Building trust with customers is achievable. But is it worth the effort?

Individual companies need to embrace the issue of trust and not wait for the industry as a whole to act.

It seems that most folks agree that the industry is suffering from a trust deficit and that it needs to change the way it is perceived, but I think it is important to say that while this is a problem common throughout the industry, it is a problem that needs to be addressed by each individual company and they should not wait for the industry as a whole to act.

Why?  A couple of reasons stand out: it is incredibly difficult to change the perception of a whole industry. There is always likely to be an individual company that 'lets the whole side down’, and the other reason is that there should be an incredible competitive advantage to the company that changes its behavior and is perceived as being different and better than any of its competitors.

Implementing Change

I don’t think we need to discuss the economic benefits of being trusted or the compelling benefits of being a trusted organisation, let's take that as a given, and focus on some of the practical measures that can be taken to build trust with customers and stakeholders.

It’s actually not that hard, and contrary to popular belief, it does not take too long and it is not expensive, but it does require change.

So, like most programs, this is all about change management and as such requires some basic fundamentals:

  • Clear ownership linked to the executive committee and responsible for installation into the company culture
  • Senior level active sponsorship
  • Articulate the need for change, the burning platform
  • A clear, succinct, well articulated strategy, preferably one that is written down and available across the organization
  • This is not a project, or a pilot, or a test. This is how the organization as a whole will operate from now on
  • Provide tools and training so that people know what to do
  • Align rewards and recognition to outcomes

There is nothing in this list that is new or difficult per se. The issues exist around implementation and execution.

First, it is important to keep in mind that this requires action, not words. Telling stakeholders that they should "trust you" most often has the opposite effect. When the Chief Executive Officer of Pfizer, Ian Read recently told UK MP’s that they needed to trust him in the potential AZ merger, the message probably did not have the effect Mr. Read intended. Building trust and being trustworthy are built by actions over time.

I think most of us, as human beings know what it takes to build trust. Identifying what needs to be done is relatively easy and most corporations would already have a pretty clear idea of what needs to be done. Doing it is another issue.

Shift from self-interest towards transparency

 When an individual or company is focused on itself first, and has an expectation of reciprocity then it is difficult to be trusted".

Charles Green, author of Trust Based Selling, identifies the single most important behavior that limits building trust, and for him it is ‘self-interest’. When an individual or company is focused on itself first, and has an expectation of reciprocity then it is difficult to be trusted.

In other words, I will only do this because I get a benefit from doing it and I expect something in return.

Pharma have a reputation and track record of not only being internally-focused but also self-absorbed so this shift away from self-interest is going to be hard.

So what can a pharma company do today?

My recommendation is to start small, after all it is the little things that have the most power to surprise and delight customers (they expect the big things to work and to be right).

Again, Charles Green’s recipe for building trust is:

  • Speak more truth
  • Intimacy – take more risks
  • Reliability – do more service
  • Self-orientation – think more of others

David Horsager in his book Edge of  Truth has 8 foundational pillars:

  • Consistency
  • Clarity – people trust what is clear
  • Compassion – think beyond yourself
  • Character – do what is right over what is easy
  • Contribution – results are powerful in building trust
  • Competency – staying fresh, relevant and capable
  • Connection –  ask questions, listen, establish genuine connections
  • Commitment – stick with it

There is no rocket science here but it takes effort and purpose, and in pharma’s case a commitment to make it happen. For me, the biggest hurdles for the industry are twofold; transparency and self-interest.

Let’s look at these two aspects in more detail and while they are obviously closely related it is worth looking at them individually.

Transparency is more than just around clinical trials, although there continues to be heated debate on this topic as there is around pricing, and while the industry is addressing aspects of both of these, they remain major stumbling blocks.

Of course, the current approach is usually defended on the basis of commercial sensitivity, and while this is true to some extent, it should not stop the company being more transparent than it is today. And there are other things that can be done.

