Pharma marketers must listen to their customers and find ways to smooth the patient journey if they are to create effective customer experiences and create loyalty beyond the first prescription.


By Colleen Carter, Chief Experience Officer, Concentric Health Experience


Each of us has that favorite brand. You know the one. The one that you tell all your friends about. The one that you’ll pay more for and wait in line for hours to have. The one that delivers an experience at every interaction that seems to “get you.” That brand that provides value, services, and support in ways that are unexpected but always meaningful.

None of that happens by accident. Consumer brands invest significant resources in developing and executing campaigns that create expectations for what customers can experience from that brand. But then they go further. They don’t leave those experiences to chance. By listening to their customers, consumer brands purposefully design experiences that meet and at times even exceed those expectations by eliminating friction and reducing effort, across the customer journey, and on behalf of the customer.

Colleen Carter

That is just exactly how we in pharma marketing ought to be thinking when we consider the relationships we want to have with our customers. And listening is where those relationships will begin. Listening –in whatever way we can – yields data that, combined with behavioral insights and understanding, illuminates the truth of our customers’ experiences. It is through these truths that we may begin to consider how interactions between our brands and our customers can become more meaningful.

This is an extraordinary time to be a pharmaceutical marketer. We know exponentially more about our customers’ wants and needs than ever before. We have tools that our predecessors never could have imagined – social media, machine learning for data analysis, virtual and augmented reality, highly granular targeting capabilities, on and on. And we have products to offer that can absolutely transform lives – turn death sentences into chronic illnesses and chronic illnesses into mild inconveniences.

But, all that said, when was the last time that you personally had an interaction or relationship with a healthcare entity that was so extraordinary that you told your friends or family about it? Or came out on the other end feeling that your life had been made easier, not more difficult? It’s highly unlikely. In fact, according to a recent PwC survey, healthcare and pharma have the second and third largest gaps between customer expectations and reality, coming in right behind the airline industry. Virgin, JetBlue, and even Southwest understood this. Each has disrupted the airline industry by carving out competitively differentiating spaces by launching on the principles of customer experience. Each only gets customers from point A to point B. Yet, each has created experiences based on a deep understanding of what customers want and desire. They’ve created loyal customers – advocates, really – that love talking about their experiences. Jet Blue has more than two million followers and over 53,000 likes on Twitter! So if a bag of peanuts, a leather seat, and DirecTV gets you 53,000 likes, what might providing a life-saving medicine alongside purposefully designed friction busting interactions do? We have so much room for improvement in health care; even incremental improvements could make a significant difference in our customers’ lives and provide competitive advantages within categories.

Seamless, consistent, and valuable experiences are what customers in 2018 expect, whether in health care or anywhere else. Anyone who has already experienced Amazon or Zappos or Uber doesn’t just expect a compelling product – they expect an effortless experience that enhances the product. A customer used to the unitary, highly responsive experience of Amazon is almost inevitably going to be disappointed with the sort of transactional, brand-focused experiences that most pharma brands are still peddling.

It’s not for lack of effort on our part. It’s safe to say that we all care about our customers; we appreciate the role that CX plays and understands intuitively how much it matters. We do our best to make sure that interactions between our brands and customers are meaningful. But now we can and must go beyond intuition and transactions. CX is not limited to a specific transaction, website visit or sales call. It’s about the collective experience that our customers have along the journey. Research shows that at least 40 percent of physician brand preference is attributable to CX factors beyond the product. Customer experience matters.

But we are still struggling uphill. We are pushing against the inertia of an industry that has spent the better part of a century being entirely brand-focused. We live in a regulatory environment that complicates models of care and, at times, limits engagement with our customers. And we push against our own internal fragmentation, what the business consultants like to call “silos.” Always, we start with the best intentions and draw up customer journey maps and find places to touch the customer along those journeys. But inevitably, the touch points remain largely transactional – where we are talking at our customers – rather than transformational and bidirectional and, well, responsive to actual wants and needs. And the customer journey maps remain inside out – focused on the brand and when we want to engage – rather than outside in, focused on the wants and needs and dreams of the customer, most of which have little to do with brands. “Customer-centricity” and “customer experience” have been popular buzzwords in our industry for years now, but how often are we still just delivering information about our brands rather than listening.

