What’s The Difference Between Patient Centricity and Customer Focus?

This month David draws on his and our own experiences of past ‘centricity’ drives and asks: how can the industry avoid repeating the same past mistakes?



Some time ago now, the pharma industry seemed preoccupied with the idea of becoming more customer focused. It seemed like a strategy for the future, one that would help the industry better understand its’ customers and become more relevant to them during a period of product commoditization and reduced access.

Could it help differentiating one big pharma company from another in the eyes of their customer’s and could it drive improved business performance?

Customer focus held a lot of promise, so what happened?

It began as these things usually do, with a big bang. Pharma adopted the term with gusto and in good pharma fashion threw a lot of money at the issue. It was clear that up until this point, the industry as a whole was very inwardly focused and really did not understand its customers very well. Sure they understood the prescribing habits of their physician customers and the disease states that they worked in, but neither of these are enough to qualify as deep customer understanding. Indeed, most companies could not easily identify a customer when asked ‘who is your customer’? Were they physicians, or payers, regulators, patients, wholesalers, who?

There were a lot of different answers to this seemingly simply question. It’s a uniquely pharma problem given the complex nature of the industry and the large number of stakeholders. But it was a question that needed to be asked and one that most organisations worked hard to try and understand. 8 or 10 years ago, most would have agreed that physicians seemed like the most appropriate answer. And for some companies that was the direction Customer Focus went.

The objective then was to better understand their HCP customers. Of course, large field forces were common in those days, so getting the sales teams aligned with this new initiative seemed the most important first step.

For others though, the question was not so easily answered. What about patients? Payers. Pharmacists. Regulators and more? For these organisations it seemed less clear-cut, but the objectives were the same. Incorporate the customer’s thinking into the company’s approach. Put the customer at the centre.

All sound pretty familiar?

Yes, customer focus language is now often included in how the industry speaks, but this is supposed to be a participation sport, it needs action.

So many companies went off and began talking to customers, implementing CRM systems to capture customer information, closed loop marketing, looking at how they could use digital and alternative channels to engage customers. Training was often a major focus, certainly lots of talk, customer loyalty, the need to build trust, Net Promoter Score and more. And lots of bravado and supportive talk from many of the senior leaders. But what really changed?

From my own perspective I wish I could say a lot changed, but it really hasn’t. Yes, customer focus language is now often included in how the industry speaks, but this is supposed to be a participation sport, it needs action. Show me what behaviour is different? I don’t see a lot of change and I wonder if customers have noticed much either.

Let’s take Voice of the Customer as an example. 10 years ago this concept was relatively unheard of. The idea is simple: listen to your customers to try to better understand their needs.

Today, the concept is everywhere. Vendors use the term freely, selling services and technology solutions to meet pharma’s needs and so programs and initiatives abound. Take a look at pharma presentations and you’ll see VoC. It’s made its way into the pharma lexicon.

When you dig deeper into most of these programs you’ll see that it is often a change of name for good old fashioned customer feedback. Get customers to complete a satisfaction survey. Perhaps ask One Question. Get their input. Let’s call it VoC.

But really is that it? Getting customers to answer your questions – usually about topics that are most important to you, even if you leave a couple of lines for free text – is not VoC. VoC is about listening to customers about what is important to THEM and acting on it. Feedback is not VoC!

So pharma uses the term. Can be pleased with itself that it listens to its customers like never before. Job done!

For physicians the task looked simpler, we can develop more services, like CME programs – that’s meeting customer needs right? We can build some HCP portals right? Provide more relevant information to those physicians that are the most important prescribers of our products right? But fundamentally things stayed very much the same.

Sure, there were benefits, the inefficiencies of the traditional model were highlighted and some of the more silly practices identified and abandoned. But for most customers at least, there were no big changes. Sure, less reps; fewer teams selling the same product to the same physician, but pharma still saw physicians at a time of it’s choosing. They saw them as many times as they thought appropriate, to talk to them about things that were important to them. It still happens today.

It was very much a sales force led approach; indeed the marketing teams continued to behave much as they have always behaved. Producing product materials and initiatives that drive brand sales. Customer focus did not really impact them in a real and meaningful way – it seemed like a sales initiative. They, that is sales, are the ones after all that see customers.

Not very customer focused and not the original intent behind this strategy. I could go on, but let’s look briefly at Patient Centricity.

We need to put the ‘patient at the centre’. It has that familiar ring to it right out of the box. Everyone can nod their head and agree that this is important, after all, healthcare is about patients right? But what is pharma going to do with this concept?

What about understanding a patient’s lifecycle and their needs and looking at how we can help them meet their health goals?

This is big stuff, certainly a big change for pharma and it will require a significant change in mindset and intent but this is also a big and critical change for the whole of healthcare.

Like its predecessor Customer Focus, there will be a lot of training. Some new roles and perhaps some change in focus – we are already seeing a shift away from HCP’s to payers for example. There will be efforts to involve patients more right across the product life cycle…….wait! Let’s stop there, back up.

See what I did? I took a patient focused view and changed it back into pharma’s view of a patient.

‘We need to incorporate patient’s needs right across the lifecycle of our product’. Is this what patient centricity will turn out to be?

What about ‘incorporating our products into the patient’s life’? What about understanding a patient’s lifecycle and their needs and looking at how we can help them meet their health goals.

Therein lies the difference – one is folding patients into industry processes, the industry way of doing things; the other is the industry bending and adjusting to the will and requirements of the patient’s own needs.

This is a big difference. Will pharma be able to make the leap or will we see another example of the words being adopted but underneath very little changes.

We are at a critical point for healthcare and for pharma but getting words translated into genuine, serious action is no small task. We need to change some old bad behaviors and this is the sticking point. When we start seeing significant reallocation, and the key word is significant, reallocation of resources away from ‘the old model’ to a patient centric approach will we be truly on the journey.

Is the industry done with Customer Centricity, is that fad now consigned to history; to be replaced with Patient Centricity? Can anyone point to the huge economic gains any pharma company has made as a result of customer focus? I’m not sure I can, beyond some efficiency gains, and if Patient Centricity is the next big hope how can we avoid the mistakes of the past, thus ensuring full implementation rather than just another nice marketing phrase?


Questions or comments? You can share you thoughts with our audience in the comments section below, alternatively you can email the author directly at david@globalpartners.com.au.


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