Pharma companies leveraged technology and data to market to doctors like never before last year, and the moves helped commercial teams maintain access during the pandemic. But physicians are now voicing irritation with some of the same channels that industry doubled down on, threatening the relationships they worked so hard to preserve.
This has spurred a renewed effort among life science companies to enhance the customer experience. While some have been talking about this for years, previous attempts "were being tried in silos or as disjointed experiments," recalled Manish Gupta, CEO of consultancy Indegene. "The last three quarters drastically changed how the industry is viewing some of these initiatives. We are seeing industry very boldly embrace some of these concepts."
They have their work cut out for them. One in three HCPs is dissatisfied with their channel experience, Indegene's data from this year show. Their ire is most strongly felt in the areas of social media (49%), marketing emails (46%) and phone calls with reps (42%).
They don't have much more love for in-person/remote meetings with reps or medical science liaisons (MSLs), with 33% and 34% expressing their displeasure with those channels, respectively. The reason, Gupta said, stems from an inability to respond to their needs in quick fashion, as well as the uncoordinated way in which pharma is deploying content across channels.
"The slowness and the siloization of all these different channels is what is causing physicians to be unhappy," he explained.
Companies have long known that customer experience is right up there in importance with clinical efficacy and safety. But this moment presents an opportunity to take a more deliberate approach to addressing said pain points.
It's instructive to recount how they got here. Before last year's all-out sprint, pharma was about a decade into its digital sales evolution. It started in 2010 with tactical E-experiments, like replacing sales reps with a "click-to-chat" option on late-lifecycle products. In 2016 or so, the encroachment of digital natives like Google and Apple prompted pharma to elevate digital from a mere tactic to a board-level, centralized function.
During the intervening years, the commercial culture within firms gradually shifted from a definitive approach to one that's more tolerant of experimentation. However, until 2020 telling a launch brand's story had still been, to a large extent, a matter of pressing the flesh. Virtual selling proved its mettle last year, while industry finally evolved to true omnichannel engagement, ranging from remote meetings and events to phone calls, in-person visits and emails.
"We have to look at 2020 as a moment in time that has given us a massive A/B test, one which we would have never done," said Richard Schwartz, life sciences industry practice lead at experience management firm Medallia. "We would have never pulled reps out of the field en masse and said, 'You're going all-digital.'"
One of the main takeaways from this experiment is what Schwartz referred to as "the dawning of experience inside of life sciences." COVID, he explained, has prompted pharma to reset the bar for itself, via actions like enabling people to find a path toward telemedicine and providing support materials for chronic disease sufferers fretting over how COVID might affect them.
"Once you realize that you can do these things, you're kind of out of excuses for why you don't," Schwartz said.
But adopting that mindset is going to take time. As he analyzed data from the recent JP Morgan Healthcare Conference, Schwartz observed that mentions of customer experience and related terms were not as numerous in drugmaker presentations as they were in those of healthcare systems. To him, that suggests that while customer experience may be a priority, companies aren't comfortable talking about it just yet.
"I think we're going to see that changing," Schwartz said. "Life sciences today is at a point where it has acknowledged that there is work to be done in patient and professional experience, but the headroom for innovation is quite high based on where other industries are."
Organizations like Delta, Lego and Harley Davidson call out customer experience in their investor presentations, Schwartz noted, and life sciences is looking outside of its own competitive set for direction.
While there are multiple drivers of customer experience, from instilling a company culture of learning and agility to collecting robust sales performance data, Gupta describes content as the most fundamental component.
"As a pharma industry, we sell content," he said, noting that nobody approves, prescribes or takes a pill without first looking at data or some other content to decision-making. But Gupta quickly added that "content is split into so many siloes," pointing to clinical trials, regulatory, safety, medical affairs and commercial.
The physician may have a touchpoint with each one of those, but the final experience is not necessarily the sum of all touchpoints. "If the overall experience is not unified, the physician doesn't have a positive experience," he said.
Indeed, they all need to come together and to be distributed at the ideal moment, with the right level of personalization and in the appropriate channel. To do this, Gupta said, a number of Indegene's customers have started to use modular sets of content, where discrete content bites are pre-approved, as are the rules by which they can be assembled for messaging.
As data is collected, the rules flex depending on physicians' consumption patterns. And orchestrating it all depends on a holistic understanding of the customer achieved through mining data from various sales rep interactions and on doctors' digital relationships and influence network (where they trained, where they speak, the journals in which they publish). Only then can a company develop a more empathetic experience for the customer.
Schwartz agrees about the need to unify touchpoints, but stresses the importance of speed and responsiveness. Companies must adopt a mindset of understanding the friction that people are experiencing, both terrestrial and digital, with their brands.
"The realization from COVID was that we can't wait for the monthly operational metrics," he explained. "We have to start to learn how to be empathetic and understand and listen in real time, or near real time, because we have to move at the speed of need. Somebody who needs their medication, or needs to see a doctor or needs information from an MSL, needs it right then and there."
Companies can collect engagement signals (basically all the times when people are touching the brand) as well as experience signals (which unfold in feedback that people give directly through surveys or passively through voice analysis or other means). "You can see if somebody who is on your website [and who is registered into your platform] is stuck in benefits verification or prior authorization, and they're rage-clicking on something," Schwartz quipped. "That's an observable signal."
The company's obligation is to resolve it in the moment. Indeed, the "experience imperative" for life sciences, as he puts it, involves delivering on that promise to patients and professionals through operationalizing empathy – that is, listening, learning and acting as experiences happen.
Executing on this know-how is another matter. Not every organization will be able to bust through silos at the same pace, nor should one expect every company to be able to scale the change-management wall. Pharma isn't known for adapting quickly. It took a pandemic, after all, to jolt the industry into doing much more with digital.
But Gupta believes attitudes are changing, based on conversations to which he's recently been privy. "What we are hearing more often in pharma is, 'For a long time, we have used the shield of excess regulations as an excuse for not doing good work. We've got to get out of that.' And that's very heartening."
When asked how soon he expects things to progress, Gupta draws on the fallback that pharma seems always to be "in a race for second." But the fast-follower tendency may actually help the industry if, after a few first-movers break out and see customer-facing success, many organizations may fall in line.
That may not happen in the next few years, let alone the next few quarters. And it's not necessarily going to be the way Amazon or Apple would do digital; that remains a far-off prospect. But the heightened priority suggests things are moving in the right direction.
"Customer experience is important," said Gupta. "That understanding is definitely seeping in."
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