eCommerce apps and digital marketplaces are seeing record shopping activity but the pandemic has also exposed severe shortcomings in the supply chain (think about the toilet paper shortage in the U.S.). So the question is, what can marketers do to adapt? How can they change the shopping habits of their users and when should they pivot?  

When you’re dealing with unprecedented problems, it can be hard to suss out the solutions on your own. So I turned to Meera Iyer, CMO at Medlife — India’s largest eHealth platform offering home delivery of medicines, lab diagnostics and allowing consumers to book tele-consultation at home or online — to learn how her company coped with disruptions in the supply chain and still managed to meet important customer needs.   

The supply chain in India recently saw an unprecedented disruption. “There were no people going to factories; there were no people being able to go to the warehouses; there were no truckers,” she says. “In fact, we had almost 600,000 trucks stranded somewhere midway between what was their starting point and their end destination. So, it’s been a complete chaotic mess out here as far as supply chain for all goods, essentials, non-essentials and everything over here.” 

When your job is to deliver medication to the people who need it, a working supply chain is integral to your mission. Meera and the Medlife team had to adapt quickly. “First of all, it starts with you clearly assessing what state your business is at, right, and what we said is we have enormous demand because we had literally 2X jump in orders within a week,” says Meera. “So the lockdown started and without us even pumping in any extra marketing dollars, organically, we suddenly had a jump of 100% in our orders and we had, you know, customer cohorts coming back after literally lapsing over two years back.” That’s all great news – if you’re prepared to meet the increased demand at a moment’s notice.  

Put your loyal customers first 

Medlife had to quickly assess its capacity and prioritize which orders it could fill. The company also had to define a strategy to “maximize the serviceability of orders that are coming in at this point in time. And this was critical,” Meera says, “because, you know, no company is prepared or geared up for 100% increase in orders at any point in time.” 

Medlife started by prioritizing loyal customers and putting retention at the center of its strategy. This not only allowed the company to keep its most valuable customers happy, but made the job a bit easier, as they already knew what kinds of products and medications those loyal customers require. 

“And so, we split it into two parts. One was about shaping demand itself and saying what we are able to procure at this time and what we are able to readily get,” Meera says. “Let’s only create demand for that group of customers, let’s not go beyond that group and unnecessarily disappoint customers as well as be left with the horrible sinking feeling of not having serviced a patient properly.” 

Medlife also looked to find substitutes for medicines – replacing brand name drugs with generics or finding other companies with similar drugs — to make sure that health concerns were addressed, even if customers couldn’t get their usual brand. “So, I think the first and foremost thing when it comes to substitutions is to be able to map substitutable products quickly and accurately. Medicine is one category where 99.9% is not good enough, it has to be 100% right. It is not like a detergent where you don’t have Arial, you go and take Tide, it doesn’t work that way.” 

Finding substitutions on short notice for thousands of customers is no easy task. It requires a kind of flexibility most companies aren’t prepared to provide – but Medlife managed it. The team started by putting together a team of 50 doctors and pharmacists who combed through the catalog of drugs. “We prioritized the top 12,000 SKUs in our catalog… And we also instituted a process where there was a maker and a checker so the maker put down the composition and then the checker actually cross-checked it against the product and the product images and sometimes even, if possible, with the actual product itself.” 

That process took a week, but in the meantime, the product team had to figure out a workflow to accommodate these substitutions as part of the user experience – but it wasn’t all about the app. “At Medlife, we get almost 20% of our orders on voice,” says Meera. Therefore, the team had to think about the voice experience as well – and as it turns out, people interact with the voice experience very differently than they do the app. 

“So one of the things that came across very strongly is when you talk about substitution to a customer, what they want to know is, one, whether it is the exact same composition,” says Meera. 

“Second, they wanted to know who the manufacturer was and chances of you picking up a substitute if it came from a fairly known pharmaceutical company or an organization.” 

It quickly became clear that Medlife had to head off concerns by showing users the drug composition as well as the manufacturer when suggesting a new product. 

Ultimately, what Medlife’s story shows marketers is that the winners are companies that are quick to change demand forecasting models, improve visibility into their supplier base or simply pivot. 

Learn more about Medlife’s moves to keep its customers happy and healthy by listening to the full interview.