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The life sciences industry is getting a customer experience wake-up call.

Even before the current health crisis, traditional ways of marketing and selling pharmaceutical and medical devices were changing. Physicians were less available to meet with salespeople and regulatory requirements created new hurdles.

Now, as the pandemic has forced salespeople to work from home and cancelled the events and conferences that traditionally determine healthcare product success, there is renewed focus on what is becoming inevitable: New direct-to-consumer (D2C), digital-focused business models.

The Pandemic Speeds the Evolution of Life Sciences

For decades, directly connecting with healthcare customers was not front and center in life sciences. Instead, consumers navigated a complex, heavily-siloed ecosystem of providers, insurers, pharmaceutical companies and medical device companies. That is shifting, however, as digitalization and connected experiences have rapidly become the norm in other industries.

Retail brands, for instance, have long gone down the path of delivering products directly to customers online, with success stories ranging from Casper and Dollar Shave Club to Stitch Fix. Life sciences companies, on the other hand, are just beginning to explore opportunities to deliver more personal experiences and directly service customers online.

At the same time, consumers are also becoming more comfortable managing their healthcare decisions through technology, which makes them more likely to respond to digital outreach. According to Capgemini Research Institute’s June 2020 Consumer Health Survey (pdf), before the current crisis, 38% of people said they were comfortable with the growing use of technology to manage their health. Post-pandemic, that number has grown to 46%.

In addition, we've seen significant changes in how consumers use technology, including to empower themselves. An increasing number of older consumers, including Baby Boomers and Generation X, say they would use apps, websites and online forums to gather information about symptoms and care. And the number of Baby Boomers who say they would buy gadgets or devices to track their health has gone up 7 percentage points since the onset of the pandemic. Clearly, healthcare companies have a golden opportunity to digitally connect with customers. 

Related Article: How Healthcare Providers Are Looking to Improve Customer Experiences

A Look Inside the D2C Transformation Journey

Life sciences, of course, is a broad term. It encompasses everything from medical services to crop sciences. And, admittedly, highly-regulated parts of the industry, such as pharmaceuticals, may not easily navigate the D2C transformation journey.

For others, however, especially those that offer consumer products, direct-to-consumer is an opportunity to seize right now. In an age of social distancing, some kind of reinvention is essential for all sectors to keep in touch with customers and prescribers.

No matter what the industry, the bedrock of D2C success and improved customer experience is digital transformation. That means life sciences companies must rethink their business models and invest in the right digital technology so their organizations can explore innovative and engaging consumer-driven solutions for all touchpoints of the customer journey.

One leading healthcare and medical device company, for example, had high aspirations for its popular infant formula product. It observed the evolution of today’s mom, who regularly turns to social media for insights and advice. Was there a way to encourage customers to move from social media directly to the brand’s website? It was a question that led to many more: For example, if the company drove customers to their various web properties, how could it sell and service them while not alienating its existing channel partners and routes to market? How best could it transform its existing logistics model to accommodate a pick-pack-ship approach rather than its traditional case and pallet methods? 

Another example is a wholesale orthodontics manufacturer that had already planned to launch a D2C channel even before the pandemic. This was a massive business shift for a company that had never built a direct customer database, but it was fully committed to a digital transformation journey that would prove critical to its success.

For both companies, while challenges remain, each will without a doubt move down the path towards digital transformation and start the processes to introduce a D2C channel. That’s because other, more agile companies are nipping at their heels. Organizations like Amazon, for instance, have already jump-started the direct-to-consumer trend by acquiring online pharmacy PillPack for $1 billion in 2019, allowing it to directly market healthcare products to consumers.

Related Article: Is it Time for Your Brand to Add a Direct  to Consumer Channel?

The Switch to D2C Requires a Fundamental Reinvention

Life sciences companies looking to flex their D2C muscles need to first focus on developing core digital capabilities. That should include a commerce platform, a product information management system, digital marketing tools that connect to backend systems, and mobile strategies.

However, a move towards D2C means much more than just digital investment. It means fundamentally changing their business operating model. It means redefining the relationship between the industry and its customers. It means reimagining business operations from top to bottom including the customer journey across all the relevant customer touchpoints.

This new and uncertain environment can certainly seem overwhelming. Life sciences companies will need to develop a roadmap that defines a path towards growth and innovation through digital strategies. They may need to start small, with a few clients, perhaps, or certain geographical areas. Then they can start measuring success and consider what works and what doesn’t.

Improving life sciences customer experience and building a D2C model isn't a project. It is a living, breathing business unit that requires talented and dedicated people who understand everything from digital marketing, commerce, service, content and the Voice of the Customer.

Life sciences companies are now navigating a complex set of marketing and sales challenges, driven by a digital era, changing consumer behavior and pandemic-related shifts. Traditional marketing methods, long weakening, are no longer viable for many products.

The journey towards a new, D2C model will have many twists and turns along the way and require a commitment towards digital transformation. But for today’s life sciences industry, there is no turning back: It’s clear that a digital, direct-to-consumer future has now arrived.