Physician CRM involves a serious investment of resources and commitment, but today’s inexorable market trends make it our best path forward for transforming our businesses to effectively and efficiently deliver the best value we can for our customers.


The job of a pharmaceutical product manager used to be straightforward. The agency of record essentially managed the brand identity, and the marketing associate, usually on an 18-month rotation from the sales force, oversaw the budget and made sure nothing went wrong. Often, just keeping the sales aid current with regulatory updates could keep a manager busy until it was time to return to the field. Typical life in a regulated industry.

That was then.

Today there are many new market pressures and expectations from consumers, patient groups, providers, payers, regulators, competitors and even shareholders. A number of industry trends have merged, forcing pharmaceutical product leadership to revisit their approach to marketing strategy.


Four significant social and economic trends have emerged, introducing a level of market turbulence and complexity that is challenging the way brand teams form and execute strategy. Managed well, a new approach can result in greater marketing effectiveness and lead to enhanced value for key customer groups. But if fumbled, these trends will undermine even the most ambitious plans and lead to market-share erosion. These four trends are:

  1. The explosion of disparate promotional channels and digital transactions is overwhelming even experienced marketing managers as they struggle to integrate these new channels into their strategic plan and manage their multiple vendors. New modes of social media engagement are already disrupting the traditional sales cycle and its reliance on one-way, outbound media.
  2. These burgeoning new marketing programs create a “big data” challenge. If embraced, this plethora of information will provide better physician insight…but it will ultimately undermine traditional research-planning methodologies, demanding new and faster ways to sort, analyze, segment, and target customers.
  3. The decline in physician access and the increasing influence of payers are changing the balance of power. This is forcing brand teams to rethink the standard promotional approach.
  4. The move to specialized products targeting smaller patient populations with more focused physician segments means that marketing teams have less margin for error in planning and execution.

These four trends have one thing in common: each represents an environment of complexity or turbulence that requires a much deeper understanding of the customer. However, the traditional pharma brand-planning process—the one that worked well in the past—is proving inadequate in a world of unprecedented change and speed. The point-in-time snapshot, of segmentation or messaging or social media, captured by formal market research has a shorter half-life than before and misses the dynamic influences of social media and consumer word-of-mouth.

This is catching many marketing executives and their agencies by surprise. According to Forrester Research, even direct-marketing service providers who have deep expertise in developing and managing customer databases and campaigns are playing catch-up with the need for cross-channel customer intelligence that is relevant for enhancing customer experience and for transforming the business to meet these market challenges.1


Traditional market research provides a strong overarching brand strategy, but it’s not as helpful for understanding needs at the individual customer level. Traditional customer relationship management (CRM) promises customer intelligence but mostly provides reports on transactions, usually focused on the performance of the sales force, and that’s not particularly actionable for making marketing decisions at the individual physician level.

What’s required is a way to get to a different set of questions. Customer questions, business questions, are-we-offering-a-unique- value-proposition questions. Questions that just might lead to a different way of segmenting your audience or delivering value once you know the answers. Answers that might challenge the way you’re doing marketing today and engage your audience in a way that feels authentic to both sides.

For example, how well do you know the answers to these questions?

  • How effective are your various tactics at the physician level, and do you have a plan for variable spending based on channel preferences?
  • Are you aware of the difference between channel preference and channel effectiveness at the physician level?
  • How do you know if your segmentation schema overestimates the value of past prescribers and underestimates the potential of non-targets?
  • How would physicians rank you in terms of customer experience across your various sales and service touchpoints?
  • Based on how a physician responds across more than two marketing tactics, can you predict his or her likelihood to prescribe your product?
  • Who are your market’s most peer-influential physicians, and how do they use social media?
  • Do you know which physicians respond better to clinical information vs. clinical-trial opportunities vs. access to speaker training?
  • If you were asked by senior management to decrease or increase your promotional budget by 50 percent, do you know how you would cut and minimize impact, or where you would focus your increased budget to make the biggest difference?


