The New Blockbuster: Customer Service Equals Sales Growth

In the life science industry, it is often difficult to differentiate your product from the pack. Even products in different classes can all meld together in the minds of patients, prescribers and payer decision makers.

Holding everything else equal, what differentiates one product from another can often be the experience customers have with the company making the drug, whether it’s interactions with sales reps, account managers, reimbursement hotlines or social media. All these experiences boil down to two words: Customer service. Many companies don’t understand how to make good customer service a market differentiator—or how customer-centricity can have a massive impact on sales.

Identifying and then aligning your efforts to the perspective of your customer can improve the development of brand strategies and associated customer touchpoints. The result will be exceptional customer service, product differentiation, motivation for your team, and very likely, increased sales.

Who Are the Customers?

Customer service starts with putting your customers at the center, what is referred to as “customer centricity.” To be customer-centric, you must understand who the customers are, their perspectives and what they consider valuable. Only then can you provide customers with what they believe to be excellent service.

Who are our customers? A customer is not just a prescriber or patient, but any person or group who influences or makes a treatment decision. Probably the biggest evolution in the life science marketplace is the increased number of decision makers involved in product selection. Therefore, developing comprehensive patient journeys helps identify customers along the path. You have probably heard of or used patient journeys (or treatment flow models) before. We define a patient journey as the process from symptoms to diagnosis to treatment to payment to adherence to follow-up—and all the players involved and decisions made along the way that impact product selection and use.

Who Are the Decision Makers?

Patient journeys can help us identify customers by describing the typical patient and medical decision makers (e.g., diagnosing physician, prescriber, nurse, pharmacist). Depending on the patient and disease state, other decision makers can come into play, such as caregivers and caseworkers. And more important than ever are institutional decision makers, such as payers, hospital consortiums and large physician groups, which may have more power than prescribers over which treatment is ultimately used.

For some disease states, the patient journey will reveal just three or four customers. For other disease states, it will reveal a complex network of a dozen or more customers. Regardless, until you map the patient journey, it’s hard to identify your customers. Once you do, you may find the environment is more complex than you thought.

Uncovering Each Customer’s Perspective and Needs

After identifying the customer, you must then define the customer’s perspective and needs to determine where your leverage points reside. In this step, patient journeys reveal everything that can happen along the path to impact brand success.

  • For the patient, this could be how he feels and what impact the disease has on his life. What motivates a busy father of two toddlers with a physically demanding job to get treatment for his chronic knee pain? The answer would be different for a single woman with no kids and a desk job.
  • What does the healthcare provider think about when deciding on treatment? Is she worried about getting through the exam quickly to move on to the next patient? Does that result in her choosing the most popular brand, rather than the brand that may be best for this patient?
  • Is the office manager directing patient flow and driving decisions based upon financial metrics?

These perspectives and needs ultimately determine brand choice, but knowing them is also critical in providing excellent service to each customer. Satisfied and loyal customers feel that their needs are addressed with something they deem valuable. That could be the product itself, or support to make using the product easier—such as reimbursement assistance, especially helpful at a time when the healthcare system is in transition. Understanding a customer’s perspectives and needs will help you determine what “service” means to them. The result is a meaningful value proposition that will create enduring customer loyalty aligned to every phase of the patient journey.

An example from outside the industry helps illustrate the point. During what was a lackluster 2015 holiday season for most retailers, Amazon.com had the biggest holiday season in its 21-year history. Their products weren’t better or cheaper than those of competitors. But Amazon.com succeeded, largely through its Prime offering, by listening to what customers want: They want it (wide variety of products); they want it quickly (free two-day shipping for Prime members), and they want to be able to return it easily (no-hassle returns). Amazon customers are willing to pay more because Amazon takes care of them, and this breeds long-term loyalty.

Obviously, we are not consumer product marketers, but there is much to learn from the consumer sector. Differentiation between products can be slight, but if customers feel a company has listened to them and met their needs, everything else being equal, they will be loyal to that company.

