Pharma Marketers: Eight Things We Might Learn From Zappos.com

Here’s my take after reading Delivering Happiness:  A Path To Profits, Passion, and Purpose by Tony Hsieh CEO, Zappos.com, Inc. While it’s true that Zappos lives in a less regulated business environment than the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry, Tony’s standards for communicating with consumers are now part of the context of our work. Patients have come to expect Zappos- level experiences.  This blog accepts that challenge:  what might a pharma company or hospital might look like if Tony were CEO…

Eight marketing insights for Pharma (or any healthcare or consumer business for that matter):

1. Are you sitting at the right table? If not, it’s never too late to change! It’s easy to get caught up and engrossed in what you’re currently doing, and forget that you even have the option to change tables. It’s also easy to overlook that the game starts even before you sit down in a seat… Don’t let inertia win, be sure you’re playing in the right game—one that you can both win at and fulfills your goals.

 While Tony learned this lesson during a phase of heavy poker play, he switched tables quite a few times during his life, and certainly for Zappos, they switched tables when they shifted the company strategy to focus on customer service and experience as a brand differentiator. It caused a shift in their business model from one of drop-shipping to one of carrying their own inventory so that they could be in control of their customers’ experiences…What’s the game your pharma co is playing?

2. Be patient and focus on what’s best for the long term.  Poker teaches that you may win or lose individual ‘hands or games’, but it’s what happens in the long term that matters…Zappos has a track record of making decisions based on the longer term. Tony provides numerous examples of this e.g. free shipping in both directions, shipping upgrades to high potential customers,  turning down skilled new hires because they didn’t fit into the Zappos culture…Focusing on the long term and making the necessary tradeoffs is not a new concept, but one that Pharma and all companies bump up against every day.  Unfortunately, all too often, most decisions are made with a short term view and little thought for the long-term impact or consequences on the brand and/or the patient’s health …

3. Never outsource your core competency.  Zappos learned that if they were going to build their brand to be about the very best customer service, that they shouldn’t outsource that department.  This meant that core competencies that they had built as an e-business, like inventory management and warehousing and/or customer service, couldn’t be outsourced.

What are healthcare and pharma companies’ core competencies? What happens when a new drug is licensed-in, but the clinical trials have not been done with the insights to optimize claims and information for physicians and patients?

4. A Brand’s critical success factor (CSF) must be the responsibility of the entire company, not just a department.  For Zappos, when they decided that they wanted to build their brand to be about the very best customer service and the very best customer experience, they believed that customer service shouldn’t be just a department, it should be the entire company. For pharma, customer service is largely not considered a true success factor let alone the responsibility of each and every person in the company.  Further, how many pharma cos like to call themselves patient –centric, yet we see inconsistent decision making, demonstrating that patient-centricity  isn’t the responsibility of each and every person in a pharma company ….it’s usually the responsibility for a few members of a brand team, but is this enough to ensure consistency and success?  (What does it take to truely be patient-centric? Read: Pharma: Is Your Brand Patient-Centered? 5 Critical Success Factors)

5. Culture is the best way to build a brand for the long term.  At Zappos, they believe that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff—like great customer service, or building a great long-term brand, or passionate employees and customers—will happen naturally on its own.  It’s Zappos belief that your company’s culture and your company’s band are really just two sides of the same coin.  The brand may lag the culture at first, but eventually it will catch up.  Your culture is your brand.  Zappos takes it a step further…core values are only core values if you can commit to them—and by commit, they mean that you’re willing to hire and first based on them…

If pharma cos had strong cultures of patient- centricity, and/or transparency, would we have situations where safety or clinical data was held back?  Is your company  guided by ‘committable’ core values?

6. Deliver WOW!  At Zappos, anything worth doing is worth doing with WOW. “To WOW, you must differentiate yourself, which means do something a little unconventional and innovative.  You must do something that’s above and beyond what’s expected.  And whatever you do must have an emotional impact on the receiver. ..Whether internally with co-workers or externally with our customers and partners, delivering WOW results in word of mouth. “

When was the last time that a doctor or patient felt a WOW and personal connection from a Pharma company?  How could Pharma achieve more WOW from more customers and patients? Every brand wants to achieve consumer buzz or to have patients advocate on their behalf…but what is the brand’s responsibility to help instigate this? Word of Mouth or WOW doesn’t just happen, it can’t be bought— it has to be earned…  Ask yourself:  What are things you (your brand or your company) can improve upon in your work or attitude to WOW more people?  Have you WOWed at least one person today?

7. Build Open and Honest Relationships with Communication. Transparency is no longer a nice to have, but an imperative in today’s world. With the internet connecting everyone together, companies are becoming more and more transparent whether they like it or not. Both the good and the ugly can spread like wildfire by e-mail or with tools like Twitter and Facebook. Zappos lives in a world of transparency…Why can’t pharma and healthcare companies act with greater transparency and openess? Really?

8. It’s not just about the money, but about happiness. Cliché but oh so true!  Tony reviews different frameworks for happiness.  All roads lead to greater happiness based on an individual world filled with more passion and purpose—being part of something bigger than yourself.  Is there a greater purpose than helping people to live healthier and happier lives? Then why aren’t pharma companies and the people in them happier?

Having had positive purchase experiences at Zappos.com in the past, I decided to revisit Zappos the other day when I realized I still needed hiking boots for two of my sons for camp.  When I hit the send button for free shipping I knew that I might not get the order in time, but I decided to put my faith in the Zappos culture and hope for a ‘surprise’ shipping upgrade…to my ‘joy’, I received a ‘fun’ email letting me know that my order had been upgraded!  Thank you Zappos!

Here’s the email I received:

Whoa, Nellie! Have We Got A Surprise For You!Hello Ellen!Although you originally ordered GND, we’re upgrading the shipping time frame for your order. It will ship out today, so you’ll get it even faster than we originally promised! It’s kind of like we waved our magic wand!

Please note that this is being done at no additional cost to you. It’s our way of saying thanks for being our customer.

You can also read Ken Blanchard’s review “Putting the WOW in Service”  in Strategy + Business 7/1/2010