Two pharmacists behind a screen on computers in pharmacy drugstore as a patient waits behind a pane of glass.
Editorial

Here's What I Learned About Customer Experience From One Pharmacy Trip

8 minute read
Dom Nicastro avatar
A recent trip to the pharmacy produced a sobering message: we need to do better at hybrid customer experience.

You can gain some decent customer experience insights while you wait on your prescription. My takeaway on a trip to a local CVS earlier this year? We need to do better at providing in-store experiences along with our digital customer experiences.

Much better.

Here's my tale (with some paraphrasing):

A gentleman in his 80s (I learned his age later) approached the pharmacy counter and asked, “Can I get a COVID-19 vaccine, please?”

“No,” the pharmacist rep answered. "You have to schedule an appointment online." 

“What about people that don’t have a computer?” the gentleman asked, clearly rattled.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “You need to do it online.”

Here he was, a local resident and a member of the most vulnerable population for COVID-19-related illnesses, denied from obtaining his vaccination.

Digital Isn't the Only Customer Experience

Now, let's get something straight. This isn't a CVS hit piece. It's not in the business of vaccination denials. In fact, CVS should be commended for being part of the US retail pharmacy chains that, as of June 23, according to the CDC, have administered 256.3 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines.

Last month, CVS reported in its first quarter earnings call ($76.8 billion in revenue, up 11.2% compared to the prior year) that it led the nation in administering more than six million COVID-19 tests and more than eight million COVID-19 vaccines in the first quarter of 2022.  

All great stuff. CVS is truly a large part of curbing the spread of this deadly virus that's killed more than 1.01 million United States residents and 6.33 million globally.

However, back to customer experience and some deserved criticism.

My gotcha in this local scenario I witnessed? The older gentleman’s comment: “What about people that don’t have a computer?”

Bingo. What about those people? What about those people who don’t get out much and happen to be in a pharmacy and just want to get their shot? What about those people that don’t have internet access?

Why can’t more large corporations empower their frontline workers at brick-and-mortar stores to accept all kinds of customers: the digitally-savvy ones and the ones who like the old-fashioned walk-in experience like they've known most of their lives?

Availability is the best customer experience, right? You need something. You get something. Un-availability quickly becomes the worst customer experience, no?

This is not a problem with the actual local store I visited and the people it employs. I didn’t expect the pharmacist to just sign up the gentleman on the spot. She couldn't. She didn’t have the power or support to do that. I get that.

The problem is not baking this process in from the top down, empowering the frontline teams to have the ability to support a wide range of customers with different needs.

Related Article: What It Takes to Build a Standout Digital Customer Experience

Customers Just Want a Good Experience

“Customers no longer distinguish between online and offline and expect seamless experiences regardless of the channel used to interact with a business,” Uberall CEO and founder Florian Hübner told me in an interview.

His team put out a study on hybrid experiences with Forrester Consulting earlier this year and found that 70% of businesses indicate a deeper understanding of their customers is more important now than before the pandemic. It also found that 25% of activities related to the beginning and end of the customer journey are outsourced, and 75% are managed in-house. Activities managed in-house are fragmented across different teams, from digital marketing to customer service.

Maybe that’s part of the problem here. Maybe not.

“The organizations that show up when the customer is looking (likely online), creating an actually helpful digital presence that gets noticed and selected over competitors, will thrive in the hybrid customer journey,” Hübner added. "'Getting found' and 'being chosen' also online are the first essential steps towards a successful hybrid experience. The seal will be to ‘drive loyalty’ by offering an overall online and in-store experience so good that customers come back and bring others with them.”

CVS Response: In-Person Sign-Ups ‘Pending Availability’ 

This isn’t a CVS-only problem. That said, I wanted to give CVS a chance to weigh in on this particular local store’s efforts with the elderly gentleman who wanted a walk-in vaccine appointment back in April.

Back then, I reached out to media relations and asked the following questions: How does CVS approach combining those experiences — physical and digital? Is it true people need to sign up for COVID-19 vaccines online? Or can you sign up in person, and this one store just chose not to allow it? Would CVS consider adding an in-store sign-up component?

