Know-it-all consumers force drugmakers to step up their call-center game

Jacob Presson

The last thing a savvy drugmaker wants is for patients to know more about its own products than its employees do. But if pharma call centers aren't staffed with savvy people, that's exactly what can happen.

That's why more companies are turning to experienced professionals to field questions from consumers, according to a new survey by Cutting Edge Information. And not just any sort of experience--we're talking actual medical credentials.

Once upon a time, a consumer could run a quick internet search for simple product information or side effects. Now, patients have access to much more information--and more questions are cropping up, many of them too difficult for the average call center agent to handle, Cutting Edge analyst Jacob Presson told FiercePharmaMarketing. So, companies are selecting medical professionals like nurse practitioners and physicians to wait at the other end of the line.

"The nature of the questions is changing, and it's going to affect how these call centers operate," said Presson, a senior research analyst at the firm. "You're not getting comparatively simple calls; you have to dig into the science."

Call center tactics have to be tailored country by country, too. In emerging markets, call center reps need to be prepared to dig deeply into that science. Call centers in up-and-coming countries receive a higher percentage of questions about clinical studies than other regions do, the Cutting Edge survey notes. Balancing an understanding of local culture with a deep knowledge of the product is the key to answering consumers' questions.

"As companies start to expand globally, they're going to have to grapple with cultural differences they're seeing around the world," Presson said. "The companies have to respect that and find the best ways to communicate effectively with physicians and patients."

Just how companies are staffing their call centers varies by size. Smaller drugmakers often contract out their product launches. A third party vendor allows smaller companies to disseminate information quickly and handle call-volume fluctuations after a drug hits the market. Larger companies have more resources, and they can staff up temporarily during a product's initial peak.

Companies have to be careful with outsourcing their call centers, however, Presson told FiercePharmaMarketing. In-house units typically focus on one product portfolio, while third-party vendors divide their attention among multiple products. Call center agents at outsourced units might not have the incentives or the resources to dig deep and field patients' and physicians' questions.

"In terms of fulfilling the base needs, they do the job and they do it well. But a lot of smaller companies want to bring the service in-house so they can make sure that there's an investment in the product and come up with the best answer they can," Presson said.

- read the Cutting Edge Information survey summary (PDF)