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A marathon and a sprint

Customer experience is a long-distance race and with pharma late out of the blocks, companies need to put their foot down if they want to compete


Last month I read a report that said the customer experience (CX) movement is now over a decade old. The revelation made me wonder: did the pharmaceutical industry phone in sick while this movement was taking shape? Or, as I’ve been told many times before, is pharma so different from other sectors that it plays by different rules? The answer to both questions is ‘no’.

CX strategies are steadily emerging in European pharma and it’s important that they do; as consumers - and, yes, that includes doctors, payers and patients - increasingly base their buying decisions on the quality of their brand experiences, the industry is not immune to the power of customer experience. It’s just been incredibly slow to get its act together. It’s not that it hasn’t talked the talk - it’s just not quite walked the walk. Perhaps it’s time to reach for the running shoes.

First let’s look on the bright side. CX is cited as a significant driver of competitive advantage across all verticals, tipped to overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator by 2020. So although pharma’s current progress has been minimal, there’s a huge opportunity for those who are brave enough to grab it and run with it. Certainly, the stats paint an attractive picture. In 2015 Bain reported that companies who excel at customer experience grow revenues at 4-8% above the market. Why? Because, according to McKinsey, 70% of buying experiences are based on how customers feel they’re being treated. It’s no surprise that companies are investing in more CX; 2016 Forrester research revealed that 72% of businesses saw customer experience as their top priority. One year earlier Gartner forecast that, by 2018, half of all organisations would have implemented significant business model changes to improve their customer experience. Well guess what..? It’s 2018 folks, so how far have we come? It seems some pharma companies are not quite out of the starting blocks.

The long run

Although pharma appears to be some miles behind other industries in its application of CX, it’s putting in the hard yards to draw level with the field. But it’s a long race. “Most pharma companies that we work with have made a tremendous effort to put in place foundational elements - technology, skill sets and internal expectations - to start delivering a more customer-driven experience,” says Kristen Dimmock, planner, VCCP Health. “But change management on this scale cannot happen overnight. There’s still a long road ahead to catch up with the personalised, predictive experiences delivered in consumer sectors.”

A recent article in Forbes magazine described investment in CX as an ‘act of bravery’ - but one only needs to talk to customers to work out why the activity is so valuable. “I recently asked a GP what pharma could do to provide better value,” says Kristen. “He responded that he currently has reps from five large pharmaceutical companies offering him the exact same ‘added-value’ service within the same therapy area. As a result, he chose not to engage with any of them. Starting with a human-centred approach can not only lead to meaningful services that improve the customer’s journey, it can also save companies time and money.”

That human-centred approach should underpin the entire journey. Best practice, says Kristen, starts with research that has nothing to do with a particular brand or prescribing habit. “For inspiration, I often work side-by-side with our UX teams whose jobs revolve around understanding the ‘human behind the customer’ segment. This is not the cleanly defined prescriber outlined in traditional market research, but the stressed, somewhat impatient, well-intended person who may be making their prescribing decision with ten other things on their mind at that moment and six people waiting outside their door. It’s a messier view of the world but necessary if you want to then start layering information or services on top of their current experience. We often use experience maps to help make sense of this ‘mess’.

“To be truly patient-centric, a company should start with patient need at the product development stage, not marketing. But that doesn’t mean an already-developed brand cannot add value to the patient experience and differentiate itself by means of its patient services and support. The companies that do this most successfully bring patients into their internal teams, serving as advisors, inspirers and co-creators. This can make an incredible difference to delivering services that are meaningful, authentic and patient-centric. Fundamentally, however you achieve it, CX has become crucial. It’s the only way pharma can deliver a branded experience in a world where customers hold all the power to click or ignore.”

Under starter’s orders

CX is most definitely a marathon not a sprint. Progress will naturally be incremental, but the industry needs to start somewhere. A major challenge, which in fairness sets pharma apart from most other industries, is the complexity of its customer base. Pharma’s CX marathon involves multiple participants; prescribers, policy-makers, regulators, payers, patients, carers and, as the prevention agenda gathers pace, ‘healthy’ consumers. With each participant running in the same race - but each having different needs to get them around the course - designing appropriate experiences is tricky. Is pharma properly kitted out? There may be a need to switch lanes.

Roles are evolving. Whereas historically medical teams rarely engaged customers, stakeholder engagement is now more medically focused. Companies have recognised it’s impossible to say that one customer type is more important than another and have developed more collaborative ways of working. “There’s a more even share of brand leadership across the disciplines,” says Dennis O’Brien, CEO, Lucid Group. “We may eventually see a complete role reversal where market access, medical and government affairs become the ‘external faces’ of organisations, with commercial teams becoming more strategic and inwardly focused. In time, the commercial organisation could become the strategic engine - the creator of the brand experience. That’s a huge opportunity.”

How could this work? Dennis believes we should draw inspiration from brands in the consumer space. “If we think about how Virgin Atlantic engages its organisation on customer experience, there’s a variety of customer touchpoints each owned by a specific part of the organisation. That can easily translate to pharma; medical can own some touchpoints, market access likewise and so on. What we then need to do is create a consistent experience through those individual touchpoints. But it goes much deeper than communications. Virgin and BA check-ins each offer customers a different experience - but it’s not about the materials they provide, it’s about the approach they take.”

