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Why pharma must get smart in its approach to customer engagement

In the first of our three-part Smarter Strategies series, Wilmington Healthcare’s Simon Grime considers how pharma can now perfect the use of good old customer-centric methods to deliver a more precise way of engaging the new NHS customer.

It’s been estimated that the impact of COVID-19 has accelerated by up to five years the need to reimagine pharma’s approach to engaging its traditional customer-base of healthcare professional (HCPs) with the forced adoption of digital communications, opening up a range of customer-centric marketing techniques first employed at scale by retail pioneers in the 1990s, such as the celebrated Dunn Humby data-driven work to build a clear understanding of customer buying behaviours for Tesco.

For an industry traditionally slow to embrace change, the scale and abruptness of the shift has been stark. McKinsey’s research into the impact of COVID-19 shows in-person contacts between HCPs and pharma sales reps fell 70% in the first six months of the pandemic, largely replaced by e-mails and virtual contacts.

Crucially, two of the five key imperatives it identifies for effective product launches are being customer-centric in the approach and incorporating analytics-driven personalisation and optimisation of channels to support the rep/KAM – both of which go to the heart of the challenge facing pharmaceutical companies as they refine and accelerate their digital maturity.

A revolution in the making

While some face-to-face contacts have since resumed within healthcare, figures suggest there has been a nearly five-fold increase in virtual meetings and a six-fold increase in email traffic since the pandemic. The vast majority of HCPs meanwhile say they would like to see a hybrid of digital and face-to-face communications in future.

If you then layer onto this the impact of NHS reforms and the unprecedented demands currently being placed on key services, you find the NHS customer in 2022 looks, thinks and acts very differently to what has gone before – and expects a different approach from their engagement with pharma as a result.

Pharma, to its credit, recognises this. When we asked at one of our recent webinars what scale of change was needed to meet future challenges, 59% of pharma executives said ‘a great deal’ and 27% said nothing short of ‘a revolution’ would do.

It is apparent that fully understanding the new NHS customer landscape and acting on that intelligence across the organisation through precise, data-driven digital engagement is a major part of this revolution. So what are the key principles to apply?

First: personalised engagement needs to be about much more than creating marketing ‘personas’, as some advocate.

The goal needs to be a genuine and continually enriched 360-degree view of each individual customer, covering their stage of engagement, their preferences, their previous behaviours and touchpoints online and their engagement with different content types. It requires comprehensive and fully integrated data which paints a picture of the customer as an individual and responds to them as such. While personas are often comforting, they are seldom continually updated and therefore no substitute for precision engagement based on a deep understanding of the individual customer’s journey.

Second: understanding and reflecting the local environment is increasingly vital for capturing the realities of the world your customer inhabits.

Mapped against individual profiles and preferences, pharma also needs to build an intelligent picture of local and regional variation, local capacity challenges and other population health indicators such as health inequalities. The NHS in 2022 is increasingly built around collaborative decision-making, and personalised engagement therefore needs to reflect the relationship between individuals and the clinical networks operating within a system or locality.

Third: you will need to invest time and effort in building capability across the whole organisation to make the most of digital approaches.

Mobilising a more personalised engagement approach involves rethinking your own structures and ways of working. In particular, it’s critical that sales and key account teams fully understand the value proposition, how it varies by each customer segment and how it aligns with the stakeholder environment at system, place and neighbourhood levels. An analytics-driven digital engagement approach is therefore about considering the target segments (and micro-segments) and their local variances to enable real data-driven digital programmes, based on understanding that customer’s context locally and using their preferred channels. It is about more than simply tailoring messages and channels – it means aligning the organisation’s resources, capabilities and structure to reflect the needs of a changing customer base and priorities.

And fourth: make sure you continuously analyse, measure and refine your approach so that you continually iterate and optimise the engagement to deliver an improved customer experience.

Digital engagement provides a powerful two-way dialogue with your customer, which can help you incrementally build an evidence base of what’s most effective across a range of scenarios. Good evaluation is the key to unlocking this. Many pharma companies recognise that the decline of traditional face-to-face forms of engagement requires them to urgently rethink what metrics are used to define success within a hybrid engagement strategy. We work with our clients to embed more sophisticated ways of measuring impact and ongoing ROI of programmes, using data to show the impact of different channels.


It’s now over 25 years since Clive Humby and Edwina Dunn made marketing history by unleashing the power of big data, harvested from the legendary Clubcard, to make Tesco the UK’s biggest and most profitable supermarket at the turn of the century. Much has happened since then, yet the principle of smart, data-driven marketing built around a precise and highly personalised profile of each individual customer remains as important as ever.

For a pharma sector grappling with the impact of a resurgent pandemic and the wide-ranging effects of NHS reforms, taking inspiration from the retail pioneers and embracing a more precise, customer-centric approach to engagement may be the single most important thing it can do in 2022. And with little or no sign of any return to the old ways of working, the time to act is now.

To discuss how Wilmington Healthcare can support your organisation’s approach to digital engagement, please email