And listening is what we must do – we need to listen and take to heart what our customers are saying about the difficulties they are facing beyond the brand, and then act to create more high-value interactions that will have an exponential customer impact. We need to deliver on the promise of our products beyond mere customer acquisition, when we cross our fingers hoping that our patients will come back; we must purposefully create emotional connections with a human-centered, need-focused, ongoing experience.

What might this look like? Consider the mental illness space. Patients suffer needlessly not because medications don’t work but because of non-drug-related obstacles. Perhaps patients feel alone or not understood. Or, feeling overwhelmed and unable to leave their home, they don’t or can’t make an appointment with their physician. Or maybe they don’t even have a physician and don’t know where to go to find one. Perhaps they are fortunate enough to make it into the system and get diagnosed, but then, without a support system, they fall out. In a space like this we have the extraordinary opportunity to build a customer experience with empathetic interactions designed to address these specific, inherent challenges and support patients in ways that go far beyond brands. For example, your brand could take advantage of technology that allows patients access to care without leaving their homes. Your brand could help patients find others just like them, mentors who can provide understanding and support. Purposefully designing CX around customer needs generates measurable positive outcomes, drives revenue, and has the potential to generate a degree of loyalty from patients and healthcare providers that we just don’t see in pharma today.

Consider, too, rare diseases. Confronted with a rare disease, patients and caregivers are overwhelmed. Something they’d never heard of last Thursday, a disease they might not even be able to pronounce, is now threatening their life or the life of a loved one. Information and resources – even answers to the simplest questions – are hard to come by. Families and customers with rare diseases have to tackle fear, uncertainty, a lack of credible information, and, sometimes, a lack of access to care; the nearest specialist might be 100 miles away. Faced with these circumstances, many rare disease communities have developed organically, led by the patients themselves – patients who lack the resources that we in pharma have at our fingertips. Of course, bringing a revolutionary product to the market is no small achievement on its own. But what an opportunity to go further! We can, by listening to what our patients need, want, and desire and by taking advantage of resources (like data and technology) in new and useful ways. Imagine designing CX with curated resources on behalf of patients, providing clinical trial alerts, and enabling telehealth connections with specialists at Centers of Excellence. We have the power to take rare disease patient communities so much further.

Or what about something as simple as reconsidering the roles of our sales forces? Consider this – the vast majority of sales force interactions are purely transactional and unidirectional, dropping information off about our brands with no real opportunity to develop meaningful relationships. How much value does that really provide? Does this really meet anyone’s expectations of a modern customer relationship? What if we start calling sales reps “relationship managers” instead, and allow them to focus first on behaving in ways that show true appreciation for day-in-the-life of their customers? What if we worked relationship training into our annual sales meetings? We could empower reps to seek out the challenges that their customers face and provide them with the tools and support necessary to overcome these challenges. Think that might improve some outcomes, and even sales? I believe it would – and it’s supported by evidence. A 2017 study by the Temkin Group found that 73 percent of companies with above average CX maturity had better financial performance than their competitors.

So, we need to retool at a fundamental level the entire way we think about our relationships with patients and physicians. “We see our customers as invited guests to a party and we are the hosts,” Jeff Bezos once said. “It’s our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little better.” By listening and using in a holistic way all of the mountains of insights that we collect, we can seek out and smooth the roughest places in the customer journey. We must be prepared to aggressively intercede in new and creative ways if we are to build great customer experiences and long-term customer relationships in 2018 and beyond. Doing so isn’t just good for customers, but good for business – consider the recent Harvard Business Review analysis that quantified the value of a good customer experience. Annual revenue increase per customer soared as customer experience scores rose, by as much as 2.4 times.

Of course, doing all this is going to take work. Given all the institutional forces flowing in the opposite direction – the silos, the long history of brand focus, the frustrations inherent in health care that we just can’t control – extraordinary customer experience is going to take a high degree of organizational commitment. Leaders at every level will have to fight for the customer experience conception of marketing, or inertia will win out. But think of it this way: it’s a lot easier to leave a product than to leave an experience or a relationship. How many dollars is pharma leaving on the table by selling drugs rather than designing experiences? How many lives aren’t being changed that could be? How many promotional dollars are we spending to set expectations and desire for our brand without ensuring that those expectations are met? I don’t know. But I do know that the principles of CX are driving revenue and building customer loyalty in other industries with far less at stake than ours. So, let’s be transformative and pull away the restraints. Let’s live up to the promise of customer experience. And let’s not leave those experiences to chance.