Customer care at pharmaceutical company Zeneca Pharma UK is a complicated business. Who, after all, are the customers to be cared for? Patients, their families, patient associations, care groups, self-help associations, nurses, pharmacists, NHS trust contract managers, clinical directors, health economists and GPs all have an interest in the drugs which Zeneca provides. The challenge that Zeneca Pharma must meet on a daily basis is to satisfy the different requirements and expectations of this diverse customer base.
'To be honest, this market was a lot simpler 10 years ago,' says Mike Gatenby, general manager. 'GPs had greater clinical freedom and far fewer people were involved in the prescribing and dispensing process.' Today the marketplace is considerably more complex and Zeneca Pharma has, in recent years, introduced significant organisational changes to meet these new demands. 'We operate in an unusual market - it's both highly competitive and yet very tightly regulated,' explains Gatenby. To excel in this market, an organisation must build very close and long-term relationships with its chosen customer groups.
Employing just over 500 staff, Zeneca Pharma UK is the sales, marketing and medical operation of Zeneca Pharmaceuticals. Zeneca Pharmaceuticals is one of three businesses (pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals and specialties) which were demerged from ICI five years ago to form Zeneca. With UK sales in 1997 of over £175 million, Zeneca Pharma is one of Britain's top six pharmaceuticals companies and a leading provider of cardiovascular, anti-cancer, respiratory and arthritis drugs.
Zeneca Pharma's ambitious goals for the future include: to grow at double the market rate and achieve 15% year on year profit growth; to develop and promote products which meet customer needs, benefit patients and demonstrate value for money to the NHS; and to be a leading healthcare business in chosen therapy areas within the UK pharmaceutical market. The business goal for 1998 is to generate sales of £207 million (representing 18% profit growth) which, insists Gatenby, is a challenging but achievable target.
Gatenby believes that Zeneca Pharma's recent sales success is a direct result of its customer-focused initiatives. 'We want to be seen by our customers as ahead of the competition and the company that customers come to for guidance, direction and collaboration in our key therapy areas,' he says. 'It's vital therefore that we not only meet customer needs as they are currently but become so involved with customers ... that we are ahead of them in anticipating their future needs.'
To that end, three years ago Zeneca Pharma introduced a customer care department headed by Rosario Albanese, a member of the senior management team. Under Albanese's guidance, Zeneca Pharma has embarked on a strategy of 'customer immersion' which includes both the organisation's external and internal (employee) customers. To refocus the company on the diverse interests of its customer groups, Zeneca Pharma has introduced several new posts including NHS policy manager, medical liaison manager, strategic information manager and nurse advisers. One of the tasks of these new managers is to build better relationships with existing and potential customers.
Zeneca Pharma uses a variety of techniques to get closer to its customers and offer them more than the competition. GPs and the general public can gain instant information on drugs from the company's medical information department which operates 24 hours a day. The company also provides a variety of educational opportunities and materials designed to help clinicians, nurses and non-clinical staff. As well as focus groups, advisory boards, market research and customer questionnaires, the Wilmslow-based company organises 'work exchanges' that increase understanding of both the customer's and Zeneca Pharma's working practices. 'This is an excellent means to eliminate processes which are irrelevant and improve upon those that are essential,' suggests Albanese. Zeneca Pharma also organises 'organisational raids' to swap business skills, information and best practice with chosen customers. 'We find this very helpful in building long-term relationships,' he adds.
Zeneca Pharma's aim of gaining closer contact to its customer groups includes patients themselves. During the development of its new schizophrenia drug, Seroquel, the company invited a group of patients to help design the packaging. 'They told us it was very important not to have red packaging which is very upsetting to those with schizophrenia,' explains Albanese. As a result of such recent initiatives, Zeneca Pharma's customer statistics show real improvement. More than 60% of customers now provide feedback (compared to 10% in 1997) and the percentage of repeat customers has grown to 98%.
The increased attention paid to external customers has, however, been closely matched by Zeneca Pharma's commitment to staff training and development. Staff receive an average of 20 training days a year and the company's performance management system was particularly praised in Zeneca Pharma's reassessment last year by Investors in People (IIP).
All new staff undergo a comprehensive induction training period and more than 90% of staff state that they understand the vision and strategy of the business. Staff turnover currently stands at just 6%.
In a recent independent survey of the quality, reliability, speed of delivery, accessibility, expertise, courtesy and provision of unbiased information provided by the UK's nine leading pharmaceutical companies, Zeneca Pharma led the field. A survey conducted by a competitor into the preferences of dispensing doctors again placed Zeneca Pharma in pole position.
The approval for Zeneca Pharma's customer focus is scarcely in doubt.
Nor, too, is the clear link between improved customer care and increased sales.
KEY BUSINESS LESSONS
- Build customer partnerships: exchange information and best practice with chosen customers
- Work exchanges create greater understanding of the needs and expectations of customers
- Not all customers are equal: identify profitable versus unprofitable customers
- Check staff turnover: how does yours compare with the industry norm?
- Disgruntled staff are unlikely to delight customers
- Helplines must help: telephone helplines must be geared to provide timely, accurate, comprehensive responses or they will do more harm than good.