Moves Toward Greater Empathy in Pharmaceuticals

Posted on 25th April 2017


Welcome to the Business Empathy Forum and thank you for your visit. In this post I continue my occasional series on empathy in specific business sectors. I focus here on the large and influential pharmaceutical industry and its efforts to be more empathic. To begin, a recent article at explains how healthcare powerhouse Johnson & Johnson is working to bring more empathy into its consumer products business.

‘Big Pharma’ Begins to Reach Out

J&J has recently launched several empathy-related apps and technology solutions. One example is an app for the nicotine replacement product Nicorette that includes community support for people trying to quit smoking. Another product, the Listerine Smile Detector app for the visually impaired, uses face-recognition software to help users know when someone is smiling, so they will know to smile back. Debra Bass, a top marketing executive at Johnson & Johnson Consumer Companies, indicates that such products will continue to grow in importance in the industry. “When we look at the generation of millennials today, they expect purpose-driven brands – brands and companies that stand for something and that have a point of view beyond pushing a product,” she said.

Another rather specialized perspective on empathy is the relationship between pharmaceutical sales representatives and their most important market: physicians. A 2015 article at spells out how pharmaceutical firms can build and maintain more empathic relationships with their physician clients. “First, they should determine the type of content that physicians will engage in. Some prefer clinical information communicated by a peer. Others want patient assistance materials. Still others want a library of self-serve content that they can access on their own. By understanding these preferences, pharma companies can ensure that they’re communicating the most relevant information to their target doctors—and not distracting them with unwanted extras.”

A second consideration is to understand the channels that physicians prefer: some prefer personal visits, while others prefer direct mail, speaker programs, or digital channels. The point is to make the effort to understand the client’s preference and to reach out using that type of channel. Long story short, a more customized communication approach will tend to build empathy and increase the odds of a positive interaction. Finally, a third variable is understanding the impact of frequency: different channels such as e-mails, mobile apps, and direct mail have different saturation points. Physicians tend to be very busy people, and sensitivity to this ‘frequency of contact’ question can build engagement and create a better customer experience. In sum, sales reps should pay close attention to physicians’ preferences in terms of content, communication channels, and frequency.

Although these are just two examples from the product and sales sides of the industry, they do seem to indicate that the industry is making an effort to use empathy to reach out to and better understand its customers.

Good luck, and until next time…