At present pharma arguably gets it wrong, too often focusing on brand communication rather than brand experience. “Brand communication is owned by commercial and is cascaded through the business. We can’t say the same for customer experience. No-one actually owns the customer experience,” says Dennis. “If someone did, it would be easier to create a customer experience based on a framework. We have systems in place to understand the experiences our customers are having but we could be more proactive in managing them. The challenge is to take every stakeholder through a defined experience - but we rarely define what that experience is. We define what we want our customers to ‘do’ and how we want to change their behaviours, but we never define the experience we want them to have. With such a diverse stakeholder-base, it gets more complex and we can’t create a single experience that works for everybody. But if you’re granular and know your audience and you focus, you can create amazing personalised experiences for key groups. At Lucid, we did it with oncology KOLs at a European congress. Although the congress had over 1,000 delegates, the experience we created targeted only the top 15 KOLs in the therapy area. That small but high-value audience was incredibly receptive. In crowded markets, going that extra mile to tailor a valuable experience really can drive competitive advantage.”

A patient race

The complexities of pharma’s customer ecosystem have created challenges for companies trying to establish a customer experience mindset. “We all know that there are multiple actors within the health ecosystem, but while companies are generally comfortable in their dealings with HCPs and payers, many still struggle to understand the end-user: the patient. This has major ramifications for customer experience,” says James Weybourne, design director, The Earthworks. “As pathway design becomes increasingly influential, organisations are having to develop a more granular understanding of the level beneath service design - the user experience. A true appreciation of the user experience is fundamental to designing successful interventions. Pharma’s investment in this has historically been low. However, as companies seek to define patient-centric strategies, many realise they need to include CX as a tool to help understand their customers and align their products and services with the organisational vision. For example, one pharma company is disbanding brand teams and replacing them with disease teams - enabling them to become more patient-focused and build a true customer experience.”

There are encouraging signs that pharma is growing up - companies are realising they need to start thinking differently. “Rather than focusing on the patient’s experience of their product, they’re focusing on the patient’s experience of their disease,” says James. “Many are developing value-added services that wrap around the product and make the patient’s experience as positive as possible. Moreover, they’re recognising that improving adherence and outcomes is about much more than giving patients information - it’s about providing services and support that’s tailored to their needs.”

How do you do it? The process, says James, begins with developing rich personae for all your customer groups. But it’s here where improvements are required. “It’s still rare for companies to invest in proper, immersive research. Observing users in the environment in which they perform their tasks is vital to gaining a truly empathetic understanding of their needs.

“A good example of this was a research trip to sub-Saharan Africa for the development of an access-to-medicines platform for oncology. The real-world understanding of the varied hospital systems, how they interacted with technology and their attitudes towards digital health, was fundamental to the production of a platform that was sympathetic to their environment, congruent to their routine and consequently enabled them to fulfil their needs. In our experience, early investment in immersive research provides a sound foundation from which you can move forward. You can benchmark all future decisions against a specific set of needs you identified upfront. It’s the platform for good customer experience.”

Running partners

CX and patient experience are intrinsically entwined - though some in the sector feel uncomfortable describing patients as customers. Others disagree. “Ultimately, the patient is 100% the customer,” says Helen Scott, managing director, Hive Health. “But patient experiences don’t happen in isolation, they’re influenced by a number of players in a multi-stakeholder environment. To understand the patient experience you have to understand the experiences of all those other stakeholders. You need to walk the patient’s journey and all the touchpoints they encounter along the way - and be able to understand their true experience in an interaction in a moment in time. That’s complex.”

Such complexities dictate the need for new approaches - not least in insight generation that’s different from conventional market research. “The ways in which marketers understand existing experiences - let alone design new ones - need to change,” says Helen. “Optimal experiences are best designed through co-creative environments; building prototypes together by working with people who understand what it’s like to live with the disease, and iterating as you learn. Metrics and analytics are a crucial part of insight generation - we need to test, measure, learn and iterate. And, because experience is multi-faceted, we need to test across multiple channels and multiple people. Moreover, for the best experience, we need to ensure it’s seamless. The patient is the ultimate customer - and remains the customer throughout the entire experience; every interaction must therefore be connected. Consumer industries get this right but pharma’s propensity for working in silos is a barrier to progress. We’re seeing CX teams popping up in different parts of organisations but often they’re too far removed from brand teams. There’s a natural synergy between the two that’s not being leveraged. Consumer organisations recognise that CX can give them competitive advantage, but this thinking is not yet embedded in pharma.”

Beyond the need for cultural change, pharma may also need to upskill - and stop reverting to default behaviours. “Brand teams can sometimes successfully identify touchpoints and channels and how they want them to work together, but then still resort to conventional tactics,” says Helen. “It’s perhaps not surprising; designing an experience requires specific skills that many senior marketers don’t yet have. The next generation of marketers will have these skills as a prerequisite but pharma is currently having to look outside.

“Ultimately, though, CX is something pharma cannot ignore. ‘Experience’ is the way that ‘Generation Now’ insists on buying brands. Pharma needs to recognise its commercial value evolves from rhetoric to reality.”

The home straight

Investment in CX may well be an act of bravery. But in the long run, as your competitors view experience as their best opportunity for brand differentiation, it’s an investment that’s worth making quickly if you want to surge to the front of the pack. CX: it’s a marathon and a sprint.

Article by
Chris Ross

is a freelancer writer specialising in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry

19th February 2018

Article by
Chris Ross

is a freelancer writer specialising in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry

19th February 2018

From: Sales



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