Matt Blanchette, senior manager, retail communications for Woonsocket, RI-based CVS Pharmacy, said walk-ins are available at all locations, pending availability. On June 29, I called the local CVS where the elderly man was denied and was told by a representative they do not offer walk-ins and can schedule COVID-19 vaccines online or by phone.

Learning Opportunities

“The vast majority of COVID-19 appointments are successfully booked using our digital scheduling system," Blanchette told CMSWire. "However, walk-in appointments are also available. Anyone requiring assistance with the scheduling tool or without access to a computer or mobile device is encouraged to call CVS Customer Service (1-800-SHOP-CVS).”

Further, for patients that meet all of the eligibility criteria, a proxy (such as a dependent, friend or neighbor) can help schedule the appointment on CVS.com or in the CVS Pharmacy app, according to Blanchette. The patient will be asked to provide his/her insurance card, social security number and/or driver’s license number at the time of scheduling.

Blanchette said CVS would reach out to the local store team I brought to his attention to share my feedback and reiterate CVS policies. 

Related Article: Providing Customer Experience In Times of Crisis — Again

When Will In-Person Experience Regain Prominence?

That’s a good step, for sure. And it’s also good to see walk-ins are available. The “pending availability” is understandable from a business standpoint. Not every brick-and-mortar store is blessed with endless resources, staffing and other components to produce comprehensive digital and physical customer experiences around the clock.

However, the in-person experience has to take more prominence, especially when it comes to something as critical as the COVID-19 vaccine, right?

A new retail survey from Dynata found online shopping has increased, but in-store shopping is still preferred: 86% of American consumers now shop online, and 62% said they shop online more now since the pandemic.

A larger share of respondents said they typically shop more in-person from stores when purchasing groceries, food and beverages (59%), personal care (47%), household products (46%), home, furniture and garden (38%) and pet products (29%). Only in the categories of toys, games & books (32%) and electronics (33%) do American consumers typically make purchases more online than in-store.

“The promise of technology, including AR, is to remove barriers, to create even better experiences — both online and in-person — that are faster, easier, more inclusive and accessible,” said Gary S. Laben, CEO at Dynata, “Far too often, however, retailers’ efforts backfire, resulting in digital tools that create more friction for some, or all, of their consumers.”

The key to getting it right? Understanding why consumers choose to shop in-person or online — and focusing on how to deliver a seamless customer experience across both environments, Laben told CMSWire. 

“There’s a reason people still do plenty of their shopping in-store — certain features simply can’t be replicated digitally,” he said. “People want the best of both worlds — and for good reason. …When people make the choice to walk into a store instead of downloading an app, they also choose what they want from the experience. Maybe they want that face-to-face dialogue with a sales rep because they can’t replicate it online. Perhaps they’re not digitally savvy or don’t have a smartphone and/or internet access.”

Ultimate CX Takeaway: Help Frontline Help Customers

Combining the physical and digital requires businesses to create a seamless hybrid customer experience and recognize it as an enterprise-wide initiative, according to Hübner. A unified approach is critical for organizations to understand their customers’ needs and deliver connected, personalized experiences that set them apart from the competition.

“The pandemic accelerated the way consumers shop by 10 years,” he added. “In the blink of an eye, the hybrid consumer journey went from a ‘nice to have’ to an absolute imperative.”

This is especially true when it comes to vaccines and the elderly population, we’d say. As for that older gentleman in my local CVS, there was a good ending.

I asked him if he’d like me to schedule his COVID-19 vaccine for him. He sat down next to me, and we walked through the pharmacy’s mobile website. Super-intuitive and easy to schedule. Took about five minutes. CVS is making leaps forward in digital, for sure. CEO Karen Lynch told investors in May, “We are focused on our digital-first technology-forward approach.”

Makes sense. In-store experience needs to be a close second to digital, however. And providing those in-person customer experience moments that matter starts on an enterprise level. That way, pharmacists like the one at my local CVS won’t have to say “no” to an elderly man asking for a COVID-19 vaccine.

We can all do better at helping frontline workers like her — and that will only help people like my new friend who just wanted his vaccine on a trip to his pharmacy.

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