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Customer experience for pharma companies

Exceptional customer experience gives pharma companies the chance to differentiate themselves from competitors radically
Customer Experience

It's a strange time in pharmaceutical marketing. Just when most industries are finding it easier to reach customers than ever before, pharma companies are finding it more difficult.

As drugs fall off the patent cliff, marketing budgets are being slashed. As regulators get tougher, marketers are losing access to healthcare professionals. And the dawn of the internet age has put unprecedented power in the hands of customers – they've learned to ignore online advertising, are deserting print publications in droves, and have a whole new set of trusted sources online that just won't take advertising from pharmaceutical companies.

Pharma companies are slowly realising that customer experience is the way to address these difficulties. The problem is that pharma doesn't really 'get' customer experience. 

This masterclass is a crash course in which aspects of customer experience pharmaceutical companies should pay attention to. It is based on Blue Latitude's direct experience of working with pharma companies and is structured around the six disciplines of customer experience – strategy, research, design, measurement, governance, culture; identified by Harley Manning and Kerry Bodine in their excellent introduction to customer experience, Outside In: The Power of Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business.

Be warned. There are some hard truths ahead.

Customer experience strategy
A great customer experience strategy focuses your efforts and resources where they will have the most impact for your business. Yet too many pharma strategies for customer experience fail to focus these efforts in any meaningful way. Doing everything for everyone is not a strategy that works.

There are three easy ways to start focusing your strategy.First, focus on a very specific set of target customers. Your limited resources are shrinking and it's a bad idea to try to reach all healthcare professionals who might use your product, or even a broad subset like GPs. Instead, identify a specific group of target customers so your strategy has a chance to mean something to them. In our engagements with pharma, we see very little evidence of this.

Second, forget the company and focus on the drugs. Pharma companies want customers to love their company, but this is never going to happen. Think about Universal, a record company, which manages artists who connect with fans. When it implemented a strategy to connect directly with fans it failed: fans don't care about the record company, they care about the artists. It's the same with doctors and drugs – they don't care about your company (Ben Goldacre is ringing in their ears), but they 'love' your drugs. Accept this, focus on their experience with the drug, and stop wasting resources trying to make them 'love' your big pharma company.

Third, focus on getting a single country working before you roll it out regionally. Pharma thinks it will make cost savings at the regional level, but this doesn't work with customer experience because it's so easy to get it wrong. A great experience in one country can be totally irrelevant in another, due to local expectations and regulations. Just look at all the big pharma customer experience successes from conferences and online case studies – they're all local to a particular country. 

You're getting customer experience strategy right when you've got a focused plan for how a specific subset of customers, in a specific country, will interact with one of your brands.

The six pillars of customer experience for pharma

  1. Focus your customer experience strategy on a specific subset of customers in a particular location
  2. Invest in one-to-one qualitative studies, instead of focus groups, quantitative studies, and large sample sizes
  3. Design experiences by making new things, testing them with customers, and revising them until they work
  4. Measure what matters, and not what is easy; that means customer experience quality, and its effect on sales
  5. Ensure you have the right qualified people in place to make sure your customer experience efforts are not in vain
  6. Make it OK to fail, because even the best ideas can turn into failures, which in time become building blocks for success.

Customer research
Customer research is not testing your materials with customers. Yes, testing is critical, but it's a design activity (see Experience Design). The true purpose of customer research is to understand, at a deep and human level, who your target customers are, what they expect from you, what they need to do their job well and where the biggest pain points are in their working lives.

Without understanding this, how can you hope to offer them a compelling experience that cuts through the deafening noise of their everyday lives?

A great customer experience strategy focuses your efforts … where they will have the most impact …

Research means talking to your customers in an open-ended way. One-to-one interviews are good, but the best insights come from observing your customers at work directly. Pharma companies prefer focus groups, quantitative studies and large sample sizes. But if you're not doing one-to-one qualitative studies, you're not doing customer research justice.

Even if you manage to do the research, all too often it ends up in huge PowerPoint presentations never to be seen again. This has to stop. You need to make the research available to everyone involved in delivering the customer experience, which means using visualisations that people can understand and refer to easily. Customer journey maps are particularly good for this – you'll be amazed how quickly staff around the organisation start thinking like your customers.

You're getting customer research right when other people in your company start talking about what makes your customers tick in meetings before you do.

Experience design
Experience design is not about making things look nice. It's about making new things, testing them with customers, and revising them until they work.

Making new things is the part that we find pharma companies struggle the most with. There's an idea that there is content (like key messages) and formats (like teledetails) and that design is simply a matter of squeezing the content into the format so it's pretty enough for your boss to sign it off. This is an abuse of the very idea of design, and it leads to miserable experiences. Pharma companies should give designers free reign to make new things, unconstrained by historical approaches to both content and formats. Doing the 'same old, same old' may feel safe, but it's going nowhere.

