Pharma's ability to define, and more importantly, deliver customer experience may just determine where business is won or lost.
'Customer experience is the next competitive battleground. It's where business is going to be won or lost.' These oft-quoted words have been used as a rallying call by many a thought leader to wax lyrical about the strategic importance of customer experience (CX). The irony is, the profound declaration was first uttered more than 15 years ago. What was once the 'next competitive background' is now the new normal for most business sectors. Except, of course, for pharma, where CX has only recently been elevated to buzzword status. Pharma companies are increasingly introducing new roles and teams that are dedicated to customer experience. But for some, there's still a struggle to work out exactly what it means beyond the title on the business card. If Tom Knighton's 2001 words are right, pharma's ability to define, and more importantly, deliver customer experience may just determine where business is won or lost. The question is: how do you develop the CX factor?
So let's start with a definition. The sector-agnostic customer experience consultancy Smith & Co defines CX as: 'the impression that the customer receives at each and every touchpoint, and the extent to which this dramatises the brand promise and delivers a consistent, intentional, differentiated and valuable experience.' In a field plagued by variable and often meandering definitions, the Smith & Co attempt is as concise and as good as any. Customer experience is, they say, 'the customer's perception of a brand determined - consciously and subconsciously - by every interaction they have with your organisation. It's determined by everything your brand does.'
And how do you get it right? Walt Disney storyboarded the answer long before CX was even a pencil sketch: “Do what you do so well that they will want to see it again and bring their friends.” So that's how you get to the Magic Kingdom. Brand loyalty is all about the quality of the experience; if it's consistent, differentiated and solves an unmet need, Cinders shall go to the ball. However, in the millennial era, Walt Disney's simple 20th century advice is complicated by a communications landscape that makes CX both a beauty and a beast. With customers now exposed to brands across a multitude of touchpoints, delivering a consistent experience is a mammoth task. The nuances of the healthcare environment only serve to make its application in pharma even more difficult.
Pharma's ability to define, and deliver customer experience may just determine where business is won or lost
Primarily, the multiplicity of touchpoints that pharma has with its broad customer-base adds vast layers of complexity to the CX challenge. The industry arguably, but unavoidably, has too many customer interactions. A huge amount of effort goes on salesforce interaction. But beyond it, companies have got medical teams, digital channels, global teams, affiliates, market access, government affairs - the list is goes on - all having customer interactions. If the challenge is to create experiences that are consistent across all of these touchpoints, it's undoubtedly more complex than in FMCG or other consumer industries. And when you add end-users - patients and carers - into the mix, that complexity increases. It's no wonder the industry is 15 years behind the curve.
Aliens of the deep
The idiosyncrasies of healthcare only add to the challenge. “Pharma's marketplace, the healthcare environment, is very much like the hadal zone - the deepest part of the ocean where alternate forms of biology, and in pharma's case, alternate sets of rules exist,” says Chris Cooper, managing director, EPG Health Media. “The industry is tasked with pursuing good marketing practice in what is a very alien zone. Marketers are shaped by their professional training and their everyday experiences in the real world - but they're then challenged to apply those learnings in the 'hadal zone' of healthcare, where the lifeforms that exist are both different and unrecognisable. It's no surprise that pharma picks up on buzzwords and business terminology yet struggles to connect the dots in terms of the customer experience. We're constrained by a regulatory landscape that prevents us from using proven marketing philosophies that have been developed outside healthcare.
“In reality, marketers need to start from a blank sheet of paper and ask: what am I trying to achieve? It's only by doing a needs assessment around the science, around customers' objectives and, subsequently, around the customer experience that we can develop the optimal strategy. It's about understanding the bigger picture. Often, marketers try to force all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together, without first understanding the picture on the front of the box. This doesn't work. If organisations want to swim more comfortably in the deep waters of the healthcare hadal zone, they need to understand what type of 'experience' their customers require in order to achieve their commercial goals. Once they understand that, they can work backwards from there to design the interventions and personalised user experiences that will help them deliver it.”