How To Meet Customer Needs

You’ve identified the customers and their needs. Now what? This is the stage when you define touchpoints with your customers to meet those needs. Going back to your patient journey, identify leverage points along the way. Where will you have opportunities based upon your brand’s strengths, and where will you have problems based upon your brand’s weaknesses? What barriers to treatment can you solve through special programs, services and information? Can you mitigate or at least neutralize any obstacles?

Critical to building a loyal customer relationship is communicating credible knowledge, skill, trust and empathy. Pharma and biotech marketers have multiple channels to do so: Sales reps, social media, consumer websites, and journal ads to name a few. Credible knowledge and skill means hiring the right people to represent your brand. It also involves training customer-facing resources to build their knowledge and skills so they are credible and approach their work with a customer-centric mindset. Sales reps, account managers, disease educators and other customer-facing resources must understand the customer perspective in order to empathize with it—and they must know how to appropriately convey that empathy to the customer. This, plus providing credible information over time, builds trust and, ultimately, customer loyalty.

All people involved, not just customer-facing team members, must understand the customer’s perspective on the brand. This understanding of the big picture motivates those involved with a brand to make better decisions than if they only know about their small piece of the project. A big-picture perspective helps ensure that, whatever the team member’s role, customer service is a prime objective, executed consistently and effectively.

Measure Success and Continuously Improve

Measuring effectiveness of a single tactic or channel is complicated. However, pressure-testing your customer analysis and tactics both before and after implementation can set you up for success and identify issues to address.

A few of the questions to ask before implementing tactics include:

  • Are my “customers” actual influencers of treatment decisions?
  • Is there an advantage we need to exploit or disadvantage we need to mitigate?
  • Which specific customer need does the tactic address?
  • Where does this tactic fit into the entire customer decision-making process?
  • Is this tactic in conflict with, or duplicative of, another tactic we are engaging?
  • Are there synergies with partner companies or internally that should be leveraged to make this a more meaningful solution?
  • What is the action or behavior we are trying to incite?
  • What are all the ways this could go wrong?
  • How can we measure effectiveness?

Some questions to ask after implementing tactics include asking (and honestly answering):

  • If response has been poor, why? Was it lack of knowledge of the offering, poor execution, or a better offering by the competitor?
  • If response has been good, why?
  • Are we effectively meeting the need we set out to meet? If not, why not?
  • Are all team members keeping the customer at the center of what they do? If not, why?

Once you identify a gap in customer service, fixing it must be a priority. Three problems that often arise in customer service are inefficiency, inconsistency and customer complaints.

Addressing inefficiency must be done thoughtfully. For example, leadership may decide to cut “non-essential” staff to help the company’s bottom line, but this decision is short-sighted if it results in poor customer service. However, if shortening or changing the process results in customers getting what is needed more quickly or easily, do it.

If customers are happy in some geographies but not all, or if a channel’s customer satisfaction has dropped, it’s an issue of consistency and likely a problem of execution or outside forces. You can’t control the outside forces, but you can control your reaction to them. For example, if a survey of prescribers suddenly shows a drop in satisfaction with sales representative interactions, why? Perhaps a competitor just launched and reps need additional training.

Finally, pay attention to customer grievances. This is where social media can be valuable. One person complaining about a product or service may be an outlier, but a trend in complaints about a product or service screams “opportunity for improvement.” Respond to posts with empathy—better yet, solve the problem and tell the online community about the solution.

A consistent and continuous customer-centric approach should guide you from strategy development through tactical execution and beyond. By keeping your customers and their needs and perspective top-of-mind, you will improve the overall customer experience and gain customer loyalty that over time can be seen in improved sales.

  • John Bye

    John Bye is General Manager, Learning Solutions of inVentiv Health Consulting. John Bye has over 20 years’ experience in pharma sales and consulting. 

    • Celeste Mosby

      Celeste Mosby is Vice President, Solution Design, Learning Solutions of inVentiv Health Consulting. Celeste Mosby is a recognized leader in the biopharmaceutical industry.

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