CRM Without a Direct Sales Channel

Jack Aaronson

Updated · Aug 16, 2004

CRM is a no-brainer. Obviously, companies must react to customers' needs and show them the “right” products to buy. They need to keep consumers interested in their products and encourage loyalty through superior products and services.

What about companies that don't sell directly to users? Is CRM still important for them, or can they get away with being just “brochure” sites? What about personalization? And if the end user isn't the client, who is? Should the user experience be different for end users and clients (intermediaries)?

I certainly don't have all the answers, but let's tackle a few of the big questions.

Who Doesn't Have Clients?

For the purpose of this column, an “end user” is the person who eventually buys and uses a product or service. A “client” is the person to whom your company sells its goods. In the B2C world, an end user and a client are usually the same. In the business-to-business (B2B) world, they're rarely, if ever, the same.

Some B2B companies have multiple channels: selling to redistributors or retails in addition to selling to end users. In some industries, such as the pharmaceutical industry, this is illegal. Products are never sold to end users; they're prescribed by doctors. Other industries (e.g., the microchip industry) simply don't sell directly to consumers.

Let's examine the pharmaceutical industry. The end user is the patient, the client is the doctor. (The healthcare industry is more complicated than that, but let's keep things simple for illustration purposes). The big questions for such businesses are: To whom do I market? Is CRM meant just for clients, just for end users, or for both? Is the CRM strategy different for each?

Drug Companies Lead the Way

Drug companies are reaching out to consumers in an unprecedented way. The Internet allows consumers to independently research their ailments and which drugs they should (or could) take. Although this has angered doctors (their job is to know more than consumers do about drugs and health-related issues), it's interesting to watch from a marketing standpoint.

Product and company branding are a high priority for companies that want their products to make them money and build brand recognition for the next two major inflection points in the end user's product experience. The first inflection comes about seven years after a drug hits the market, when the exclusive distribution period is over. After that, generic drugs enter the marketplace.

A huge problem for drug companies is how to minimize their market share loss after the seventh year. Enter branding and CRM. The second inflection point comes when the company brings another new drug to the market. Though the new drug may compete with an already-released product, the company hopes the end user's great experience with the previous product will influence him to prefer the same company over a different one.

Of course, these end users don't actually make purchase decisions; their doctors do. But consumers have an increasingly loud voice when several drugs can be prescribed for the same symptom (such as sleep deprivation or anxiety). The patient, through heavy branding and positive previous experience, can sway which drug his doctor prescribes.

Drug companies should have three different types of sites, or at least one site with sections devoted to three different audiences. First is the company site. It lists every product the company makes, investor relations information, press releases, and other company-specific information. Then, each major drug has two sites (or sections): one for consumers and one for doctors.

Rules for creating each of these sites are no different than the CRM rules I've addressed before. Each site employs a narrative voice, creates a needs-based browsing experience, and aims to educate users. By following the basic rules of needs-based design, these companies appeal to both clients and end users.

To their clients, the drug companies should explain the technical product details, discuss ways to identify symptoms in patients, outline differences between competing medications, and provide other resources that help prove why doctors should be interested in the product.

For end users, they should create a needs-based site that centers around the problems and emotions connected with the symptoms. The site should focus on the product's effects and the life improvement the product provides. Customer testimonials, easy-to-understand descriptions of how the product works, and checklists for identifying symptoms are very effective on this type of site.

Online medical Web sites abound. Most are horribly designed, but companies are starting to understand the needs-based design mentality. They focus their sites on users and their symptoms, not just the drugs.

Wherefore Art Thou, CRM?

Where, though, is CRM on these sites? A brochure site, even at its most user-centric, is still only a brochure. Though legislation (like HIPAA) has all but halted drug and healthcare companies from collecting patient information, CRM is still a necessity. A newsletter that to keeps clients aware of new research, drugs, and treatment options would keep the company (and its products) top of mind while educating the clients.

Similarly, a newsletter for end users highlighting new research, offering words of encouragement, and linking to support groups would forge a bond that a simple brand marketing campaign couldn't possibly replicate.

Personalized sites that offer doctors a glimpse of all the treatments offered within the scope of their practice, would be extremely useful. It would allow doctors a convenient way to customize their view of a company and its products. A personalized site would allow end users a way to organize their research, find new articles and Web sites regarding their symptoms, and generally feel a little ownership over the complex world of prescription drugs.


Every industry can benefit from CRM. B2B companies face especially interesting challenges, because their efforts must sometimes be divided between user populations. Clients and end users have strong (if unequal) says in what products eventually get purchased. CRM programs can influence purchase decisions on many levels in this regard and can be designed to avoid channel conflict. They can also help build brand loyalty in industries that are just figuring out how to get their brands to the masses.

Article reprinted from

  • CRM
  • Healthcare
  • Research
  • Read next