Customer service portals spark physician interest, not participation

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Physician interest in customer service portals like Merck Services and Pfizer PRO is on the increase -- even though actual use decreased between 2007 and 2008. 

According to a Manhattan Research report, factors contributing to the increase in demand and decrease in use include: insufficient supply of portals from companies of interest, lack of compelling content, insufficient marketing support and lack of sales force integration.

The report said is the most visited pharma service portal, followed by Most portals are visited by individual physicians three to five times per year.

The companies from which physicians would like to see a portal include Merck, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, and Sanofi-Aventis. The top features physicians are using on portals include product and prescribing information, treatment guidelines and the ability to request product samples. Physicians are most interested in seeing professional education resources, research updates about new or existing products and disease-specific patient education.

The report said portal feature interest varies greatly depending on specialty, and as a result, developing a portal with a one-size-fits-all mentality would be a risky venture. The report also noted that features to consider for a physician portal include: email customer service, integrating medical affairs and live video rep.

Marketing the portal is critical to long-term success, Manhattan Research said. Recommended marketing and promotional tactics include: marketing through search engines and other sources; integration into product wesites; public vs. private content; sales force and brand team buy-in; and closed-loop CRM.

Meredith Abreu Ressi, VP of research at Manhattan Research, said an in-depth analysis of the differences between different specialties in terms of what they want out of a portal was included in the report. “The preferences for what physicians prefer to conduct online versus in person with a rep varies greatly from specialty to specialty, so designing a portal to the needs of the ‘average' physician does not yield optimal results,” said Ressi.  

The data in the report is based on Manhattan Research findings from the ePharma Physician v8.0 study, a survey of 1,681 physicians about their attitudes and preferences for interacting with pharmaceutical, biotech and device companies online, along with Manhattan Research audience estimates from tracking physician use and interest in using these portals from year to year.

Industry insiders note that the increased interest in service portals by physicians reflects the changing landscape of the physician/sales rep relationship.

The Manhattan Research report notes that there are more reps and fewer physicians willing to see them – and as a result, pharmaceutical companies are now faced with the task of re-inventing the service model that has been in place for decades.

The report states that while the old model put a premium on the amount of time a rep was able to spend with a physician, the reality today is that companies (and reps) may derive equal value from encouraging certain physicians to visit a website for additional information, rather than trying to rush through that information during a 90-second in-person detail.  

As a result, according to the report, companies are beginning to employ surround sound CRM strategies that integrate web-based content and customer service with the other channels of communication, like the rep, into an integrated suite of online content and services. 

In response to these trends, the report states, many pharmaceutical companies are building full-service portals for physicians, allowing them to conduct activities such as accessing journal reprints, ordering samples, downloading patient education information and even live online videoconferencing with a rep. 

Ressi said that physicians do not want to do away with the sales force entirely, in fact, most physicians still want to be able to talk to a rep when they have a question, or when there's a new product launch. Ressi added that if it's a routine question or transaction, doctors prefer to conduct those activities online, when it's convenient for them. “This is really about providing physicians with a variety of channels to access information so they can choose the method that is most convenient and useful to them,” said Ressi.

Although most physicians are not completely removing the sales force from their overall channel mix, the report notes that a majority do prefer to conduct some activities online. 

“This is not unlike the evolution we've seen take place across most industries today,” said Ressi. “If you think about your relationship with most companies -- be it an airline, a bank or a retail store -- the norm has evolved such that the customer can choose how he or she prefers to interact with a company, whether than means in-person contact, email, online or over the phone. This is really just about providing physicians with a variety of channels to access information — so they can choose the method that is most convenient and useful to them.”

Although 2008 did not see an increase in the amount of new portal launches, Ressi expects to see more of them in 2009 and beyond.

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