In an increasingly competitive market where patient-centricity is key, enhancing customer experience to improve loyalty could be pharma's next big step forward

In our age of consumerism and customer choice, loyalty is a rare thing. When walking down the street in search of caffeine, what makes us choose a particular coffee shop? Personal experience, word of mouth, advertisements, special offers – many factors influence purchasing decisions, but brand loyalty is pushing through the pack to be the front runner in the consumer race. 

"Loyalty is incredibly profitable," says customer experience specialist and former customer experience lead for Pfizer Europe, Mike Bellis. "Creating loyalty means you don't have to work so hard to sell, improving your operational efficiency and profit margins. Loyal customers are more likely to try other products or services, increasing opportunities to cross- and upsell. Most valuable of all, loyal customers are more likely to recommend you, an incredibly low-cost way to acquire new customers. Creating loyalty can be a very profitable way to run a business." 

But how do you create loyalty? For a growing number of pharma companies, the answer is to adopt a customer experience approach. "Consistently meeting or exceeding your customers' expectations right across their journey leads to improved brand perception and customer satisfaction," says Bellis. "Put simply, this means the next time they need something, they are much more likely to come back to you." 

Another customer experience – or CX – enthusiast is Tim White, head of customer experience at Teva Pharmaceuticals. "We need to provide an experience that offers value to customers so they prefer us over a competitor or other service provider. How did we go about this? Firstly, we looked at the many examples of great customer experience in other sectors." 

Outgoing US President Barack Obama was an early adopter of CX, he says. "Obama brought the principles of customer experience into the political arena – eight years ago. He provided great information and the resources his supporters needed to get out there and share his message – and it worked," says White. 

While pharma is rarely the first guest to arrive at a party, many companies are embracing customer experience, says Bellis. "For me, customer experience is an answer to some of the fundamental challenges that face pharma; declining customer engagement, a greater emphasis on profit margin and capabilities that haven't changed in 10, 15 or 20 years and which are bordering on irrelevance. The world has changed and we have to change with it." 

Yet, making the move to a customer experience model is not an easy one, he says. "Part of the problem is that some companies think they are already customer focused, but they are driven by revenue and profit, not customers' priorities. Adopting CX management requires a change of mindset that puts the customers' requirements first and the businesses' requirements second." 

Customers don't think about product 

Takeda has recently taken its first steps on the CX journey, says Hicham Naim, head of business model innovation and strategic projects. "Without any doubt designing great customer experience is growing increasingly important in our industry. The expectations of our different customers for the quality of experiences are set by all their interactions with brands and services outside of pharma, where many other sectors are far ahead of our industry. At Takeda, we set our ambition and sought to understand the outside-in perspective, to explore what our customers really want. At the start, we set the stage to create this ambition, explaining to our leaders what CX is and how it differs from customer-centricity and multichannel." 

Naim admits there is a perception issue to overcome. "Customer experience sounds fluffy, but the world is much more complex now, and what customers need is a different set of conversations with us, conversations that will help them provide the best health they can to patients. As a consequence, companies need to raise the bar in experience-design capabilities to deliver both better interactions at particular touch points and an integrated and coherent customer experience across all touch points. Superior engagement requires creating compelling stories and experiences enriched by strong content." 

CX starts with a different approach to customer engagement, he says. "Personas and customer journey maps are important strategic enablers that help provide an in-depth understanding of who our customers are, what they need, and how they interact with our company across all touchpoints. They allow targeted actions to better deliver against customer expectations." 

With so many customers and so many variables, you need to deconstruct the overall customer experience into individual journeys, says Naim. "We asked ourselves; what are the different customer journeys we need to identify and to be able to deliver the right customer experience?" 

Yet, converting colleagues to the concept of customer experience can take time. "If you want to win with customer experience you first need a shared vision and ambition. You also need time to introduce new capabilities gradually so that employees can absorb them, and provide evidence through 'Proof of Concepts' to learn, change the mindset, culture and practices. It's a transformative journey that can take three, four, even seven years to complete. It is a journey that is incredibly complicated because it involves nearly every function. The key is to make it simple," he says. 

For Teva's Tim White, the key to delivering a good experience is understanding customer behaviour in a very granular way. "When we execute projects now, we focus on individual customer behaviour. It is no longer good enough to know that you sold your top decile physicians 10 times last week, that's not focusing on individual behaviour. We are trying to get to the core insights, what are their needs? What does their daily job look like? Where do we fit into this picture of their lives? We need to ensure that we are present where our customers are. It's not about pushing messages, it's about being relevant. We want to get to a point where we're customising all of our experience through all channels so that every interaction is timely, relevant and iterative." 