Powerful Tools: co-creation

For example with Account Management, does your company have a clear account plan for each account, is it written down, measured and monitored and most importantly, was it co-created with the client and shared with them and agreed with them? Building a plan with the customer, sharing with them the measures that you will use and the success measures you will both be comfortable with is an amazing way to build trust. If you want to build trust – and build fantastic relationships, building account plans like these are very powerful tools.

Self-interest is perhaps more complex. Today, many folks look at the industry and see ‘profits before patients’ and this perception is reinforced with pricing policies, the single minded focus on the company’s brands, the aggressive push around adherence, the approach to side effects and more.

In a trusting relationship, customers do not need to be convinced by companies that they have their best interests in mind, they know it. Pharma has a long way to go before its customer base is convinced that they have their best interests at heart.

The solution to both lack of transparency and self interest are action orientated – pharma needs to be proactive and look for opportunities to engage stakeholders and, as you look down this list of some of the things one can do to build trust, it is remarkable how similar the list is to what needs to be done to be more customer- or patient-focused. Indeed, it is hard to be patient-focused without having a level of two-way trust established, and this is clearly one of the reasons that such past initiatives have failed to produce the promised impact.

17 things you could start doing today that would help build trust:

  • Conduct meetings as if the customer was sitting at the table with you. How would that change your meetings?
  • Share objectives and plans with customers – not just brand plans. Be transparent!
  • Co-create account plans
  • Measure what is important to customers and share the results
  • Access your metrics for success and ensure a correct balance between long and short term objectives
  • Look beyond ROI to customer lifetime value and return-on-customer to ensure you are actively increasing customer value by building trust
  • Talk about customers, often and everywhere
  • Learn about customers, be curious, and share customer stories
  • Invite customers to become involved in customer advisory boards to have input into company strategy and planning (not brands)
  • Begin every problem solving discussion by asking what would be in the customers' best interest
  • Provide easier access to clinical trial data
  • Stop pushing brand messages through marketing detail aids and truly engage customers in discussions that are more relevant to them
  • Encourage customer feedback – they don’t all want to talk to you about side effects, they have other concerns that you could help them with if you bothered to ask.
  • Engage the legal department and involve them in what needs to change – get them involved early with a clear expectation that their role is to help make this happen.
  • Be clear about expectations. Just because some of this is hard, don’t let it get derailed.
  • Dare to be different.
  • Involve all customer types not just HCP’s. Building trust with patients, payers, hospitals is critical.

Most important though is to stop doing things that do not actively build trust. Pharma does a lot of ‘stuff’ with customers, and like customer centricity and it’s newer relative, patient centricity, it is often thought of as doing something else, on top of what you have always done before. This is not an additive model, indeed, often doing less is more effective and in the case of building trust it is imperative that the company stop doing things that do not build trust.

And for most of pharma this is incredibly difficult to do.

Align with customer values

Accenture wrote about the need to build trust and the importance of ‘aligning business strategy with customer values’ where company vision, messages and offerings are aligned with their customers' core values. This alignment demonstrates to customers that the company is not merely focused on generating a profit.

How well aligned is most of pharma’s strategy with customers, for example payers? In simple terms, payers want to improve patient outcomes and reduce the costs of healthcare delivery while maintaining quality and they want their customers to be satisfied with the healthcare they are receiving. And while pharma can clearly align with better patient outcomes, for pharma, that can only come at a price.

Marilyn Carlson Nelson, ex-CEO Carlson Companies, summed it up very well: ‘trust reduces transaction cost, it reduces the need for litigation and speeds commerce, it actually lubricates organisations and societies’.

Sounds like a whole lot of effort, but is it worth it? For me, I am not sure how you can become patient-centric or customer-focused or continue to be successful when so many of your customers don’t trust you and don’t see your company as trustworthy.

Only time will tell.

The Patient Summit 2014

Jun 17, 2014 - Jun 18, 2014, London

An integrated approach to patient-centric outcomes