ZocDoc: I Hope You Are Not Too Good to Be True

I’ve always thought ZocDoc is a great idea in theory, but somehow until today I had never actually tried to use it. There is something about a lifetime of calling for doctor’s appointments, waiting on hold, being told I can’t come in for a week even though I have a fever now, and searching through a health insurance booklet to find another doctor that has convinced me on some deep, visceral level that booking a doctor’s appointment can’t be as easy as, say, booking a flight, a rental car or a table online.

Guess what? It’s actually easier. For the first time in my life, I’m thinking it’s a shame I don’t go to the doctor more often.

Within minutes, and after entering a bare minimum of data, I found a doctor near me, read some quick reviews of him and made an appointment for tomorrow morning. Thirty minutes later, I got a call from the doctor asking if they could move my appointment a bit later in the day. No big deal, I said. I’ll still feel lousy in the afternoon. An hour or so after that, I got another exceedingly friendly call from ZocDoc apologizing that the doctor had to move my appointment and offering me a $20 Amazon gift card for the “hassle” of having to answer two exceedingly friendly phone calls about the appointment. The operator swore that this had nothing to do with the fact that I’ve written about the company before, and that it’s standard procedure if there’s an inconvenience or glitch in the booking system.

There are just so many great things about that. First off, ZocDoc clearly isn’t just catering its service to the doctors that pay its bills, it is catering to the patients too. So few Web companies do both well, because frequently the interests of a “buyer” or “seller” (for lack of more broadly appropriate nouns) are at odds, especially when you are talking about a service that books reservations without a credit card authorization. The seller doesn’t want to turn away business and have a buyer flake, but the buyer is booking online because they don’t want to have to jump through hoops to make a reservation.

There’s a strong temptation to make things harder for the buyer, since the seller is the one putting the perishable time-slot at risk. But that’s a short term gain, if an annoyed buyer doesn’t come back. Especially when it comes to something you (hopefully) don’t do all the time like making doctors’ appointments. The impression needs to be a strongly positive one, because so little healthcare is electronic and it’s such a change in how we interact with doctors. There’s a natural trepidation against doing things differently when it involves something like your health.

But beyond that, so many engineering-centric Web companies are content to take an annoying offline process, put it online and just hope that the sheer convenience keeps people coming back. They stop short of a full-on Zappos-like assault of friendly customer service, because things like US-based call centers are expensive.┬áIt’s so nice to use a service and not have anything to complain about– especially when the consumers of that service are probably at their sickest and crankiest when they call.

ZocDoc launched at TechCrunch40 and has rolled out slowly, operating in only four markets to date: New York, Washington DC, Chicago, San Francisco and Dallas. They recently raised $15 million from Founders Fund and Khosla Ventures, and are planning to expand by another handful of cities this year, including Los Angeles, Boston and Houston. The company is clearly taking the time to get each market right, and it shows. If you’re not in one of those markets, trust me, the wait will be worth it.