Time:a new source of competitive advantage

Time : a new source of competitive advantage?

Roopen Roy

(Opinions are personal)

Modern India seems more obsessed with eternity than with the immediate. That time is a precious resource is accepted more in theory than in practice. With a burgeoning middle-class, time is becoming scarcer than financial resources. In a trade-off, cash-rich but time-poor customers are willing to pay more if they could reduce the wait. This would give them time for their pursuits of choice.

Because of this phenomenon, companies and professionals who respect the time of their customers can provide the same goods and services within a shorter cycle, creating unique competitive advantages. But the new is under attack from the old and the old and the new must learn to co-exist in a new world order.

Take cricket. A historian who is also a cricket enthusiast has denounced the Twenty 20 cricket. According to him test cricket is like Single Malt Scotch. The 50 overs match is like Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) and the Twenty 20 format is like country hooch. The historian does not actually drink but clearly that does not take away his right to pronounce and opine on whisky. By the same token many commentators- who have never played any serious cricket themselves- admonish Tendulkar when he fails to time a stroke perfectly or misjudges a ball. When it comes to the format of match, the venerated historian has strayed from the game of history and the history of the game.

The new format of cricket derives its financial viability not from gate sales of season tickets but from sponsorships, advertisements, television rights, distribution via new channels like video streaming on the internet and merchandising. Today, a large customer segment can no longer afford the luxury of spending five days in a stadium. To them the opportunity cost of watching a five day test march is too high.

The Twenty 20 format was born out of necessity- not out of an evil design of some corrupt entrepreneurs conspiring to destroy the game of cricket. Test cricket is not dead. There will be segments of viewers still watching a test match in a stadium. That format of cricket will co-exist the in the cricket ecology creating frictions and conflicts. Good historians of business know that the seeds of destruction of successful businesses are often embedded in the unchanged habits that made them successful yesterday when the world was different. Blind following of the past and inability to adapt to critical changes of the present and future not only jeopardises the success of a business but may even threaten its survival.

Let us turn to healthcare providers. The house-calling General Physician (GP) has all but vanished. Instead, if you need to see a GP, a dentist, a cardiologist or an ophthalmologist you have to visit the doctor’s chamber. Now, usually the doctor's secretary will give you an appointment which means nothing. A story that you are familiar with was narrated at a management conference recently by Shivinder Singh who is the Managing Director of Fortis Healthcare Ltd: In a traditional doctor’s chamber, usually, everyone will be asked to come at the hour when the chamber opens –say at 10 AM. By the time you show up –on time and as scheduled-you will find that there is already a long queue. In some cases you might find a “high and mighty" guy or the doctor’s golf partner jumping the queue .But even if that does not happen, the room is bustling with patients. Everyone is impressed by how busy the doctor is and, what is worse, the doctor may believe that this is a good way of creating the impression of a successful practice.

If this is true of your neighborhood “cottage industry” clinic or doctor’s chamber, a challenger business model will simply have to respect the time of the patient and change the service delivery model. To do so, he will need two things –an efficient and effective scheduling system that is enforced by professionally trained support staff and a scale play (a number of specialists under one roof). If some healthcare providers are able to cut down wait time and stick to pre-agreed schedules then the small chambers will begin to lose patients in large numbers to more efficient health delivery providers. The power will shift from the individual doctors to efficient and caring healthcare providers.

There is another competitive and strategic advantage waiting to be captured. If healthcare providers can guarantee twenty four hour availability for critical illnesses that are not necessarily life-threatening they will win the loyalty of their patients. If you have a medical emergency on the week-end and you are not very well-connected with the medical practitioner community you have a serious problem at hand. Say if you have a retinal detachment on a Sunday morning, it will be almost impossible for you deal with this medical emergency. One is better off, if one suffers a stroke or a heart attack. In such events, transfer to an emergency of a nursing home is probably the answer. If healthcare providers could use proven technology and processes to create the same level of service that is available in North America (by dialling 911) and Europe, then they can assure themselves of loyal patients willing to pay a higher price. Respecting the time of customers and being able to respond fast in times of critical needs have emerged as new sources of competitive advantage and those who can shape products and services responding to these needs will be the new winners of the minds and hearts of customers tomorrow.