December 1, 2021

Pharma Customer Experience: Sean McDade, Ph.D

Pharma Customer Experience: 20 Secrets to 10X Your CX and Boost Patient Outcomes is a book that reveals 20 secrets that pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies are using today to connect emotionally with their customers, both patients and healthcare professionals. In an increasingly competitive environment, it’s no longer enough for pharma to develop drugs and technologies that treat, cure, or relieve the symptoms of a disease. 

To be truly customer-centric, building long-term reliable customer relationships, pharma must learn to treat patients and healthcare professionals the way that hotels treat their guests. In Pharma Customer Experience, Sean McDade presents 20 powerful strategies all easy to implement, that can turn pharma companies into exceptional customer-centric organizations. Here’s my conversation with Sean McDade.

Welcome to The Author Hour Podcast. I’m your host Benji Block and today, I’m thrilled to be joined by Sean McDade, he’s just come out with a new book. The book is titled, Pharma Customer Experience: 20 Secrets to 10X Your CX and Boost Patient Outcomes. Sean, thanks for being on Author Hour here today.

Sean McDade: Thanks for having me, Benji, really excited to be here.

Benji Block: Absolutely. Sean, give us some context, talk a little bit about the work that you’re doing and maybe what led to the writing of this book?

Sean McDade: Yeah, thanks. My company is called PeopleMetrics. We’ve been around for over 20 years now and for those 20 years, we’ve been helping companies measure and improve the customer experience and for most of that, we’ve worked with the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sector to help them better understand their customers and more recently, improve their customer experience. This book that I just wrote is all about how pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies have an incredible opportunity to better serve customers even outside producing incredible medications like the vaccines that we’re all— or most of us are enjoying and allowing us to get back to normal. This book is all about how pharma can better treat their customers and serve them better.

Benji Block: Now, this is actually your second book. Why was this the right time to write this second one and who do you imagine kind of picking it up and reading it?

Sean McDade: Right. My first book, Listen or Die, was kind of a catch-all for all industries around how to measure and improve the customer experience. Over the last five years or so, we’ve been doing a lot of work with pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, helping them first of all identify who their customers are and how they can better serve them and it just seemed to be the right time to write this book because first of all, I didn’t see any other book focusing on how pharma and biotech can improve the customer experience and we had so much experience and like, “Okay, I’ve got to get this out of my head and onto paper and share it with that industry.” And I hope it’s valuable.

Benji Block: Absolutely. Who is the person picking this up and reading it? What’s the main problem that you’re addressing?

Sean McDade: Yeah, it’s a niche book, Benji, right? It’s pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies in general, so that’s a subset of many industries but it’s them and it’s really anybody at those companies from say, a C-suite executive who is trying to create a culture focused on the customer, down to patient support services teams who are every day helping patients onboard to new medications and helping healthcare professionals, physicians understand how to support their patient when they’re getting a new diagnosis for a disease and therapy has been prescribed and having those patients have a seamless onboarding experience.

It’s insights people within pharma companies. There’s lots of them and this book is right up their alley, market research and insights people. I think almost anyone at a pharmaceutical company working there or interested in the industry would benefit from this book because it’s just a different perspective and I think you really think about it when you think about pharma, which has been very product-driven for a long time rather than customer-driven.

Adding Human Connection to the Pharma Experience

Benji Block: Yup. I would say, I only think about product when I think of pharma, so this book was interesting. Obviously, I’m outside of that world and that context but it’s fascinating to read and I’m excited to jump into some of the content here with you.

You said that this book is about mindset more than anything. Specifically, it’s about pharma changing its mindset from one focused on developing products to one focused on delivering experiences. Expound on that a little bit for me and what kind of prompted that for you?

Sean McDade: Well, I think you see that in almost every industry now that as products become more commoditized, experiences become really special and that’s how you can differentiate. Pharma is really no different. We know that pharma products get patented and that’s kind of their protection for a while but in many categories, there’s many products that physicians can choose from and it comes down to not only the efficacy of the product— and of course, that has to be very good and comparable to others— it’s also about how does the HCP and the patient feel when they’re onboarding on to the new medication and do they feel supported by the pharmaceutical company like their part of their team as they’re trying to achieve better health and better medical outcomes. 

It is a subtle shift. It’s still all about— pharma is all about creating great medicines that solve a problem meaning, either save someone’s life or extend them. But when you can also help a patient who say, has difficulty going to a treatment center to get their injection, if you could help them get there more efficiently or more or easily— I write this in the book— and you can give them some transportation options, then you’re becoming more than a provider of a product, you’re a part of their solution and they’re just going to feel much better about the experience and you’re going to— we all [are] going to have much better outcomes both medically and financially for the pharmaceutical company.