To get the most accurate answers at the individual level, we need access to customer attitudes, behavior and value on an ongoing basis. Just as a continuous-monitoring glucose meter is more effective in managing insulin levels than a twice-daily fingerstick, so the ability to monitor and manage multiple customer touchpoints is better than quarterly focus groups.

At any given moment, most brands have numerous sales and marketing efforts deployed to reach their target set of physicians. Each of these touchpoints can contribute a nugget that adds up to a rich lode of customer data. Capturing transactional, behavioral, and attitudinal data about healthcare professionals from multiple personal and non-personal sales and marketing programs can provide the raw material to address much of the market complexity we now face.

These methods are rooted in physician CRM. The result is more efficient and effective marketing.


Capturing data, creating actionable insight, and delivering on that knowledge are three important steps that product managers can take to develop and execute a strong customer strategy. This is not an insignificant undertaking and requires a strong visionary leadership team to maintain the necessary rigor.


The first step in a physician CRM program is collecting all physician interaction data from internal sources and all the various agencies involved, and making sure that they’re identifiable and attributable at the physician level. Although these data may be scattered around various offices and ad agencies, they need to be identified and consolidated into a single dataset. This process can involve delicate negotiations, but it must be done. Eventually it will be automated, but even just pulling and merging monthly files is an important first step and will reveal just how disconnected physician profiles and datasets have become.


The second step in building strong physician insight into your strategy is to analyze this consolidated dataset for answers to your key business and customer questions. Unraveling the data stream to determine what works at the physician level, where to over-invest (or underinvest) and what combination of content, tools and channels will be most relevant to attention-constrained physicians will help create a strong strategy and build the intelligence to achieve competitive advantage.

Engagement metrics are important proxies for what physicians deem important, but the ultimate business measure is how those engagement metrics lead to market share growth. Prescription trend data need to be an input to allow marketers to measure the return on sales and marketing investments at the individual physician level.

The transactional, behavioral and attitudinal data that will come from multiple campaigns are not only voluminous, as in “big data,” but can also be very granular, sometimes called “nano data.” Sifting through terabytes of data hoping to stumble across “insight” is expensive and unnecessary. Better to start with the right business and customer questions and build an analysis framework for developing a strong customer strategy.


The final step in creating business impact is to take the insight from the data analysis and develop a unique customer-centric strategy and implementation plan. By learning how to provide the content most relevant to the brand’s most valuable targets, how and when they want it, you create the much-vaunted two-way conversation with healthcare professionals to which every brand should aspire. CRM will evolve from a top-down process to one that allows physicians to also participate in managing their relationships with the brand.

This ongoing virtual conversation provides the brand team with a growing body of intelligence to make better marketing and resource decisions and—using predictive analytics—to begin to confidently anticipate the needs of its customers. Physician CRM provides an opportunity for a pharmaceutical product team to make change happen on its own terms.

Given the increasing complexity and turbulence of our industry, we need a framework and a set of tools that enable us to provide business leadership and customer insight. Physician CRM begins with the right business and customer questions, finds the necessary answers through the capture and analysis of physician data across multiple channels, and then implements a new marketing and content plan validated by the continuous feedback loop of physician engagement.


According to Brian Smith, professor and author of Making Marketing Happen, the process for developing marketing strategy in an environment of both complexity and turbulence requires a balance of sophisticated research and vision. Research works to unwind the complexity of a multifaceted environment and provide the timely customer insight needed to make smart marketing investment decisions. Vision comes from leaders with the nerve to honestly acknowledge and engage the market turbulence head-on.

Experience teaches us that without the internal cultural support within the pharmaceutical company for both of these components—the permission for the product marketing team to take risks and the willingness to follow what the data reveal—the marketing strategy will be weak and the execution disappointing.


References 1. The Forrester Wave: US Database Marketing Service Providers, Q1 2011.


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