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Oct 19 / heathgross

Mystery Shopping with MDs

mystery shopping with md's

Illustration by Cat Scott Larimore

We have all heard of mystery shoppers. While some view them as a loathsome underclass, creeping around the fringes of the competitive intelligence (CI) industry, there is little doubt that the practice can provide valuable competitive information. While most people associate mystery shopping with durable goods, the reality is that the technique frequently applies to services and technology as well.

Perhaps the foul reputation is the result of less than ethical practices used by a few unscrupulous firms, or perhaps it is due to the lack of formal or sophisticated training required by most mystery shopping specialty firms. Despite the prevailing superficial disdain for the practice, most CI firms leverage some form of mystery shopping from time to time. Of course, in the CI industry we don’t typically call it mystery shopping, we prefer to use high-brow terms like ‚Äúcommercial intelligence,” “competitor pricing studies,” etc. But as they say, “It’s like putting lipstick on a pig. When you’re through, it’s still a pig.”

Regardless of what you call it, or whether or not you like it, there is no denying that it works. Still, it is one thing to call a software company to get product and pricing information, but how does mystery shopping work in the pharmaceutical industry?

Physician Mystery Shoppers

In the world of pharmaceutical competitive intelligence there is a significant focus on understanding how competitors are positioning and marketing their products. Over half of the life science projects we support at Sedulo have a commercial component. However, the unique dynamics of the pharma industry make traditional mystery shopping impractical: While patients may be the end users and purchasers of the product, physicians and/or payers are often driving the purchase decision. So how do we get the commercial intelligence our clients need to support their own marketing and sell-against strategies?

Limited information from sales reps

The most common technique used by CI firms is to make direct contact with competitor sales reps. While this can be effective, it is often difficult to get sales reps to open up and even if they do, there are limitations to what they can talk about.

A physician provides better intelligence

A better solution is to talk directly to physicians. About three years ago Sedulo was working for a client on a particular therapeutic area that required a significant level of specialized expertise. It just so happened that my personal physician specialized in the particular area we were researching. We approached him about supporting the project as a consultant and his response was surprisingly enthusiastic. The resulting relationship was a huge success. As a practicing physician with a brick and mortar office, the client appreciated the unique perspective he brought to the team.

Thankfully the conclusion of the project was not the end of our working relationship. Soon afterwards we found another project that looked to be a good fit for him. This time the project was more commercially focused. Our client wanted to monitor how competitors were messaging their product to general practitioners (GPs) and specialists. We set the physician up on a retainer and he began providing us monthly reports on everything from frequency of sales rep visits, changes in marketing material and messaging, interaction with Medical Sales Liaisons (MSLs) and even details on competitor sample strategy.

Creating a network of physicians to support projects

As good as the information was, we needed more than one point of reference. Using the same model we reached out to a handful of other physicians that we had existing relationships with. Before long we had a small network of practicing physicians on retainer feeding us periodic updates of competitor commercial activity. The program was so successful we have since duplicated it across every major therapeutic area we are engaged in. Today we have a robust network of GPs and specialists throughout North America, Europe and Asia.

Physician Retainer Program

Despite the unfavorable status that mystery shopping holds within the competitive intelligence community, our Physician Retainer Program proves that with a little creativity it is possible to efficiently and ethically gather detailed commercial intelligence in almost any industry.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on mystery shopping and competitive intelligence, or contact me directly if you have questions about Sedulo’s Physician Retainer Program.

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