Digital transformation of the customer experience in life sciences can be more challenging than more traditional organization changes, for several reasons. So, let’s jump right in and understand the main hurdles, and then perhaps, we can finally clear the way to the success seen in so many other industries. Based upon direct experience leading such transformations, both as a life science executive and as a management consultant, here are my top five reasons why digital transformations may be more likely to fail, or fall short, on organizational acceptance and/or business impact:

  1. Regulatory Challenges: The life sciences industry is highly regulated, and any changes to customer-facing processes need to comply with promotional regulatory standards. This can make it difficult to implement digital solutions, especially those involving new omnichannel capabilities, as they require faster, more streamlined approaches to promotional content review processes. New ways of working will require us to review more “micro” promotional content, with faster review times, all without incurring inordinately greater regulatory risk – not an easy task
  2. Data/Insight Challenges: Life sciences companies deal with vast amounts of sensitive data, and ensuring the accuracy, timeliness and security of this data can be a challenge. Digital solutions that require access to customer data may face hurdles in terms of data governance, data protection, and data quality. For example, this comes into play with new “next best action” capabilities that are designed to link marketing and sales actions to a specific prescribing physician’s needs and desires for tailored product information, to enhance their customer experience. Also, new data types will be required, from both internal and external sources, and the level of granularity needed, will increase exponentially. In summary, data can be dicey, but the new customer insights are worth the pain!
  3. Complex Customer Journey: The customer journey in the life sciences industry can be complex, involving multiple touchpoints across various stakeholders, such as healthcare professionals, patients, payers, health systems, and regulators. Digital solutions need to be designed to address the needs of all these “customer” stakeholders in time, which can be a significant challenge. To further add to the complexity of multiple customer types, each with unique journeys, these distinct journeys also often crossover and impact one another – for example the physician journey and the patient journey, while different, are intertwined – serving as a multiplier effect on complexity during a digital transformation.
  4. Cultural (People) Resistance: The life sciences industry has traditionally been slow to adopt new technologies, and at times there is cultural resistance to change, especially when people are expected to absorb multiple change initiatives at once. Employees may be resistant to digital solutions, or there may be a lack of digital literacy or understanding of the benefits of digital transformation. Also, digital often requires dramatically new ways of working, especially in marketing, which can disrupt traditional power and influence dynamics within a brand team, as everyone must adopt new skills and capabilities. As we said at the start, success starts and ends with the people involved!
  5. Lack of Leadership Resilience: To truly make an impactful transformation of the customer experience in life sciences using new digital technologies, it will take time. Attempting to rush the process, when the level of change is quite high, will lead to organizational frustration and a return to the status quo. Leaders at all levels need to own the change and work from a long-term (multi-year) roadmap, where the teams making these changes can absorb key components, (re)build expertise, and add on more complex capabilities over time. However, oftentimes, this level of commitment is not in place, and the changes fail to stick due to a lack of resilience from senior leadership, or due to new leaders coming in with new or different agendas and priorities from the previous incumbents.

Addressing these challenges requires a strategic approach to digital transformation that involves close collaboration between business leaders, IT, the (full-time) change team, and other key internal and external stakeholders. Companies need to develop a clear understanding of their customers’ needs, identify the right digital solutions, and prioritize investments that drive the most significant business impact – while building capability sophistication over time – allowing their people to gain experience, and further enhance base solutions, as accountability and familiarity grow.

Making a successful digital transformation of the customer experience in biopharma requires a combination of strategic planning, technology implementation, and executional excellence. But in the end, as it turns out, it is really all about the people – the ones tasked with leading the change, those responsible for embedding the change, and most importantly, the individuals who must commit to live, own, and advance the changes, each and every day. Here are some key factors that can contribute to success, and blunt the primary challenges we face:

Top ChallengesProposed Mitigation Approach
1. Regulatory ChallengesThe promotional regulatory review processes in a biopharmaceutical company can be quite rigorous and lengthy in traditional settings. When implementing omnichannel capabilities, these processes must become more nimble, while continuing to manage organizational risk. It will be important to form a cross-functional team from the very start, that includes medical, regulatory, legal, compliance and marketing, to design new ways of working to enable these new content creation capabilities. Also, in the very near future, generative AI will play an important enabling role in more rapid and compliant micro content creation.
2. Data/ Insight ChallengesNew and unique insights, at the “N=1” physician level serve as the cornerstone of any digital transformation of the customer experience. It will be important to have a specific team responsible for data/insight management – everything from data acquisition, to data storage, to data security, and data/systems integration. And since AI is foundational to new ‘next best action” capabilities, this will require significant new skills sets on your insight teams as well, and prior experience matters deeply!
3. Complex Customer JourneyThere are so many important “customers” in the life science journey, so where do you start? Use the patient need to inform the design, but it may be best to start with the physician as customer first, and solve for their journey at a granular level. In a global environment, most ex-US countries cannot directly market and sell to the patient. So, start with the physician, and once those capabilities are running effectively, both in the US and globally, additional customer types can be added more easily.
4. Cultural (People) ResistanceThe business strategy must align tightly with a change strategy that includes both a roadmap of the change design, but also a change plan to address each key internal and external stakeholder group impacted by the transformation. This plan must build in regular communications to key individuals and groups, but also ample opportunity for them to provide input and shape the design. They cannot say “no” to the changes, but they can provide agile design input to enhance the impact and heighten personal ownership and accountability. Also, in a global organization, I would suggest you start with the US and one other prominent country, simultaneously offering a different archetype from traditional US ways of working.
5. Lack of Leadership ResilienceA transformation of the customer experience is not for the faint of heart. In most cases, it is at least a 2 to 3 year journey for the entire organization. Thus, it is critical for leaders at all levels to understand the case for change and be able to articulate the link to the overall business and brand strategies. Three years is an eternity in biopharma, and leaders will change roles during the time of the change, so it is important that those remaining in place are so committed, that new leadership would be foolish to stop a locomotive moving with great pace, progress, and impact. In the end, senior leadership sponsorship is key to organizational resilience in the face of change fatigue.

Certainly, my list is a good start, but not all-encompassing in terms of all the hurdles you will face. But following these critical mitigation approaches, and others like them, biopharma companies can make a successful digital transformation to the customer experience and deliver a more personalized and engaging interaction for healthcare professionals, as well as other customer types, over time. Life science companies lag most industries in terms of offering a satisfying digital customer experience, but don’t be afraid to take the leap. Your customers are wondering what is taking so long!