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Hey Pharma–Do You Know What Your Customers Really Want?


John Shortell

John Shortell

Running a healthcare practice is hard, filled with critical daily activities that aren’t covered in medical school. Patients need help with their insurance companies, staff needs help following up with patients—and everyone needs help navigating electronic health records. These pain points offer a prime opportunity for pharma brands to support physicians and to demonstrate true customer centricity. But is that enough?

Customer centricity and customer engagement

One core tenet shared by all successful companies: focus on pleasing your customers. That begins by providing a product or service that answers some customer need—but often stretches much further, with companies both providing direct added benefits and taking socially conscious actions that their target customers appreciate.

Rich Durante

Rich Durante

Companies that do this well tend to be more successful. These companies make a strategic decision that all their business initiatives drive towards developing a long-lasting customer relationship.

A recent Forbes article1 by Blake Morgan highlighted five key actions that are common among top customer-focused companies:

  • A customer-experience mindset
  • Innovation
  • Civic engagement, including environmental responsibility
  • Active commitment to the employee experience
  • A steadfast focus on customers and customer needs throughout the COVID-19 pandemic

We argue that, while all of these things are important, the two most critical are a customer-experience mindset and innovation. Those companies that truly embrace a customer-focused mindset and innovate (i.e., identify novel ways of providing value to customers) experience more sales, more revenue, more growth.This is as true for a pharma brand as it is for a clothing retailer or an automobile manufacturer. Yet, historically, pharma has been slow to adopt a genuinely customer-centric approach to marketing.

Beyond the detail aid: Offering valued support

Traditionally, pharmaceutical companies have invested all their marketing energy into building brands. Their mindset has been more brand-centric–leveraging an extensive sales force focused on physicians and DTC advertising to minimize resistance on the patient side of the equation. Even when the notion of customer-centricity began to gain traction in pharma ten to twenty years ago, most of this focus was directed to patients. On the physician side, sales reps continued to provide physicians with timely information on clinical trials, treatment guidelines, insurance reimbursement information—and lots and lots of samples. While each of these tactics is designed to help the physician help their patients, which is ultimately everyone’s goal, their ability to help the physicians themselves is limited. Pharma brands could do more.

Addressing blind spots–uncovering physicians’ actual needs

Certain aspects of customer engagement are a blind spot for pharma brands. Bayer and ZoomRx conducted multi-stage, multi-pronged research probing the perspectives of both pharma executives and healthcare providers (HCPs). The results reveal a gap between what pharma believes HCPs want and what the HCPs themselves actually desire. Through this research, we identified a universe of previously unaddressed physician pain points, from patient engagement concerns to the administrative complexities of managing a medical practice. While pharma executives accurately identified things like patient financial support programs as ways in which pharma can more comprehensively support physicians, they seemed to underestimate the importance of other things that physicians told us they wanted–like deeper support with electronic patient records or customized patient education.

Additionally, we leveraged these results to generate a list of interventions that pharma could deploy to address each physician concern, along with a set of metrics by which to measure relative value and impact. Subsequent data collection and modeling revealed the key modes of customer engagement that physicians valued most and that were most closely linked to important business outcomes for pharma, such as prescribing volume.

Moving past KPIs–customer performance indicators

These research findings point to exciting opportunities for pharma brands to become more truly customer centric. But once pharma companies identify and implement new ways of engaging with physicians, how do they know whether they’re effectively executing on these new ways of engaging customers?Are there other ways brands could provide value? Continued research holds the answer.

In a recent Harvard Business Review2 article, Gene Cornfield highlighted the importance of distinguishing between key performance indicators (KPIs) and customer performance indicators (CPIs). KPIs typically capture a company’s overall strength and success against goals; brand strategy research initiatives such as Awareness, Trial, Usage (ATU) trackers often rely on KPIs. Still, they have a shortcoming: they are focused on the business itself and not on customer satisfaction.

CPIs, by contrast, are exclusively focused on customer satisfaction. They measure a company’s (or pharma brand’s) success in meeting and exceeding customer needs and expectations. They can help companies (or brands) hone in on the specific tactics that customers will most appreciate—and how each may impact the company’s broader business outcomes. With a wide universe of potential ways to increase customer satisfaction and engagement, such metrics can be invaluable.

Measuring Customer Engagement Indicators

While the notion of a CPI is a powerful one, we contend that, in pharma, a more accurate label is customer engagement indicators (CEIs). What we’re actually trying to measure is not necessarily how our customers are “performing” but instead how well we in pharma are engaging with our customers. Consequently, we’ve adopted the label “customer engagement indicators” as a more accurate description of what we’re actually measuring.

There are many ways that pharma brands can measure CEIs. The simplest is to create a module of questions that validate HCP pain points, assess awareness and perceptions of novel physician support programs, and evaluate the performance of various brands. Such questions could periodically be incorporated into existing ATU surveys.

We argue, however, that more robust measurements are called for. Brands should gauge CEIs in a stand-alone tracking program of quarterly or semi-annual quantitative surveys with qualitative follow-up interviews. Such a comprehensive approach provides multiple benefits.

Senior management can access high-level indicators on brand performance against these key CEIs, while marketing, sales and insights teams gain deeper-dive data on which physician support programs are most effective—and how they could be enhanced to deliver even more powerfully. Furthermore, a tracking program could also identify new HCP pain points and needs as they arise.

Secure Success: Continually exceeding customer expectations

In sum, as pharma brands don the mantle of customer-centricity, we caution them to remember who their primary customers are—and to place full attention on not just providing added value, but on knowing what their physicians will value most. By harnessing ongoing periodic research, brands can garner deep real-time insights into the efficacy of their efforts, as well as uncover fresh opportunities to support physicians in their management of favorable patient outcomes. That can translate to enhanced business, increased prescribing volume, and significant revenue gains, the end-goal for all brands.


  1. Morgan, Blake. The Top 100 Most Customer-Centric Companies of 2022. Forbes. May 1, 2022. https://www.forbes.com/sites/blakemorgan/2022/05/01/the-top-100-most-customer-centric-companies-of-2022/?sh=592d67ba2b38
  2. Cornfield, Gene. The Most Important Metrics You’re Not Tracking (Yet). Harvard Business Review. April 30, 2020. https://hbr.org/2020/04/the-most-important-metrics-youre-not-tracking-yet
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