Teva focuses on service, not just selling, he says. "When we bring our medicines to market, we do not lead with product messages, rather we use a service model. We were tasked to launch a new product into the Dutch market without a sales force. While I don't believe it is feasible to do this in today's world, we had no sales targets so the project was designed to get learnings. We went to market last month – successfully – with an oral contraceptive that has a unique value proposition. We created a customer engagement strategy as well as a lot of good content, media, editorial content, etc and put that out through different channels to create a good customer experience, funnelling through inbound marketing into more product-focused discussions with customers. We were able to gain a lot of brand awareness this way, and now we are combining push and pull using customer experience principles." 

Customer = patients 

While the attention so far has been on 'experience', for Eddie Chan, vice-president and head of global marketing at UCB, the definition of the term 'customer' should not be taken for granted. "At UCB, our customers are our patients – full stop. Of course, HCPs remain a key interface and will continue to be a critical factor for the foreseeable future, but we have restructured our organisation along the lines of how we generate and deliver value to the patient. We examined touchpoints all along the value chain, beginning with how we more actively involve patients and create positive experiences in clinical development, and progressing through to how we support patients while on therapy." 

While Chan admits the transformation remains "a work in progress", the response has been significant. "Consistent feedback from patients and stakeholders is that our sentiment is authentic and we are acknowledged to be genuinely acting upon it. The entire industry has been searching for 'beyond the pill' opportunities for some time, but pharma tends to fall prey to the bright and shiny object syndrome, dazzled by technology as the answer rather than technology as merely the enabler. The mindset change in industry must continue to evolve to understand behavioural science and how people utilise information and services in the real world. Patients are people, and people are consumers." 

In the US market in particular, UCB is taking a service and value-driven approach, he says. "Throughout 2016, we have conducted a number of live pilots to see how we can modify our go-to-market approach in response to some of the changes in the healthcare landscape. Accountable care organisations or integrated delivery networks oftentimes have standardised protocols that are impacting – which is to say limiting – face time between sales professionals and prescribers. How can one convey value in absence of an interface?" 

UCB's approach has been to offer a much more consultative, service-based model. "Again, this is no longer about reach and frequency, especially as our brands are well-recognised for their effectiveness and tolerability. With a service approach we are able to have value-driven discussions at the C-Suite level around population health, and convey new expressions of the value that our therapies offer," says Chan. "I am not aware of other organisations that proactively advise customers to discontinue therapy in the absence of meaningful improvement during an initial pre-defined period, which is the case for Cimzia. We seek the right patients at the right time for the right response to drive value. This approach is resonating with patients and other stakeholders." 

Eddie Chan and Phil Matton will be speaking at the upcoming eyeforpharma Barcelona conference on 14-16 March. For more information, visit

The AstraZeneca model 

Seven years ago, AstraZeneca undertook a programme to transform the way it interacted with its customers. "We knew the world was changing and so were our customer expectations," says Phil Matton, Vice-President and Head of International Projects at AstraZeneca. "Our new approach put service at the centre, with selling arranged around that central core, driving customer and patient loyalty." 

The company, in common with many other, was facing a range of challenges. "In pharma, we have real access issues with our customers. Even though we know prescribers still have a preference for face-to-face visits, the number of decent conversations with customers around products and services has diminished greatly. We're all asking, how can we add value and improve the experience?" 

In response, AstraZeneca introduced a new channel – the service rep – and a call centre capability, plus experimented with channel mix to optimise them. "Our focus was to move from products to services to really drive the experience and create customer loyalty, regardless of whether the brand was growth, mature or launch. One mistake we made was to put too great a focus on cost and we had to go back time and time again to make the point that the service channel was about customer experience and not about saving money. The channel does save money but, first and foremost, it's about the experience we create for our customers." 

As part of the new approach, AZ went back to basics. "To make sure that marketing teams and sales leaders really focused on what customers needed from our brands and services, we took everyone back to the fundamental basics of marketing," says Matton. "We rewrote the AZ way of marketing to make sure we focused on customer experience. All the way through that process, we reinforced the message by getting senior management teams in the markets to challenge brand teams on what they were trying to achieve with every single customer segment, building a channel experience in an integrated way. We also had a strategic group that developed a framework so we could embed the behaviours across all markets and make it 'business as usual', so if people moved, the behaviours were embedded." 

Matton and his team took away several important lessons. "A key learning was the critical role of the change management process; senior management buy-in was absolutely essential. A really hard part for marketeers to get their heads around was how to develop more patient-centric, customer-centric materials. It was also vital to engage the sales force and management team as there was a real danger that they would kill the new channels if they saw them as a threat to their livelihoods. We had to reinforce the huge importance of their role – to sell the product."