When it comes to delivering what pharmacy customers need, it’s all about understanding and maintaining open lines of communication, says Alliance Healthcare’s Tara Crnkovic
Medicines wholesalers need to be attuned to the challenges their customers face, says Alliance Healthcare’s national customer service manager Tara Crnkovic when P3pharmacy pays a visit to the company’s Chessington service centre in late November.
“Pharmacy is obviously in a really difficult place right now and it’s very easy for a patient to take their prescription to a competitor down the road,” she says. “The key theme customers tend to raise is that they want that delivery to arrive on time every day, consistently.”
Of course, any element of a complex supply chain will run into its own challenges, and Alliance is no exception.
“A lot of things are outside our control. Recently, there were oil protests on the M2 – that caused huge issues, closing the Dartford Tunnel for parts of the day and causing massive disruption to our London-based customers,” says Ms Crnkovic. “It’s tough when you’re trying to communicate on a big scale like that,” she adds, explaining that the team uses a combination of email, automated phone messages and the company’s web portal to flag these events.
Ms Crnkovic stresses the importance of tailoring service levels to each customer: “We look after a wide range of customers: Boots, hospitals, all the independents.
“The needs of an independent pharmacy are always going to be completely different to those of a hospital, and we need to be completely flexible and agile in our approach.”
What are some of the headline issues at the moment? “With global supply chains, manufacturing problems can cause difficulties,” Ms Crnkovic says. “We’ve seen that recently with HRT shortages. It can be difficult being essentially in the middle as the distributor; we’re reliant on that stock being made available to then supply to our customers.”
She cites Ozempic as another example, saying that since the diabetes drug was granted a new weight loss indication, usage has shot up. “We’re working closely with Novo Nordisk to control the supply and make sure there’s a suitable amount for everyone.
“We were having to validate orders via a copy of the prescription that we then approved, just to make sure there was enough for genuine emergency patient demand.”
Ms Crnkovic joined the company nine years ago and in the last 12 months was promoted to the national oversight role, supporting area customer care managers across the UK. But she’s still keen to go out and meet customers regularly. “When I stepped up, that was something I wanted to keep,” she says.
“It’s important to visit pharmacies to understand what’s working for them and what isn’t.”
“More recently, we’ve agreed to go out and visit a customer when the delivery arrives so we can see the issues. With one pharmacy that was having issues with their service, we sent a team member to work in the dispensary for the day. They saw just how hectic it is, the pressure pharmacies are under and ways we can do things differently to make their lives easier, such as tweaks to invoicing and the presentation of their orders.
”Maintaining these open lines of communication is vital she says, adding that “we need to do more of it”. It works the other way round as well, with pharmacists invited to Alliance service centres to see how they operate.
“We get customers saying they are missing a product from their delivery, and we understand that means a patient may not have their medication when they want it,” says Ms Crnkovic. “But when they come here and see the scale of the operation – with so many thousands of products being picked a day – it does put things into perspective.”
Solving tough problems
“We are all about the voice of the customer,” she says. “What are they saying about our service? What can we do better?” She adds that the company is launching a new webchat service staffed by team members to get away from using automated chatbots, and that it is “on a journey of trying to be less corporate in our tone – a bit more human”. Another development Alliance is working on is making it easier for customers to self-serve so that the team can concentrate on harder problems.
Customers now have delivery tracking so they know when to expect their orders, she says. “It feels like we’re properly in the right century – it prevents them having to call customer service to ask where their delivery is.
“It frees the team up to help pharmacies with more complex problems and to proactively think about the details we should look at to improve our services, ask ourselves what our competitors are doing that we’re not.”
Asked what she most enjoys about her role, Ms Crnkovic is quick to respond: “No two days are the same. We’ve got to be on our toes all the time because things are always changing, and that’s very motivating.”