Customer centricity: learn from other sectors

Pharma must take a serious look at other areas of business to learn how to deliver true, relevant customer centric thinking, which will lead to greater brand loyalty and success.

‘Customer centric culture’ is something that has been talked about in the pharma industry for some time, but few pharma companies actually deliver it to the same degree as their ‘non-pharma’ counterparts. Yet it is more important than ever as changing market models mean that consistently providing real customer value and positive customer ‘experience’ is ever more critical.

Achieving sustainable, long-term organic profit growth requires a combination of several elements: a clear, relevant customer promise that is valued; delivering on that promise consistently; continuously improving on it; periodically innovating beyond the familiar; and supporting all this with an organisation that’s open to new ideas and market feedback.

However, if we are honest, though the words ‘customer centric’ are used, this kind of culture is not widespread in pharma.

So what is a ‘customer centric culture’? Simply, it is about understanding your brand value and delivering it consistently to customers. This doesn’t mean meeting every customer’s need, nor satisfying every customer. It means focusing on the things they value most that link to your overall business strategy and brand promise. The essence of marketing strategy…

“They all recognise satisfied customers as one of the pillars of long-term success”


The world’s most valuable brands make significant investments to ensure that they can deliver on their customer promises day after day. Although the business operations of companies such as Google, Apple, UPS, Gillette and Amazon vary greatly, they all recognise satisfied customers as one of the pillars of long-term success. It is no surprise that all of these companies are also recognised as leading innovators.

Customer satisfaction builds trust, a key component of a valuable brand, which in turn supports innovation. In fact, every successful innovation strengthens the brand, while a strong brand encourages customers to try the company’s new offerings and even makes them a little more forgiving if these don’t immediately deliver as promised. Companies underestimate this link between customer satisfaction, innovation and growth at their peril.

So immediately we hit some challenges.

‘Brand’ marketing is about the whole customer interaction, yet too often in pharma we just focus on the tangible product or the ‘brand’ as a name and a visual expression of its essence. A truly strong and successful ‘brand’ has a number of different components, which together build the customer experience of that ‘brand’ as a whole.

Every valuable brand has two shared attributes: customer awareness (within the relevant market) and trust. Awareness can be achieved through market presence and communications, but trust must be earned by delivering on the brand promise and building familiarity over time. Great brands are based on great customer experience, and then reinforced with excellent communications — not the other way round.

Positive customer experience has been central to the success of Apple for many years. In addition to capturing headlines with its bold product innovations, Apple develops the infrastructure and support required to ensure that its products live up to customer expectations.

Innovation in the molecular sense is a challenge. We all know that the timelines, complexity and regulatory hurdles within pharmaceutical development make major, rapid product innovation difficult.


“Over-emphasis on trying to identify breakthrough projects can distract from seeing customers’ immediate needs”



So perhaps we need to look elsewhere and think differently about innovation. It’s important for any innovative company to strike the right balance; over-emphasis on trying to identify breakthrough projects can distract from seeing customers’ immediate needs. We all know from our own experience that customers can’t reliably identify their latent needs, nor can they tell you whether they would buy such a product if they could.

But that’s not the point. It is better to change our perspective from ‘completely new, never been seen before’ to ‘beyond the familiar’. The latter builds on what customers already know, rather than asking customers to gamble on something completely different that the company may or may not be able to deliver profitably.

Again, Apple is a good example of this. Well-known for systematically rethinking existing product categories from the user’s perspective, it learns from the technology pioneers and from its own early mistakes, and relentlessly improves functionality and ease of use (building on what is already familiar and intuitive to customers), while still ensuring high reliability and stunningly attractive design. Its brand promise is based on making technology accessible and attractive to the wider market, not on breakthrough functionality that only geeks will find useful.

Though seen as an innovator, Apple is not a technology pioneer. The early Mac wasn’t the first personal computer with a graphical user interface. Likewise, MP3 players were common before the iPod, and iTunes wasn’t the first online music store. Yet it is Apple that dominates portable music players and, more recently, smartphones with the iPhone.

In each case, Apple’s customers really don’t care whether the technologies are radical or incremental or whether Apple was first. Their main concern is that the products meet real needs and that they are attractive, easy to use, reliable and offer ‘value’.

So what could a truly ‘customer centric’ approach be for the pharmaceutical industry?

First of all, listen. Understanding what truly satisfies customers, and even more importantly, what causes dissatisfaction, is key. Really knowing what is important to them is critical (i.e. being relevant). This helps us understand the aspects of the brand ‘promise’ that we need to consistently deliver on. For example, we cannot ignore the fact that physicians want to understand how the brand works in the real world as opposed to the clinical trial setting; nor that payers want to understand the true value it brings to healthcare delivery, rather than the theoretical value.

Next it is all about creating trust with the customer. This comes from the customer’s whole experience of the ‘brand’. The underlying product needs to deliver consistently on its ‘promise’, one part of which is to meet or exceed performance expectations. We can help that by ensuring the product is used in the right patients.

When it comes to innovation, it is as much about the customer experience of using the brand as it is about an entirely new molecule. For some brands this can mean innovating the delivery mechanism. For others, perhaps, it is about providing a stream of evidence that fits neatly with where the physicians are heading in their treatment thinking.

Relevance and value are central to any good customer experience. Too often we do not offer the optimum level of either.


About the author:

Russell Powter is managing consultant at Cello Health Consulting. He can be contacted at

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