In the latest installment of our series of conversations with industry leaders, we’re speaking with Pete Guillot, President of CenterFirst.  CenterFirst started in 2004 with the “mission of providing deep expertise to help global pharmaceutical leaders maximize the value and ensure the compliance of customer interactions.” Pharma companies contact CenterFirst when they want to examine their processes to see how can they do better, save money, evaluate outsourcing options, and lower costs.

Prior to starting CenterFirst, Pete worked 11 years at Lilly, the last 3 leading their medical information contact center.  CenterFirst is steeped in the Pharma industry and dedicated to the helping Pharma contact center leaders with the strategic, operational, and regulatory challenges they deal with everyday.

We met Pete at the CBI Conference in Philadelphia last month, and sat down with him to get his take on the role of the contact center in the Pharma space. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

  • When most people think of contact centers, they probably think of financial institutions or tech support. What are some of the common reasons for pharmaceutical companies to use call centers?

We first saw increased use of contact centers in Pharma in the 80’s as packaged goods companies started publishing 800 numbers and using those to give customers better access to customer service. Following that, we saw an increase in the need for contact centers as companies increased their direct consumer advertising. With the ubiquity of pharmaceutical ads on TV, contact centers became a tool for handling that increased demand. And in just the last 3-4 years we’ve seen an increase in outbound sales from pharmaceutical companies.  Call centers handle a lot of transactions in patient access and reimbursement as well as traditional medical information. You have wholesalers and distributors who need service. Looking at this from the patient standpoint, I may call if I have problem with a product and I don’t have access to a doctor or pharmacy, so I look on the package for the number and call with my question.

  • What makes contact centers in Pharma different than in other industries?

There are certainly some differences, but it’s important to appreciate the similarities, as well. Whether you’re in finance, healthcare, packaged goods — anywhere companies use contact centers as an operational tool, you’ll find a lot of similarities with regard to agents, customer experience, regulations, metrics, operational details, and strategic options.

Pharma has those challenges as well, but pharmaceutical companies are firmly within the area of delivering better health to patients.  They don’t practice medicine, but they are a component of the delivery of patient health and patient safety, and the contact center is part of that.

There’s no other direct contact that pharmaceutical companies have with their patient population. It’s their only method for 2-way communication, so it’s critically important that information along that channel is accurate, secure, confidential, and delivered with proper sentiment.

Another difference is that often the qualification of the agent is of a higher degree in the Pharma contact center. Finance may be equivalent as people’s money is often as critical to them as their health, but Pharma sets a higher standard compared to a general contact center for a commercial operation.   Pharma takes support seriously, especially when talking to physicians about patients, and as a result they staff their centers accordingly, often having trained healthcare professionals available to handle transactions.

  • We know there is a general trend towards setting up offshore call centers. Does this trend apply to Pharma as well?

Pharma might be the exception. Everyone is concerned with cost and some have tried outsourcing parts of their operations overseas to the Philippines, Costa Rica, and India, but most have come back or stayed onshore.  Most organizations are focused on optimizing here first.

  • Do you see mobile apps having an impact on Pharma customer contact management?

I recently saw a report from Manhattan Research that mobile use is significantly increasing.  However, physicians are using mobile devices for search more so than for apps. The primary use for smartphones and tablets is mostly for email, and when they start looking for medical information, they’re using these for searching the general Internet. They look at apps as being too specific or perhaps too sales-y.  I imagine that as apps get better they may use more of them. But you know, as I say that, as search gets better, that behavior may just continue, so I guess the jury’s still out on that one.

Wherever it goes, the contact center needs to be at the heart of the Pharma company, handling those transactions, those interactions.  That’s their core role.

  • Any final thoughts?

The only thing I would add, is that when we look at trends, I’d say 5 years ago, we were looking mostly at ensuring common customer experience.  Now it’s cost efficiency; reduced cost per contact.  In the past we were looking more at compliance; now we’re really focusing on efficiency.  I’m sure the economy has a lot to do with that.