Through the looking glass
Despite the challenges, the industry is making progress. Companies have moved beyond knowing that they need to be more customer-centred and are increasingly looking to embed the infrastructure and culture required to develop a meaningful focus on customer experience. But it appears that, at the tactical level, some are still looking the wrong way through the looking glass.
The most important insights come from customers themselves
“There's still a tendency for companies to think 'inside-out' rather than outside-in,” says Elisa del Galdo, head of customer experience, Blue Latitude Health. “Lots of organisations can talk you through their customer journey, and explain how they believe the customer should be thinking at each touchpoint. But that's just them imposing their view of the customer experience. The most important insights come from customers themselves. Securing that insight requires much more than marketing know-how - it requires a broad composite of user experience, design and research skills to understand the problems that customers are experiencing in their day-to-day lives. It's only once you've got that perspective that you can come up with the solutions. But getting there requires a fundamental change in brand planning. The best organisations are clear on what they want to achieve, but will only hone their strategy once they've actually engaged with their customers to understand their requirements, pain-points, triggers and motivations.”
Ultimately, however, CX is not only about tactical implementation - it's also, first and foremost, about strategy and leadership. “It's exciting to see so many companies building CX teams, but to take it to the next level requires genuine organisational change,” says Elisa. “CX needs executive sponsorship. It needs the kind of institutional change that reshaped the travel, e-commerce and financial industries 15 years ago. Clearly, those sectors weren't transformed overnight, but now we've got a foothold, pharma has got to look at what they did and learn the lessons. The most fundamental is this: CX has to be company-wide, and everybody has to buy into the culture and be committed to doing the work, whether it is strategy, research or design, to achieve it.”
Pharma's current focus on customer experience is largely focused at brand level. However, there's a developing consensus that CX strategy should start at the top of an organisation. “It is hard to do this from the bottom up,” says Dennis O'Brien, CEO, Lucid Group. “The brand experience should emanate from, and be driven by, the 'corporate' experience. For example, how the salesforce, the medical team or the digital channel interacts with the customer needs to be defined by the corporate brand experience. The challenge is to be consistent. Everybody knows what to expect when they walk in an Apple Store or when they use a Virgin brand - because those companies have successfully established a consistent organisational experience across the board. And when they improve a touchpoint, they do it in a way that anchors to a clear, identifiable corporate brand. That's pharma's challenge. But it's a long-haul journey.”
At present, CX activity appears tactical, brand-focused and, in many parts of organisations, disconnected. The industry is still feeling its way. “At the brand level, if you're going to create a positive experience for someone, the first job is to map it out,” says Dennis. “You need to understand what their current experience is, what their touchpoints are, what happens at those touchpoints and, ultimately, how can you improve them. If you get it right, you can create an emotional attachment to the brand that creates compelling levels of advocacy. However, in the future, the most successful businesses will be those whose focus on customer experience begins right at the top. As an industry, we need to be truly passionate about our purpose. And we need to push our organisations to define and distil what they are ultimately trying to achieve. That purpose links beautifully with patient-centricity. If companies can define their purpose and then create experiences that consistently align with it, they've got a real chance.”
The rationale and drivers for a renewed focus on customer experience are unequivocal; we know that, as consumers, our brand loyalty is increasingly contingent on the nature of the experiences we enjoy or endure. Conceptually, the same principles must surely apply to pharma's interactions with its diverse customer-base. However, the challenges of healthcare - both in its complexity and the sheer volume of influences in the decision-making chain - mean that following Walt Disney's 20th century advice is difficult, and it doesn't guarantee a fairy-tale ending. But not doing it will guarantee that it doesn't end well. CX for pharma is a beauty and a beast. To live happily ever after, pharma needs to take CX into the boardroom and start developing corporate and brand experiences that are consistent, that differentiate and that, through solving customers' problems, provide value. After all, it's the next competitive battleground where business will be won or lost.