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Marketing and Sales – different skills

When I started my career in the pharmaceutical industry I was told I would never work in pharma marketing without having been a sales rep. The fact that I hold a Masters in International Marketing, grew up in the industry (I followed in my father’s footsteps) and brought a range of highly pertinent skills was irrelevant – being a sales rep was seen as more critical to being a successful marketeer than having the right qualifications or skills.  I have since disproved this “fact” by spending the majority of my career working as a digital marketeer, in some shape or form, for some of the world’s top pharma companies.

During my career I have fortunately seen a shift in thinking away from this mentality but the sad reality it has not completely disappeared,  as evidenced in a job application I just saw for a top pharma.  There it was again – listed among the basic requirements of the job spec.  In this day and age I cannot for the life of me understand why work as a sales rep should still be a pre-requisite for a marketing role.  Far more critical should be a good understanding of basic marketing, multichannel engagement and a degree of creative flair or innovative thinking.

Sadly I have experienced, time and time again, the result of having sales people in marketing roles.  The lack of understanding of basic marketing by pharma marketeers, including senior people, is shocking. As I try to support brand teams and companies in developing and implementing innovative multichannel strategies I often have to also train them in basic marketing before we can even consider looking at how to navigate the complex multichannel world we now live in.  For example trying to explain to teams how to develop plans and strategies tailored to their customer segments I may discover that their idea of segment actually links to HCP group such as GP or Oncologists rather than actual detailed segments linking to behaviours and beliefs.

In order to be a successful marketeer today you need to understand not only basic marketing but you also need to understand the complexities that digital has driven.  You need to be creative and innovative to come up with marketing strategies that actually deliver real impact and engage, and not just be able to complete a brand planning template.  Our customers now face so much choice and can simply click away from pharmaceutical content and messages.  In many countries the role of the rep has diminished drastically and yet we still have many companies placing an inordinate amount of effort on this channel – and this is not helped if marketeers have been hired because of their sales skills rather than marketing expertise.  Whilst reps still play an important role for many brands they are now one of many channels and a marketeer needs to understand the reps role within a more complex and interconnected landscape.

We live in a noisy world where the customer has the power and the choice.  If companies continue to hire marketeers who tow the old line they will never see the impact they could be achieving.  Our industry needs innovators and people who will challenge the status quo.  We need people who will above all else always put the customer in the centre and try their utmost to understand what that customer wants and needs, and then deliver the brand messages in such a way that it speaks to those needs and resonates with those customers.  The big tech giants are already investing heavily in healthcare and if pharma companies start having to compete head to head with these companies it is pretty clear who the winner will be unless we change our approach and who we hire.  Anyone can learn to fill in a brand template but coming up with successful, innovative strategies that speak to today’s customers is a very different skill that takes talent, experience and a different mindset.


The value of respecting your customers

The news is currently awash with a spectacular example of a company failing to have any respect for its customers.  When #United decided to have a paying passenger dragged off one its planes to accommodate employees, whom the airline felt had more right to be at work the next day than said customer, they showed a total disrespect for their customers.  The incident, and the initial response of the CEO, also showed a total lack of respect, and understanding, for the power of the citizen journalist and social media.

The fact that other customers filmed the shocking incident and shared it online really should not have come as a surprise, nor should the fact that it got picked up by the media and went viral.  The days of being able to just bury incidents under the carpet are gone.  Whilst not all examples of bad customer service go viral it is now a real danger for any company, and as such all companies need to start being much more vigilant to customer complaints, especially when these are posted to a social media network.

The other factor here is also basic marketing.  When I did my Masters in marketing one of the things we learnt was people talk more about a negative experience than a bad one. It is also accepted business wisdom that happy customers are more profitable for companies – they spend more and it is cheaper to retain them than it is to gain new customers.  The other thing we learnt was that a company can turn a customer with a negative experience into a loyal customer by the way they handle a complaint.   It is all about making the customer feel valued.

I have numerous personal examples that support these facts.  In fact my motivation for this blog post is not the United incident but my current debacle with Turkish Airlines. Right now I am an extremely unhappy customer and have been appalled at their dreadful customer service.  As a frequent flyer with airlines like British Airways I have come to expect a certain degree of customer service from reputable airlines and I had been under the impression that Turkish Airlines also fell into that category but clearly not.

The issue in question was entirely  my own fault but highlights the difference between an airline like British Airways and Turkish Airlines.  I recently booked my holiday to the Philippines but to my horror a couple of hours after paying for the flight I realised that I had booked the wrong dates (due to still being under the weather with my Hashimoto’s btw).  I called Turkish Airlines up immediately to try to find a solution to this.  I was greeted with an unfriendly and unhelpful rep who refused to help in anyway.  This is entirely at the discretion of the airline as I know that British Airways in these situations give you a grace period of 24 hours in case this happens.  Not Turkish.