Benji Block: What do you think got us to where we are, where maybe pharma companies seem a little bit removed from customer experience and need this almost as like a bit of a wake-up call? You see it in other industries, but I would say, this is one where they’re not associated with each other, customer experience is not really in the purview quite yet or it’s emerging maybe. What do you think has got us here where there’s that distant feeling?

Sean McDade: Yeah, you know, first of all, pharma has always been about market. I mean, market research is a huge part about pharma, right? They’ve always been seeking feedback from patients and HCPs and others to better understand things like what’s the market landscape, what’s the best message we can go out with? Some pricing issues, all sorts of things they’ve used customer feedback on.

What they’ve been a little bit behind compared to other industries— everything from say, hospitality to telecommunications to some other industries— is, do we continuously measure in real-time and experience my customer has and then understand it in real-time and improve it in real-time and overtime.

That’s something that they haven’t been doing and the reason is previously, they haven’t had a lot of direct contact with what I would call the ultimate customer, the patient. The patient’s always been kind of this— they are at arm’s length away. The physician’s the one who, pharmaceutical companies think of [as] their main customer. Yeah, they’ve had sales reps interact with physicians and they’ve tried to, they have symposia, they have all these other ways that they can interact with physicians, but the patient has been sort of far down the line.

Now, I think they’re rethinking this especially with all the support services they’re offering direct to patients, which has completely changed their relationship with them, and I think they’ve been given an opportunity to have a more direct relationship with that patient and create a better experience for them and have more of an emotional connection with the patient rather than a very transactional relationship.

Transactional relationship is, “Okay, we’re providing you with this medication, you’re going to get better.” An emotional connection is, “We’re part of your team that’s going to help you get better and we’re going to be with you throughout your journey.” Those are two very different mindsets I believe.

Benji Block: Yeah, it’s a more human connection, I think it attaches people to their “why” a lot more, so I love that. When you think of pharma’s customers, you talk about that a bit because the patient, there are several things that flow into that. Can you define that for us? Who is pharma’s customers?

Sean McDade: I think they have to think of it themselves and define that. Most pharma companies, and I have this in the book, in their mission statement, talk about being patient-centric at some level.

Benji Block: Yeah, you gave great examples.

Sean McDade: Right. If you’re saying you’re patient-centric, to me, that means the patient is certainly a primary customer, if not the ultimate customer. I think for most pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, the HCP or physician is the other customer that’s really, really important to them. We address both of those customers; I address both of those customers in this book. I think they’re co-customers. I would argue the patient is the ultimate customer, simply because that’s what you’re ultimately trying to drive is better patient outcomes.

Extending lives, saving lives, higher quality of life, and, as the patient becomes more on the forefront, there are ways that pharma can directly impact and interact with patients that they’re not even, I think, thinking about right now. There are some ideas in this book, and this is just the beginning, but everything from patients that they recruit to a clinical trial as they’re testing a new medication and hopefully getting FDA approval, to when they’re launching a new product and they’re providing support services for new patients to onboard, there are all these opportunities that they have now to support patients like I said, in their treatment journey.

The patient, I would think has to be a key part of that and I think we’re seeing that that’s patient centricity is a key term that most of these companies are using.

Benji Block: Are there main differences or things that have to be different between Pharma CX and other industries in your mind?

Sean McDade: I mean, there’s a regulatory barrier in pharma and I cover this very early in the book. I just want to set the stage that hotels, for instance, can do things for customers that pharmaceutical companies can’t for their customers.

Okay, there’s no question about it and there’s a lot of federal laws around— especially around the physicians and HCPs— around kickbacks not being allowed and there’s only so much that you can do in that realm. We’re not really talking about kickbacks and my argument is the best customer experience companies aren’t bribing their customers. They’re understanding their needs and delivering experiences that fit their current situation.

I think you have to be aware that there are these regulatory hurdles, and I did my best, Benji, to outline the key ones in the book but beyond those, there’s still a tremendous opportunity to make patients feel better about the process they go through when they’re onboarding and using a medication over time, especially for a chronic disease where they’re getting a prescription consistently.

My argument is, once you onboard a patient, you can’t forget about them, right? There’s other ways you can support them with their journey like, “Okay, how do I travel with this medication? As my disease changes, are there any other things that I have to worry about? How can I— how does my mental health and physical stature impact my ability to work and be better with regard to outcomes in this disease?”

There’s a lot of things outside of— in their purview that they can do to create a much better experience for patients in the long term.

Adapting Experiences and Support to Meet the Patient’s Needs

Benji Block: Yeah, support is such a keyword I think because you think of sales a lot but the support in the long run, actually leads to a lot of growth, so I love what you’re saying there. What would you say are some of those main differences? Because you hit on this a little bit earlier that they do market research but then we have Pharma CX, which you’re defining differently. Just quickly, what are some of those main differences?

