A Rose by any Other Name…Would Negatively Impact Business?

When Karen Kocher, the Chief Learning Officer at Cigna, arrived at Colorado Technical University for a CTU Presents discussion, her years of industry experience promised an enlightening conversation about the health care field. But the lessons she imparted went far beyond the realm of health care to apply to businesses everywhere. 

CTU Presents Karen Kocher on Jargon in the Healthcare IndustryAs Shakespeare famously observed in “Romeo and Juliet,” language doesn’t change the truth; it only molds it to the speaker’s objective. And while this practice is all well and good in literature, drama and songwriting, it makes things considerably murkier in the business world.

The negative impacts of jargon can be as difficult to parse out as the jargon itself. The negative consequences might take the form of an ongoing problem between departments, a fractured relationship between staff members or, in the worst-case scenario, a disconnection between the business and its customers. The last of these was the situation Cigna found itself in many years ago when its customers couldn’t understand what the paperwork meant or what the people on the other end of the phone line were saying. In fact, those customers weren’t even called “customers.” They were “members,” and this seemingly innocent term was just one example of a systemic problem, notes Cigna’s Chief Learning Officer Karen Kocher.

Of course, Cigna’s terminology arose out of a unique situation. Informed by the government (for regulatory codes), health care providers (for terminology, codes and phrases) and the insurance industry, Cigna relied on a complicated web of acronyms, phrases and terms that could befuddle even senior staff, not to mention laypeople trying to discern their benefit plans. But the idea that business jargon is unintelligible to the outside world is a situation in which many companies find themselves. “The negative connotation about jargon comes from the customer,” Kocher explains, pointing out that undecipherable terms give many people the feeling that they’re being swindled. “That’s a really negative situation that everybody has a responsibility to change.”

And that’s true no matter what industry a business finds itself in. When customers and providers can’t communicate, there’s no trust. When there’s no trust, there’s a lot less business.

So Cigna embarked on a totally unprecedented internal campaign called “Words We Use.” The goal was essentially to translate industry jargon into language everyone could understand. Gradually, words like “member” became “customer,” “provider” became “health care professional” and “formulary” became “prescription.” Explanation of Benefits statements were demystified on a step-by-step basis in order to be understandable to everyone. And the results bore out Cigna’s effort. “People seem to really appreciate our trying to use the more common jargon,” Kocher says.

Cigna not only became a better business partner for its clients; it became a leader in its industry. Slowly, more and more insurance companies followed suit to the point where very few now use archaic terms like “member” or “provider” – terms that Cigna dumped years ago.

“I’ve always been a believer that credibility should lie in the more people who understand you versus the lesser number,” Kocher opines. “The objective should be that everybody understands you, and the power should be in everybody understanding you.”

The rest of the world, however, doesn’t always agree. There’s a certain elitism inherent to not only the health care field but plenty of other businesses, too. And while it is important to be able to meet everybody on his own turf – you won’t get very far with a psychiatrist, for example, if you can’t grasp what the DSM and its codes are – it’s also important to be a good translator.

“It takes a lot to be able to make something very complex very simple,” Kocher says. “So if you can do that, I think you are probably the smarter person in the room.” Smarter and better positioned for success. And that’s one language everyone understands.

Image Credit: Bells Design/Ryan McGuire