tuned by manufacturers. Current studies suggest, with some exceptions, that most manufacturers’ classification systems are fairly accurate, and Dr Hayes provided a number of independent studies that indicate  Unitron’s system is exceptional in the classification of sound environments.

Karl Strom is editor of  The Hearing Review. Thanks to Andrea Sweet and Dan Lindhorst for their assistance with this article.