Testing new things with customers is also a struggle for pharma. White card testing was designed to pick messaging winners in a world of push marketing. It doesn't work for experience testing. You won't test two different service prototypes and get a clear winner. Instead you'll learn all sorts of things about what works, and what doesn't, from what your customers say and do when using them. This is gold when it comes to revising the designs.

Revising the designs until they work is the true magic. If there's only one thing that you take away from this article, this is it. Great customer experiences are not dreamed up in a workshop – they emerge from the repeated clash of your ideas with real customers. It is much more important to have several rounds of design and testing than it is to test once with a large number of users.

You're getting experience design right when you know the designs will work because you've seen customers react to it with your own eyes.

The core challenge of measuring the customer experience is simple: measure what matters, not what is easy to measure. Yet no one we've seen in pharma is measuring what matters properly (yet). 

Two things matter most when measuring your customer experience efforts. First, what was the quality of the customer experience? Some companies are starting to measure this, but it's still the exception and rarely happens across all touchpoints. You might use Net Promoter Score, you might use satisfaction scores, you might use Gallup's 11 point index, you might even use sentiment monitoring. It doesn't matter how you do it, but you must understand how your customers rate their experiences.

Second, how did your customer experience efforts affect sales? Sales are crucial, but few of pharma companies are using sales data to evaluate the success (or failure) of their customer experience efforts. Yes, going back to IMS data and tying it to your target customers is more expensive in the short term, but you'll waste huge amounts of money in the long run if you're not sure what works and what doesn't.

The core challenge of measuring customer experience is simple: measure what matters …

What doesn't matter? The easy measures we're all comfortable with. Website visits, time spent in teledetails, intention to prescribe, eyeballs on ads, brand recall – these tell us little about the success of our customer experience efforts. Only when we prove which experiences impact the bottom line can we start testing proxy measures to use in place of expensive IMS data and regression analyses.

Measurement is not just about what you measure. It's about what you incentivise. If your company offers rewards for reach and frequency your staff will throw resources at getting your customers' attention, however poor the experience is. Customers don't take bad experiences lightly, so you'll end up burning straight through your target audience. We've seen it happen.

You're getting customer experience measurement right when you've got solid data that proves how the experienceaffects your bottom line.

Great customer experiences in pharma rely on a huge level of cross-functional collaboration between marketing, medical, legal, IT, call centres, sales and management. Co-ordinating this is difficult work and you need the right people to make it happen. 

Pharma needs to start employing people with customer experience knowledge and skills. Customer experience is not a marketing discipline, yet we're seeing marketing departments rebranded as customer experience teams. It's not a sales discipline, yet we see field sales people promoted into marketing all the time. 

You don't need to employ strategists, researchers, designers and analysts, but you do need people who understand enough about these disciplines to buy the right expertise from external consultants. Otherwise you'll keep being sold snake oil. The technology sector, which excels in customer experience, uses professional product managers with control over marketing, technology, creative, business goals, analytics and much more to ensure the cross-functional collaboration works. Pharma should be emulating this approach.

Pharma needs to start employing people with customer experience knowledge and skills

You're getting governance right when your efforts start to bear fruit, because it's impossible even to get close without the right people.

Customer-centred culture
Finally, we come to change the culture. Make it okay to fail when doing something radically different.

Pharma companies are bureaucracies where it's okay to fail – as long as you fail just like everyone else. Like the old saying goes, nobody ever got fired for buying IBM. Do people get fired in pharma companies for buying a pointless glossy website, writing an unreadable medical communication, dumping incomprehensible messages into a Flash nightmare, or creating an empty new mission statement?

Stop doing these things, try something else and learn from the inevitable failures. It's difficult, but if you start small and don't make rash promises you can turn failures into building blocks for success.

Because even the best ideas will fail. Pharma is so heavily regulated it crushes ideas without even blinking. Your customers are under enormous pressures and don't really trust you. Your organisations are huge and prone to never-ending reorganisations. Ideas will fail in this climate. But none of this matters if you're prepared to treat every failure as a way to be better in future.

You're getting the culture right when your competitors start stealing your ideas but fail to implement them because their culture is still stuck in the 20th century.

Just common sense. Really? 
The strangest thing is that customer experience looks simple. Some people even say it's 'common sense'. You'll laugh at them as you realise just how much patience it takes to make progress. Don't be dispirited by how difficult it sounds. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

Just don't do it all at once. The beauty of working in large multinational organisations is that you can start in some areas before others. Pick a market, a drug, some good people, and start investing in getting it working now. Tolerate mistakes. Don't go too fast.

And if you do nothing? We'll leave you with two thoughts:

  1. After a slow start, your competitors are making customer experience their number one strategic priority 
  2. Since the dawn of the internet age, giant companies in huge industries – music, publishing, software, photography, retailing – have fallen to companies with superior customer experience.

Good luck!

Article by
Pete Gale and Will Myddelton

Gale, head of customer experience,
Myddelton, user experience consultant at Blue Latitude

21st March 2013


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