Very distraught I wracked my brain for what to do as I now faced spending less than 5 full days on the beach for 3 and bit days of travel!  I then phoned them back to ask about buying a single ticket out on my original planned date and then using my return ticket as planned.  Again I spoke to a less than friendly and unhelpful customer service rep who informed my that this was also not an option.  I would have thought Turkish Airlines should have jumped at the option of selling me a second ticket, especially as I am sure the currently climate and laptop restrictions on flights will be impacting their sales.  I then complained via Twitter and got a much more friendly and helpful response – they lodged my issue as a complaint with customer services for me.  Yay!

But no.  I got an email from the customer complaints department that it would now take them around 7 days to get back to me!  In 7 days time I had hoped to be in a flight and also needed to organise my accommodation!  Why on earth would it take them that long to contact me?!  To this day I have still not had a response from them, despite numerous follow up tweets.  A swift response would have placated me, even if only to sell me that single ticket, but now days of silence later I am a very irate customer who is telling everyone I know, including some very frequent travelers who fly with Turkish (sorry … who used to fly with Turkish).  The window for Turkish Airlines to retain me and my friends as customers is rapidly closing – if they do not want my money I am sure many other airlines do.

This experience contrasts with my other recent travel experience, namely with the Radisson Hotel in Austin.  There I also complained about a few issues I had had at the hotel.  Their response however was very prompt, courteous and professional.  When I complained I really felt like I would never stay in a Radisson again but following their fantastic customer service they have managed to flip the situation and turned me into a loyal customer.  I now know that if I ever have issues again I can trust this hotel to resolve them in a positive manner and as a result I will have no issue in picking the hotel over another hotel on my next trip.

I am generally a very loyal customer (last year paying close to £1000 more just to fly with British Airways) and I, like many other customers, am actually quite easy to please.  Listen to me, respond to my contact request and treat me like a valued customer who you would like to retain.  It is my money to spend and I can easily spend it with another company.  Keep me happy, like British Airways always does, and I will tell people about my great experience and keep coming back.  Make me unhappy, especially by treating me like you have no interest in my future spend with you, and I will tell everyone I know and take my money elsewhere.

Whilst a single customer may not per se be of interest to the company, their friends, family and extended network may be.  As word of mouth spreads across that network, as is the case for United Airlines, you start to see a real impact on revenues.  Counter that with the cost of good, courteous and helpful customer service, it just makes good business sense to treat your customers with respect – each and everyone of them.


Within an hour of writing this post I received the following response from Turkish.  I have no idea why it took them days to provide a standard response like this.  It also does not address some of my issues that I complained about.  You can see my response below too.  Clearly I will not be flying with Turkish Airlines again and I will continue to advocate against flying with them.  If you have had similar negative experiences with them I would love to hear about them too.





Response to a tweet

My first response when I have a customer complaint or question is to go online and direct a tweet to the responsible company with my issue.  I have been doing this for quite a few years and it is great to start seeing some real improvement in customer service response via social media.  A few years back I followed this approach when my Karen Millen shoes broke and ended up having to find the head of ecommerce’s personal email in order to get a response.

Fortunately since then I have had some amazingly rapid, and appropriate responses from customer services via Twitter, most notable from airline companies British Airways and American Airlines, who both rock their social media customer service.  British Airways has always been fantastic at resolving my issues very promptly, professionally and in a friendly way.  American Airlines impressed me with their near-time response when I tweeted to complain about the dreadful transatlantic airplane I had just boarded – with no individual video screens but only the shared cabin screens (can you believe they still fly planes like this on transatlantic flights?!!!).  I tweeted to them just after boarding and before take-off I had gone through a small conversation, in which they apologied and assured me that new planes were being brought in – and that sadly they couldn’t upgrade me from there.  Whilst they did not resolve my issue they were still extremely friendly and professional in how they handled my complaint – reducing my anger in the process.

So naturally when I got totally frustrated with my Swiss UBS credit cards not working online yet again I vented via Twitter.  Being a big international, renowned bank I expected some sort of response via Twitter within 24 hours, especially as this is a big enough company to have a dedicated social media team.  Being a bank I also presumed they would be wary of leaving negative comments unanswered given some of the anti-banking sentiment that is out there. However after a couple of days I gave up hoping for a response from them.  They had simply ignored my tweet, or so I presumed, and I would need to start looking into finding another bank which had credit cards that actually worked online.  Needless to say I was disappointed, both as a customer and a social media enthusiast.

However I had a very pleasant surprise today.  I received a call from the UBS customer service team in response to my tweet!  The call was very courteous, friendly and apologetic and it restored my faith in their overall customer service.  During the call I gave the feedback that they need to response quicker via Twitter.  They handled the issue so well via the call it is just such a shame that they dropped the ball via Twitter.

