Customer experience in pharma: Getting the journey right

As part of a series of interviews in partnership with Indegene focusing on the customer experience in pharma, AstraZeneca’s global consumer marketing director Melissa Fellner tells Paul Tunnah how the industry can be exceptional to its customers

What is your background? Where did your passion for customer experience come from?

My grandfather died of cancer when I was eight and I didn’t understand why we couldn’t just give him medicine to help him. That started my passion of figuring out how to create and deliver medicines to help people.

I started out as a scientist. I have done roles in clinical trial monitoring, pharmaceutical consulting, market access and patient services, and eventually marketing for the US. I’m currently leading global consumer marketing for respiratory biologics, as well as creating synergies between commercial brands across our portfolio.

I’ve always had a customer service mindset, and have been inspired by novel clinical developments and technologies that truly make a difference in peoples’ lives. When we keep the patient at the centre of key decisions, the rest can fall in place.

How do you personally define customer experience?

It is the impression you make on your customer as a result of the relationship they have with you, with your organisation and more importantly with your product and/or service you offer. A good experience means all points of contact meet the person’s expectations. Hopefully, you delight and surprise them!


“We initially hired experts in reimbursement for our call centre, but later we moved into hiring people that had customer-service experience. It’s much easier to teach someone about reimbursement than it is to teach them how to be empathetic over the phone.”


That’s a really nice way of describing it. How do we do that then? What do you see as the components of good customer experience?

Good customer experience creates value for people. I think there are four key components to creating value: people, process, products, and technology. When you understand your customer’s needs, and some, or all, of these components work seamlessly together, customer experience meets people’s needs and creates consistency, resulting in positive emotions and customer loyalty.

One example of getting the ‘people’ component right came when I was running our reimbursement call centre at AstraZeneca. We initially hired people that were experts in reimbursement, but later we moved into hiring people that had richer customer-service experience. This worked a lot better because they naturally wanted to help people and had strong empathy. It’s much easier to teach someone about reimbursement than it is to teach them how to be empathetic over the phone.

When it comes to ‘process’, it’s important to simplify the steps a customer needs to take to access a product or use a service. For example, it is difficult to get patients involved in support programmes because they are typically enrolled by a healthcare provider if they have time, requiring completing and sending in a form. One interesting approach I’ve seen that simplifies this was to put a barcode on a product’s packaging that patients scan to enrol in the support programme, so they could do it in one step at home instead of many steps at the doctor’s office.

In pharma, ‘product’ typically refers to medicines – but the industry is starting to change the focus from producing and selling medicines to providing disease management support along with treatments. This represents an opportunity to use technology to engage with people throughout their lives and to complement their treatment experience with information and lifestyle support. Pharma can integrate medicines, services, and marketing with technology, allowing a person to engage from their phone or device in their home. This integration will result in more meaningful experiences for customers because it looks at a person holistically to help with clinical, logistical, and emotional aspects of health.


“Pharma has a lot of data, but many times we come up short on insights”


What are the key challenges in pharma that we need to overcome to improve customer experience?

I believe the key challenges are:

  1. Clearly understanding customer’s needs, and then making efforts to always prioritise customer requirements
  2. Create a customised map to help customers navigate through the regulations
  3. Be aligned or ahead of the evolving technology

Pharma has a lot of data, but many times we come up short on insights.

We may have segments of healthcare professionals but not really know how we fit into their lives and what motivates them to help their patients. Often we focus on a few patient types but don’t learn about their loved ones who may be driving health decisions. Pharma has been historically driven by revenue and profit, not customers’ priorities, but adopting customer experience management is critical to differentiating in a crowded market.

Secondly, while we need regulations to keep patients safe, I believe some aspects of customer engagement could use an update. With services, many pharma companies keep various programmes separate for compliance reasons. This can make it difficult to get all the information and support HCPs, patients, and their loved ones need.

Pharma can also improve its  ‘medical storytelling’ to patients . One of the most important ways to tell an impactful story is using real patient and HCP experiences to help customers understand a disease and make treatment decisions.

However, authenticity in medical storytelling can often present challenges because of the inherently strict requirement for total alignment with the label or the potential to be perceived as interfering in care by urging patients to ask for a review. Currently we focus on the delivery of the strongest story within the context of what is acceptable, but this doesn’t always represent the voice of the customer.

What are some good examples of customer experience you’ve seen outside of pharma that the industry can learn from?

The airline Southwest is known for their customer service – one example of how they do this is by monitoring social posts in real-time in order to respond to people who are having issues. Recently, a man waiting to board one of their planes was tweeting about how he was unhappy about waiting for so long. The customer experience people saw his post and immediately wrote back and said, “Hey, thanks for the catch. We’re going to get some people out there right away to help you.”

Then some employees went to that counter and started to help the line move faster. The customer responded positively to that on Twitter. Then they had a manager go up to the original customer to shake his hand and thank him for the feedback. That all happened in seven minutes.

That’s the kind of customer experience I would love to get us to in pharma – real-time support, real-time response, accurate and relevant information provided when it’s needed.

Is there anything more short-term you think we can do?

You can collect and share data on how customers perceive your company, so that you can start to measure customer experience and understand where your customers’ pain points might be. That might suggest very simple changes, such as where you recruit for clinical trials or how you answer the phone.

AstraZeneca is starting to look at real-time measuring – assessing our content to see what the ultimate outcome of a message or resource is. We look at peoples’ engagement and the outcomes to see if something is working as intended to help our patients, their loved ones, and their health providers.

Through evaluating digital attribution in near real-time we’re able to review much more consistently and identify trends in how people are really using the information and services we’re providing.

How do you see pharma’s relationship with its customers changing if it gets all this right?

Pharma clinical, medical, and commercial groups are all using new technology and a focus on customer experience to build ongoing relationships.

For example, the industry is starting to design clinical trials based on what is meaningful for patients, investing in integrated disease management support, executing value-based contracts, and using omnichannel marketing to facilitate the experience that will make a difference in a customer’s life.

When people have a positive experience, this will ultimately increase the trust people have in pharma. My hope is that by providing value for each customer, we can ultimately build a closer relationship with all stakeholders, including patients and their loved ones.

About the interviewee

Melissa Fellner is a global consumer marketing director, respiratory biologics, at AstraZeneca. She has more than 20 years of US and global experience in the areas of medicine research, commercialisation, and marketing managing enterprise-level patient transformations in oncology, neurology, infectious disease, and respiratory science. Most recently, she helped AstraZeneca transform its focus in specialty medicines to bring patients to the forefront.