Sean McDade: Right, so let me define Pharma CX as at least the way we look at it.

Benji Block: Yeah. 

Sean McDade: Pharma CX is about intentionally creating experiences for your customers, so they just don’t happen by chance and you do that by mapping out the patient and the HCP journey on how they’re interacting with you. Then you’re measuring those experiences in real-time so it’s a consistent measurement and then you’re managing those experiences by either taking action on an individual experience to make it right or making changes to everybody’s experience so everybody’s experience improves and you see whether that change worked. 

It’s a different approach than what market research typically does, which is we have— market research is about, “I want to know an answer to this question. How do HCPs perceive our product versus the competition?” We get an answer to that question and then we make changes and we’re done. This is about continuous real-time measurement and it’s about actively managing the experiences over time. 

That’s what’s really different about Pharma CX than regular CX— I’m sorry, than market research— and there is a big parallel between Pharma CX and what we do in other industries also. 

Benji Block: In section two, you address Pharma CX in clinical and commercial and you talk about it’s no longer about launching just products but launching experiences. I’d love to hear your take there and expanding on that a bit. 

Sean McDade: Yeah, so Pharma CX applies to commercial and clinical. In clinical trials— and we do work with pharmaceutical companies around this— when they have a global clinical trial, they’ll have trial sites in many different countries, and they’re recruiting patients to come and participate in those trials. The experience those patients have [are] not around the medication itself but just around everything else from, “Do I know how to get to the trial site? Am I greeted with respect? Do the materials and instructions around the trial make sense to me and I understand them? Am I able to provide feedback at each stage of the trial around how the experience was in participating on this?” Good experiences mean that trials will have enough patients to finish and retention in trials and recruiting people is really tough. 

When they have a good experience in the clinical trial realm, you tend to have a much better trial itself and so it applies to clinical and as well as product launches and commercial. We talked about support, Benji, we just talked about that. Like I said, pharmaceutical companies have these groups called patient support services and their sole job is to help patients and HCPs first have a seamless onboarding experience to a new medication and then help them what they call adhere over time. 

Meaning they continue to be able to take the medication seamlessly throughout the life of the disease, which is sometimes the rest of their lives. And these support groups are there to do just that and naturally, that applies to Pharma CX because they’re constantly interacting with patients; there are key touchpoints that need to be measured, usually, it is some sort of call center that they set up either with dedicated case managers if it’s a rare disease—  

A case manager, Benji, is somebody who is an expert in this disease and everything that goes along with being able to, first of all, find insurance to finding where to find the drug, to how to administer it and other things. They’re available all the time and they are talking to patients and HCPs consistently and we’re helping our clients measure that experience all time and get better and it certainly applies to both clinical and commercial. 

There is a bunch of other used cases I think in the future that will come up but these are the couple that we dealt with in the book.

Benji Block: Instead of “trial” maybe we should use the word “event”. It sounds like it’s this holistic approach [which] I think is just so smart because there are so many factors that play into how someone experiences the event as a whole, the trial as a whole or just their interaction, right? 

Sean McDade: Without a doubt. 

Benji Block: You mention this shift to digital, which I think obviously— I mean, we are talking from different places right now. We’re living in a very digital age, what does that look like as you think of patient support and creating these digital experiences? 

Sean McDade: Yeah, I think you know this is going to become more and more important and it is. I mean, every new drug that gets launched has some sort of digital support attached to it whether it’s a very focused rare disease with just hundreds of thousands of patients, to sort of a mass-market medication, pharmaceutical companies are investing in digital assets that help patients and HCPs understand the disease. 

Understand everything about how to get it, how to get the product, what to expect and these can be regular websites, they can be portals, specifically for given diseases that patients only get access to the portal. It is not available to the general public, and you know, every product, no matter how big it is, will have this and the question is, is it something that’s a great experience for the patient? Is it easily understandable? 

Is it something that they can navigate through and get what they want quickly and if they can’t, do they have another resource that they can have their questions answered? Those are the type more in-depth questions people have to think about from a digital perspective but there is no doubt, the world is moving digitally, and pharma is moving with it. 

Benji Block: Sean, how would you like to see digital used? If you were designing something like this, how could it be improved from what you’ve seen? 

Sean McDade: That’s a good question. I think they’re generally doing a good job with digital. Benji, I think they are putting out the information that needs to be put out. I would say that the way that it could improve is just engagement, right? Sometimes, these sites can be pretty dense in terms of the information provided and we understand that all the information that needs to be provided is in there but just serve the way that it’s presented to patients and HCPs could be sort of easier to understand, more engaging. 