The key takeaway for UBS, and indeed any other organisation, is that Twitter is now a major channel for questions and feedback (both positive and negative) and consumers have certain expectations around corporate responsiveness.  There is then the second point that responding via Twitter (where possible) is probably also considerably cheaper than via a call centre.  In scenarios like this one, where a customer complains via Twitter, the best course of action is a simple “Thank you for your tweet, we will look into this and get back to you shortly”.  This buys the company time to formulate an appropriate response (which may be communicated via Twitter or if appropriate via a call centre).  At the same time it acknowledges the customer’s comment and shows that the company (and their social media team) is listening.  It is a very simple but effective approach and one that any company on Twitter should really have implemented by now.

I do hope that UBS responds to this feedback and improves their customer response directly via Twitter as the guys working in their call centre and great and it is a shame to see them being let down by such a simple slip in communications.


Why digital? Because everyone loves a rainbow!

A few years ago it was totally normal to have to convince people that digital was a valid, and important, channel.  That fact is now a given – and yet there are still people who need to be convinced.  One issue is that traditional marketing is a safe option and it has worked in the past.  During this tough economic times people are more wary of trying something “new” (even if strictly speaking digital is no longer new) and this is why they need convincing that they should shift some of their budget from their “safe” traditional channels to this “new” and “dangerous” channel.

The trouble is that this traditional way of splitting budgets no longer matches users needs and behaviours.  How come some pharmaceutical companies are spending less than 5% of marketing and sales budgets on digital when physicians, for example, would like to receive over 60% of their product information online?  This seems like a huge disconnect with reality and customer needs and cannot be sustainable.

HCP information preference

HCP information preference

It also seems rather ludicrous given clear direction from customers, physicians as well as patients, that they want more information and resources digitally, that we still need to stand up and argue the need for more digital to be included in the marketing and communications mix.  We should no longer need to be trying to persuade senior managers on the need for digital – rather we should be working with them to look at how best to integrate on- and off-line resources and how to get a more balanced marketing mix.

There will always be a need off-line materials but they should work in harmony with online elements and all marketing and communication elements should be integrated and optimise each other.  There is no battle between digital and traditional – one is not better than the other on its own.  Rather they tell a far more powerful story when combined in an integrated and strategic way based around customer, and organisation, needs.  Just like a the colours of the rainbow are truly impactful when joined together in a smooth combination, communications should be joined together to provide an impactful and memorable experience for the end audience.

Right now the pharmaceutical audience is just getting a huge sway of reds and oranges but there are hardly any blues coming through which is not impactful at all.  We need to stop defending why we even need digital, and and stop fighting to get more digital budget, but instead we need to start working on getting the mix and colour combination as perfect as a rainbow.

Rainbow in Sri Lanka

Rainbow in Sri Lanka

And they think they know it all . . .

One of the painful facts of life is having to work and interact with people who think they know it all or believe they know what they are talking about.  This is equally true in digital in healthcare.  On the one hand we always talk about wanting more digital and social media activity in the industry but on the other hand we do not want it done badly.  People who think they know what they are doing can be very dangerous if let loose on digital or even worse on social media.


The classic example here is the traditional pharma marketeer with years of traditional marketing experience who sees digital as “just another communication channel”.  Whilst it is true that digital is another communication channel it is none the less distinct and requires some different thinking than traditional marketing.  Digital does need to be integrated and work with the traditional marketing but it is not a simple “copy and paste” of the offline campaign.  The “campaign” (see next post) needs to be adapted to suit digital – so for example a traditional sales rep print-out does not work as-is as an app for iPads or for an interactive edetail.


Digital also goes further and works differently than traditional marketing.  At congress it is no longer just about the booth.  Online activity at and around congress spikes substantially.  Tightening budgets, both for organisations but also for HCPs, means that attendance is not likely to keep growing but interest will.  People who are not able to attend still want to be able to follow the key issues and information being released at congress by going online.  By restricting marketing at congress just to booth activities and ignoring the wider online ecosphere traditional orientated marketeers are missing a huge opportunity.


Another issue with “know it alls” is when they want to digital for the sake of doing it and ignore advice and guidance because they “know it all”!  This is an unfortunate trait that goes across life (and there are some fabulous offline examples from the consulting industry) but unfortunately digital can amplify any mistakes made.


Sometimes education is a good way to tackle this issue – it can help to show people how digital really works and what the true benefits are.  Of course the issue with the last example comes in that some people do not believe there is anything more they can learn and that they do indeed know it all.  In these cases having good risk mitigation and crisis management plans in place is vital – if things go wrong then you are ready to tackle them!