During a recent client meeting, a vice president of marketing challenged my perspective on the role of customer experience in oncology. Doesn’t every manufacturer want to achieve the same fundamental customer experience? And if we’re all going for the same thing, how can this be a lever of differentiation?  


To answer these questions, we need to consider the three C's of customer experience—culture, content and context—which ultimately drive the experience you deliver. Here’s how:


1. Culture: Culture eats strategy for breakfast, so it’s important to understand your company culture and design an experience that aligns with it. Culture can be defined as the behaviors that we encourage from the stories we tell about ourselves within the organization. How does our culture convey the company’s values and core purpose? How much do employees and customers trust that this culture will lead to successful and sustainable outcomes? 


From the customers’ perspective, it’s the company’s culture that shapes their experience. No one wants to do business with a company that doesn’t align to their personal expectations of human behavior. That’s part of the reason why many people don’t like it when an airline mistreats a passenger, for example.


Those of us in the oncology industry share many of the same ideas around the value of human life, the avoidance of suffering and access to life-saving actions. We cringe at insurance companies denying treatments and shrug at the high costs associated with a patient’s weakest moment.


2. Context: This defines the frame of reference from the customer’s perspective, and it’s important to dissect the motivation behind it. A mentor of mine once said that customers can smell your underlying motivation, and that your intent matters more than your technique. You can assess this yourself by simply reflecting on recent interactions with various service providers. Do their behaviors smell like they’re creating value or taking value? 


Another aspect to consider is control. Nobody likes to be out of control, so how much control do you give your customers, and is this enough? When customers don’t have any control, they’re likely feeling the most vulnerable or helpless, and even ordinary efforts can lead to extraordinary experiences. Ever been forced to sleep over at an airport when your connecting flight was cancelled? Imagine if the airline managed to keep the stores in the airport open so you could get something to eat or a toothbrush? It doesn’t even have to be for free. If we, as consultants, don’t meet our customers where they are, we would likely be out of business pretty soon.


If you think about oncology and where patients are, that feeling of not being in control is common. Even doctors feel helpless sometimes when it comes to helping their patients effectively, and this changes with the ups and downs of the patient’s progress and the doctor’s day. To quote Paul Kalanithi, author of the end-of-life memoir When Breath Becomes Air: “I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. How can you talk to me as if the cancer didn’t exist? Why can’t you talk to me as a normal human?”


3. Content: Content creation typically consumes a disproportionate amount of our attention, and millions are spent on the creative aspects of customer experience development. This is natural. It’s fun, it’s tangible and it’s sexy, but it’s 100% wasted if we don’t get the context and culture bits right. The content should reflect the value you seek to deliver or exchange. Most of the time, support isn’t a leaflet or a tool but an engagement. Knowing how the content fits into a broader story—within the culture and in context—makes it click for customers. Standardized content pushed out to a mass audience often misses the mark. Unfortunately, it will likely only meet the needs of some, and even fewer recipients will receive that content via their preferred channel. There are lots of other nuances to the content as well. I have heard this in business a lot: Sometimes an incomplete answer today is much better than a complete answer in three weeks, when you no longer need the information. Customers need a certain type of value exchanged (thoughts, ideas, time, reports, benchmarks, etc.) in a short time frame. For example, if the value that a customer seeks is timeliness, what can you offer the customer now to address his problem? This is the challenge that oncology manufacturers face as their clinical trial data often reflects a narrow swath of patients. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really answer the “Will this work for me?” question for them. We are getting better at solving this issue with personalized medicine, but we still have a long way to go. 


Customer experience is consistent and individualized, and fits into the right context, yet many companies still struggle with it. What’s important is to always move forward. If you can keep going, you’ll be rewarded with the differentiation that so many seek.