It could be more personalized I think with regards to specific apps and portals that could be created just for the patient. The digital part is always evolving and I think we can’t even imagine what it might be in five years with AI and all this stuff that’s part of the world today, where I could imagine a day where patient support service is offered in a digital format at a high level of accuracy and it could move some of the call center services that are offered today towards that medium, but we’re I think a little bit away from that. 

Improving the Customer’s Experience

Benji Block: Okay, so we’ve talked a lot at scale, but we have to kind of start somewhere with this, right? What would be some of those may be the first baby steps to consider? 

Sean McDade: To move towards Pharma CX, if you’re a pharmaceutical company?

Benji Block: Exactly, yeah, as a whole when we’re thinking of Pharma CX.

Sean McDade: Yeah, I think it’s identifying what are the ways you’re interacting with patients right now, that’s where I would start. Do you have clinical trials going on and are they global? If they’re global, then it’s a great opportunity to identify what the experiences are at different trial sites and whether there are certain trial sites that are doing a much better job at the customer experience than others. That is a great place to start. 

Patient support services, I think, for all pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies is a perfect place to begin. This is where you have interactions with patients whether they be purely digital like we just talked about, where you’re putting up a website or portal and helping patients that way, measuring, reaching out to patients who are hitting that portal or website. Understanding their perceptions are huge, or if it is more of a high-touch model and you have a call center set up, being deliberate about understanding what kind of value are your case managers delivering to your patients. 

Which interactions are going well, which aren’t, why not, why and why not, and making active changes to improve the experience those patients have. We have data, Benji, that shows that patients who have a great experience with patient support services almost always on board, and those who say they have less than a great experience, about a third of them indicate they’re not confident onboarding to a new medication. 

This is real money and more important than money, these are medical outcomes we’re talking about. You know, I talk in my book, we’ve worked in a lot of different industries at my company over the years and it’s one thing to help say a hotel make the checkout experience better based on customer feedback— and that’s important, we all know how frustrating that can be. 

Benji Block: But the stakes just aren’t quite as high. 

Sean McDade: Yeah, the stakes here are okay. The stakes of onboarding onto a lifesaving medication, this is really important and even if you’re sitting there as a pharmaceutical company saying, “Well, 75% of this is out of my control.” Even if 25% of it is in your control and that 25% can impact whether a patient onboards to a new medication, it’s totally worth it. 

Benji Block: That’s good. 

Sean McDade: What you’re doing is so important even on the margins, even making that experience just a little bit easier, a little bit with less friction to help that patient understand this disease state and onboard onto a new medication through support that you’re offering however you’re offering it, that can make a huge difference and it is totally worth the effort. 

Benji Block: Yep. You give away 20 secrets in this book, 20 secrets to 10X your CX, so there’s a lot of content and I wonder just as we start to wrap this up, is there anything else you’d kind of want to highlight here before people actually go and pick up the book?

Sean McDade: You know that we try to make it accessible where there are these secrets that we’ve learned over the years and some of them you’re going to read and say, “That’s not a secret. I know this” but hopefully the examples that we give reinforces that. I mean, I guess what I’d say is— and we talked about this in the beginning and maybe this can wrap this up— if you want to be truly patient-centric or customer-centric, then the patient or customer needs [a] voice, needs to be a regular and vital part of how you do business. 

It’s not a market research study every once in a while that gets you there, it’s setting up a listening post, we call it, around a moment of truth, which means that if it goes poorly— moments of truth simply mean if it goes poorly then there’s the patient’s in danger of a behavior that you don’t want like not onboarding onto a new medication or complaining to a relative about the process. 

Then you know, starting there and then measuring that moment of truth continuously and in real-time and managing it and sharing that information throughout your patient support team, your insights teams and even your brand and product teams, that’s really how you become patient-centric. You include the patient as part of your organization on a day-to-day basis not on a periodic basis, not every six months, every couple of years we’re going to do a study. 

It is bringing their voice in every day so you know that you’re serving them the best you can, that’s sort of how I’d summarize it. 

Benji Block: Thanks for sharing your insights with us today, Sean. It’s been a pleasure to get to chat with you about your new book. For those that want to stay connected to the work you’re doing, where can people find you maybe online?

Sean McDade: Yeah, so our website, We have a Pharma CX blog that’s easy to subscribe to, it is right on our home page. We do a web series, webinar series every month. We do a Pharma CX topic that I and my colleagues talk about for a half-hour or so and that is called PeopleMetrics Live, you can sign up for that and that’s all through our website. Everything you need to know is there and yeah, that’s where I would certainly suggest people go. 

Benji Block: Well, the book is called, Pharma Customer Experience: 20 Secrets to 10X Your CX and Boost Patient Outcomes. Sean, it’s been a privilege to talk to you here on Author Hour and best of luck as this resource gets out into the world. 

Sean McDade: Thanks for having me, Benji, it was a blast. 

Benji Block: Awesome.