Everyone knows that every customer interaction, no matter how it takes place, is ultimately about people. But how do you ensure digital media and automated tools enhance rather than detract from those interactions?

Here's another in my series of interviews in which I pick a topic and connect with someone a lot smarter than me. This time I talked to Devin Gross, CEO of Emmi Solutions, a health care technology company that develops interactive and multimedia communication solutions to improve patient engagement, satisfaction, and health outcomes.

The cost of care keeps rising and revenue keeps falling, so patient engagement has become a big issue for health care providers. But those words mean different things to different people.

We started with the fundamental belief that people are the most underutilized resource in the health care system. So we develop tech-based tools that effectively engage and empower people to take a more active role in their care.

That's good for the patient, obviously, but it's also good for hospitals, because when done well, it positively influences behaviors.

Say "patient engagement" and the first thing I think of are those long, rapid-fire disclaimers used in prescription-drug commercials.

To us, patient engagement starts with establishing an emotional connection. It's hard to connect with a boilerplate recitation of potential side effects. But when you educate patients on a chronic condition or an upcoming procedure or their health care options, or what to expect during treatment and recovery, in language they understand and during a time that they're proactively seeking the information, then they understand what needs to be done. Then they understand what they should do.

More important, they understand why--and will probably make smarter choices and take better care of themselves.

Engagement is all about creating an emotional connection; when you do, then you can better influence behavior in a positive way.

I often do stupid stuff--so I've spent a fair bit of time in hospitals. I've been given more pamphlets than I can count, and I never read any of them.

Before we came along, what people considered patient engagement was printed material. Maybe you were given a handout. Or watched an awful video. Most people were just like you: There was no emotional bond, so they discarded or ignored it.

We like to approach it as a friend-to-friend conversation. Most patients are less interested in where the incision will be made than when they can get out of bed, play with their kids, start playing golf again. The key is to talk to people as people, on their terms. When you do, they're part of the process.

That's an important point. Patients who are part of the process don't just benefit; so does the hospital. My wife is an anesthesiologist, and patients often show up having eaten that morning and the operation has to be postponed. That alone is a huge cost for the hospital.

Everyone who will have anesthesia is told not to eat. But no one really tells them why. Tell me what to do and I might listen; help me understand why, and why it's important to me, and I'll definitely listen.

That's why true engagement benefits the patient and the hospital: It improves the patient experience and prevents unnecessary costs for the hospital.

Let's talk about patient experience. Tons of surveys show that patients rate the quality of their care not by the technical skill of the providers (because most people aren't in a position to rate the skill of the providers) but instead on how they felt they were treated. Put simply, treat me with respect and kindness and courtesy and I had a great experience; treat me like a number and I had a poor experience--even if the operation itself was a huge success.

If you think about a health care experience, there are multiple touch points. People remember the exceptional moments and the really bad moments. When they receive a postcare survey, they remember the really nice person and the really mean person.

Our goal is to be an extension of that relationship. We give you a friendly voice. If we do our job right, there are no variables: There's just the really nice, really caring, really helpful person.

My problem with engagement programs is that, like social-media marketing, they tend to be tough to measure.

I often say we're the best in the world at engaging people and creating an emotional connection, but unless we solve real business issues for our clients, who cares?

We have to understand and work with our clients to make them successful. It's a lot more than just creating a technology and dropping it in and assuming it works. That's why almost half of our company is out in the field making sure our customers know how to get the most value out of our tools, and our retention rate proves we make our customers successful.

The key is for us--and our customers--to not see our products as a support or maintenance function. Because we track and document everything, our customers can objectively determine whether we've done our job. There's nowhere for us to hide--and that's a good thing.

So how do you stay ahead? Not only do the tools constantly change, you're also a provider in an industry where insurance and government programs and regulations constantly change.

We try really hard to be early, often. Years ago, we started talking about patient engagement and no one cared, but over the past 12 years, a lot has changed. For example, Medicare started talking about tying patient engagement to payments, and we were already there. Reimbursement continues to be a big challenge for hospitals, whether because of health trends, demographic changes, or at-risk populations, and we invested early on in a number of tools that help systems self-manage.

Think of it this way. If you're often early, even if a customer isn't ready to buy from you, it will still begin to trust that it can grow with you over time.

Lots of technology businesses focus on purely technical skill. Yet with half of your employees in the field with customers, how do you find people with the right blend of skills?

We attract people that really believe in the mission of what we're doing. Our employees believe they're changing health care by helping the patient and the patient's family during a difficult time.

One reason they feel that way is because we do so many patient focus groups. We bring in patients and families and ask, "What would you like to know? What do you wish you had known? How would you have liked to have been spoken to?"

Not only is that input important for improving our tools, it's also a great reminder that ultimately we're helping people. When you see the impact on your customers, it's incredibly motivating, and when you're motivated and enjoy what you're doing, you can do great things.

Check out other articles in this series: