By Jay Lichtenstein and Jeanne Ryan, principals at ZS, where they focus on marketing and customer-driven growth strategies for clients.

With 270 million Americans currently under a “stay at home” directive, only activities deemed “essential” are happening in person. In healthcare, which relies significantly on personal connections – between patients and HCPs, HCPs and pharma reps, and even marketers and their teams – there have been dramatic shifts in the way we all work and operate over the last couple of weeks.

For patients, elective procedures and routine appointments are being postponed or canceled as the CDC recommends that doctors and healthcare facilities prioritize urgent and emergency visits and procedures for at least the next several weeks. Hospitals are dealing with pressure from extreme spikes in care while treating a dwindling number of non-COVID-19 patients. The pandemic is consuming the focus of many healthcare providers, leaving them with less time and fewer resources to care for patients with other chronic conditions. New patients with noncritical needs might be turned away and existing patients might delay routine checkups or refuse care for other conditions to avoid potential exposure. More people will adopt telehealth, but countless questions remain around how that might work. All of these factors affect how providers will interact with key stakeholders in the healthcare ecosystem for the foreseeable future.

This unprecedented new healthcare landscape makes it important for pharma marketers to find the best ways to drive impact. Now is the time for companies to genuinely put patients, not their products, first; to connect with patients, caregivers and HCPs on a much deeper level, and to find innovative new ways to engage customers. Use the next couple of months to invest and get your marketing ready for the post-COVID world because the changes and disruptions happening now will have ripple effects for many months and years to come.

Every pharma marketer right now is dealing with major disruptions to their 2020 plan. The fundamental adjustment is to move from a “promote the product” mindset to one centered on meeting the needs of customers and stakeholders. It’s a basic principle of marketing, and with pharma companies already instructing their reps to stop all promotion, the next evolution of customer-centric marketing is now about to start. To do it well means both understanding those needs (especially the new ones caused by the pandemic) as well as delivering content, services and solutions to address those needs. According to ZS’s COVID-19 Impact Study – which surveyed roughly 120 physicians in late March 2020 – some of the biggest challenges that physicians are dealing with right now include reduced supply of medical devices, staffing limitations, lack of telehealth know-how and capabilities, reduced supply of prescription medications, and patients lapsing on current medications.

With all this disruption happening around us, maybe it’s time to think like a disruptor. If you look across industries, there’s a common thread of all successful disruptors:  They focus on high-impact unmet or underserved needs and find new ways to address those needs: Uber addressed needs for on-demand rides with an easier way to pay (and at a better price), and Amazon enabled shopping from home at scale. Or take Sephora, which leveraged face simulation technology to help consumers match products to their skin tones and virtually “try on” different shades of lipstick or eyeshadow. While most beauty sales still take place at retail, digital channels dominate for consumer decision-making. Over time, Sephora merged its digital, physical retail, and customer service teams into one “omni-retail” team to engage and provide value to the consumer across all touch points and over time. The company’s efforts are a great example of a brand that deeply understands consumer needs and meets them in a relevant and meaningful way.

When it comes to pharma companies meeting customer needs today, how do you do it well and where can you start?

1. Start with a rich, complete understanding of customer needs, especially their emerging and evolving needs based on recent events.

The patient journey is transforming as each week passes. Seek to understand those shifts, assess the shifts that will continue to evolve and endure, and then focus on those that most impact patient health, physician actions, and your brand and company. Now is a great time to tap into your sales representatives, field-based medical personnel, access support teams and others to understand new needs driven by the pandemic. Make sure that they are spending as much time as possible (and appropriate) with customers to understand their evolving needs and explore ways they can help.

Also, use market research to fill in any gaps and keep a finger on the pulse of your customers and how their needs (and their worlds) are changing due to the pandemic. ZS’s COVID-19 Impact Study shows that physicians who are not on the frontlines are still eager to participate in market research, and many are proactively raising their hands to do more and articulate areas where they need help (for example, help in providing up-to-date information on how to treat patients at high risk for COVID-19 and fielding patient questions about their medications).

2. Identify new ideas to meet evolving customer needs and start thinking like a disruptor by pushing into new areas.

As you move from product promotion to brand marketing and engagement, you’ll put aside the trusty tools of efficacy, safety and tolerability. The goal now is to meet the needs of your customers: Put yourself in their shoes and find the content, services, and solutions that are both relevant (fits the context of the situation) and meaningful (provides value).

The ZS COVID-19 Impact Study revealed that the repercussions of COVID-19 and fewer patient visits will be felt throughout the treatment journey, but more heavily on diagnosis and drug initiation. What role could you play in helping doctors improve how they use telemedicine? If physicians make medication adjustments while remote, what can you do to help that patient start the new therapy? What new frictions are emerging in the treatment process, and how can you help? Physicians still need information and product news and announcements. How can you help them keep up with what’s new and get the information they need without in-person visits or events?

According to our study, here are the top five ways that pharma companies can help physicians:

• Provide additional practice support for treatment and fulfillment
• Provide delivery or mail order of medicines
• Increase co-pay assistance and other financial support
• Increase availability of product samples
• Help with patient support directly

You may already have services that can help address these needs, and there’s an opportunity to expand your reach and impact. Or you may need to add a new service to what you’re currently offering to provide additional value. For example, you may have a call center that has traditionally supported the staff of certain provider offices in obtaining pre-authorizations. You could expand that to more offices that suddenly need that help as well. You may even start submitting the authorizations directly on behalf of the patient or provider. And if you don’t offer it already, you could consider adding interim insurance coverage to bridge the gap for patients who need it.
As you brainstorm and develop ideas, start to push the envelope. Be more disruptive, focus on serving the need and then try to make it possible. How can you help physicians adjust their waiting room layouts and procedures to keep patients safe and make them less nervous? For patients too nervous to go out, how can you help them obtain their medications and pay for them? For infusion patients, how can you help bring the therapy to them? How can you help physicians who are more resource-constrained?

3. Build your digital capability to deliver in a coordinated fashion, across touch points and over time.

You’ll need to build a comprehensive road map of all the different moments of interaction, which may require a new capability in some organizations. Now is the time to improve your digital capabilities and move well beyond just sending emails. Start by measuring everything because you will use those learnings to improve in every aspect. Gather frequent feedback from those delivering content and tactics. Also, go beyond observing customer action and learn directly from them with in-the-moment market research or voice-of-the-customer feedback methods; determine what’s working; and look for new triggers and new needs, and new ways to meet those needs.
If you have the capability, leverage next best actions or a similar technique, which would use data and analytics to determine the optimal channel, content and cadence for each of your customers. Next best actions will also seek triggers and signals, and then send or prompt an appropriate response, so when a customer does a particular action, the tools will automatically send content or prompt a remote contact.

Moreover, elevate the importance of orchestration and knowledge or data that’s flowing across people interacting with customers, that way everyone connecting with customers can act in coordination. From the customer’s perspective, every interaction with your brand or company should feel like a seamless, coordinated, single conversation.

The healthcare landscape as we know it is going through a rapid change. When we get the green light to return to normal, the landscape will be anything but. Now is the time to find bold, innovative new ways to engage your customers. A good place to start is by leveraging your insights and analytics teams to lay a foundation, and then speak with your marketing and field operations teams about how to empower people with more content and solutions.

Then, start thinking like a disruptor. Use the next couple of months to invest, engage your customers, try new ideas, and get your marketing ready for the post-COVID world. If you do this well, it will help you break through in this environment – and the approach will be a core source of value in your sales and marketing efforts after this tumultuous period is behind us.