Crises, whether macro or micro, have a tendency to accelerate innovation and transformation in organizations that are willing to adapt. And the COVID-19 crisis has undisputedly ushered in a deluge of these innovations and transformations, as countless businesses have implemented rapid business model and product pivots—both large and small—to save plummeting revenues or meet changes in demand. While rushing a new product or feature to market isn’t exactly music to a product team’s ears, it can have momentous rewards when executed correctly. Identifying and quickly addressing customer needs—particularly during a crisis—presents a golden opportunity to build trust and loyalty with current customers while potentially expanding into new verticals.  

At WebPT, we saw one such opportunity arise as we watched the healthcare industry rapidly adopt telehealth. WebPT is cloud-based clinical documentation and business platform for physical, occupational, and speech therapists—and prior to COVID-19, we filled our industry’s need for high-quality documentation, billing and compliance, and patient engagement solutions. We did have a potential telehealth product that we were exploring for future development, but it wasn’t a priority, as our customers largely lacked reimbursement for providing remote patient care. But then, the pandemic hit. 

Appointment cancellations spiked, some clinics closed entirely, and the number of completed in-person appointments declined rapidly. In response, state and federal governments relaxed telehealth laws with unprecedented speed and insurance providers changed their stance on reimbursing virtual care. Suddenly, telehealth was the only way for many healthcare professionals to deliver care, including many of our members—some of whom created their own piecemeal telehealth solutions in an effort to stay afloat. 

Our team decided to quickly pivot and reprioritize our product roadmap to get the now much-needed telehealth product into the hands of the therapists who were trying to maintain business continuity and care for their patients. Because we had so little time to get this product to market, we learned a tremendous amount about what to do—and what not to do—when pivoting product strategy.

Reprioritize projects based on customer needs

Pandemic or not, the most successful product strategies are those that keep customer needs at the forefront. Because these needs are bound to change, the best way to gain (and maintain) a true understanding of what’s happening in your industry is to engage your audience in ongoing and frequent conversation. Your team should always know your customers’ most significant day-to-day problems.

Businesses like SurveyMonkey understand this. In addition to regularly reaching out to enterprise customers during the COVID-19 pandemic to see how it could best support them, the online survey company continuously engaged its education and nonprofit users (who were facing significant financial burden). SurveyMonkey added value by offering these users targeted resources and discounts, redeploying its physical event budget to fund this initiative.

At WebPT, the decision to expedite the development of a telehealth product was obvious, but the execution of that strategy was not. We found one of the biggest challenges for our community of therapists was the fragmentation of services within existing telehealth products. Our customers were using whatever technology they could get their hands on and then cobbling together various solutions for scheduling, patient communication, and virtual care delivery. As you can imagine, this created massive inefficiencies. Identifying this challenge allowed us to get honest about our roadmap, so we could decide which products to delay and which to push to the forefront to meet immediate customer needs. 

But reprioritizing doesn’t mean you need to (or should) throw out everything you’ve been working on. Your company’s initial top priorities should remain as such, even in the midst of a crisis. Don’t let the shine from a pressing new problem take away from the strong business cases that have been built for other initiatives. Think of this as a simple asset reallocation from other less critical projects. 

Establish clear lines of communication

Lofty goals and sudden, rapid change become more realistically attainable when you open up avenues for unobstructed communication—internally and externally. To make our new product strategy a success, we had to ensure that all stakeholders—our entire product team and the company at large—were on the same page throughout the entire process. This was critical to accelerating our telehealth development and getting it into the hands of our customers as quickly as possible.  

To foster this collaborative buy-in, we began by holding an all-hands meeting to ensure that key members from every department were in the loop. But the communication didn’t stop there. The product team prioritized interdepartmental communication by scheduling triweekly check-ins throughout the build and launch phase. We also created a Slack channel to provide timely information to the entire WebPT team.

Externally, our communication strategies focused on marketing the new product to our existing customers (who would most likely be our early adopters) and ensuring we had strategies in place to quickly—and thoroughly—address their concerns. Approaching these communications with empathy was also critical to engendering trust in this new product. We wanted our customers to understand that we heard and acknowledged their struggles, and we were there to help. Our customers have always been our top priority, and that will never change—regardless of what’s going on in the world.

Measure your product by its success—not its complexity

Often, people think the best way to deal with a massive issue is to come up with a massive solution—but that’s not always the case. The success of any new product hinges on its inherent value to customers, which becomes increasingly pronounced as more and more customers begin to use it.

By starting small, we were able to ship faster and get our product in our customers’ hands at warp speed. From there, we measured our success by tracking the key performance indicators (KPIs) we identified prior to launch. Primarily, we tracked utilization rates and cross-referenced them with the number of support tickets we received. Naturally, our goal was to achieve high utilization with a low incidence of support inquiries. As these KPIs started rolling in, we made changes to the product in real time that aligned with customer needs—which helped us reach our goals.

Don’t shy away from risk

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures, so don’t be afraid to experiment with new things—like fresh products, novel workflows, or unproven systems. This situation presented us with a number of uncharted paths. So, in addition to adopting new strategies and communication tactics, we also shipped our telehealth product with a self-enablement feature—the first of its kind at our company.

 In the past, we relied heavily on our sales team to walk customers through the product onboarding process. This time around, we took a more hands-off approach, which actually allowed for faster adoption. That’s not to say we left our customers in the dark—quite the opposite. We just got creative about empowering our users with information.

The key was aligning our product team with our member education department early in the process. This enabled the member education team to get a jump start on creating guides, videos, and other helpful how-tos that supported easy self-enablement. We did our best to anticipate potential issues, making the fixes as easy to find and implement as possible.

Successfully navigating this new economic landscape doesn’t always mean starting from scratch. It can be achieved by focusing on—and providing added value to—your existing customers using the tools you have on hand. So, invest in them. Empathize with them. And adjust your roadmaps accordingly.

About the Author

Scott Hebert, PT, DPT, is a Director of Product Management at WebPT and the co-founder of Strive Labs, Inc. At Strive Labs, he oversaw product development and business strategy. He guided Strive Labs to becoming a leader in the patient relationship management (PRM) space, with more than 2.5 million patients managed through the Strive Labs system which was acquired by WebPT in 2017. This platform served as the foundation for WebPT's patient marketing and relationship management software, Reach. Over the last two and a half years, Scott has launched four new products for WebPT's PRM line, tripled the size of its engineering team, grown the PRM customer base from 1,500 to 7,000 clinics, and increased revenues by more than 500%. Scott graduated with his doctorate in physical therapy from Quinnipiac University, where his research in patient engagement—specifically in relation to home exercise instruction—and patient satisfaction ultimately led to the founding of Strive Labs.