The ability to engage physicians through marketing and sales efforts has grown more challenging for pharmaceutical companies over the past two decades with evolving regulations, stricter supplier and rep vetting processes, and simply less time for physicians to spend outside the clinical practice.

The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded these issues with health facility shutdowns, tight access restrictions, and physicians overwhelmed by virus patients. Throughout the pandemic, the savviest pharma sales and marketing teams have approached engagement in ways that meet physicians’ preferences and needs.

Most notably, is the tremendous shift from in-person to virtual meetings. Prior to the pandemic, 64% of meetings with pharma sales reps were held in person. During the pandemic, this shifted to 65% of meetings held virtually.1 While some physicians say they want to resume face-to-face meetings, others prefer a hybrid approach of in-person and virtual—even after the pandemic ends.

To gain a competitive edge moving forward, pharma companies must evaluate their current teams, structures, technology, tools, and processes to determine if they have what it takes to thrive in this “new normal.” In many cases, they will have to shift job requirements to find sales, marketing, and medical affairs professionals with the necessary skills and adaptability to succeed.

Follow these four steps to hire the right talent to succeed in the new pharma sales and marketing reality.

1. Segment Your Customers and Teams for Sales Success

A “one size fits all sales rep” who can serve all of your customers will never exist. Physician engagement is about human relationships. Different physicians will want to communicate with your company in different ways.

The same goes for your sales reps. You likely have on your team experienced individuals who excel at connecting with customers in the traditional way of in-person meetings. They have strong, existing relationships with physicians, and these physicians are accustomed to a personalized approach. Continue to leverage these individuals to target accounts where face-to-face interactions are a critical part of your team’s success.

Attempting to rewire reps who have been successful with traditional, in-person modes of engagement will likely lead to frustration and failure. Let those reps with skills and connections do what they do best, but arm them with training and tools for virtual engagement of physicians when the need arises.

Chip Romp, Executive Vice President, Commercial at Seagen, a global biotechnology company that discovers, develops, and commercializes transformative cancer medicines, explains why it is important to maintain practices that work today and not try to completely reinvent the wheel.

“One of the things that has been underscored during this pandemic is that quality matters. Having a rep at a local level with deep understanding and deep knowledge gives you a better chance of finding the preferred path for that customer and engaging them.”

For those physicians who prefer digital outreach, you will need a distinct type of sales rep, one who is skilled in digital technologies. It’s not just about knowing how to schedule and conduct a Zoom meeting with a physician. Rather, this new phenotype must have deep knowledge of the digital tools at their disposal, the interest and aptitude to embrace new approaches, and the ability to leverage data to successfully target physicians and patients. These individuals are often working hand-in-hand with marketing for inputs to their sales interactions.

This digital sales force will also be able to engage with far more physicians in a shorter period of time compared with the traditional in-person approach. You may even find that you can operate successfully with a smaller team than you had before. For each of these teams—traditional and digital—you will need to establish separate goals and metrics.

2. Target the Data-driven Individuals

When expanding or enhancing your sales and marketing team with individuals who will succeed in the new digital engagement environment, look to those companies who are early adopters in data-driven decision-making. While it is still important to target talent with expertise in your vertical (e.g., specialty, disease state, treatment methodology, etc.) and strong physician relationships, you’ll also benefit from acquiring individuals who are ahead of the curve in terms of technology.

“COVID-19 has changed how we invest in our marketing budgets. Digital spend is up,” noted Romp. “One of the benefits of a digital approach is the ability to quickly access metrics to assess its effectiveness. Digital marketing provides a clear understanding of what’s resonating with physicians and allows us to scale and expand what truly works.”

It’s no secret that digital tools can track clusters of diseases in a specific geographic area. Leveraging web search data, sales and marketing teams can see spikes in a certain condition among a specific population. This happened early in the pandemic when web searches for symptoms revealed where COVID-19 was surging before physicians even knew it.

Early adopters understand marketing and sales technologies and know how to use them to engage physicians and patients at the time of treatment decisions in the most effective way. These are the people you will want to enhance your sales team.

3. Build a Collaborative Team

Physicians want to gain value from a pharma company interaction versus being at the other end of a sales pitch. They now expect reps to “be skilled in addressing clinical and scientific questions beyond the product detail.”2 Therefore, pharma companies must cultivate collaborative teams that blend sales, marketing, and medical affairs.

Thanks to virtual interactions, medical affairs professionals can attend far more meetings. While prior to the pandemic they might have been expected to fly to a location, today it is acceptable to connect via Zoom with a physician half a world away. As a result, pharma companies are leveraging medical affairs more often in their sales efforts, and physicians love it.

In a 2020 survey of healthcare providers, 82% said they have seen pharma companies change what they communicate about, delivering not just product information, but providing support that meets their most pressing needs.3

To make this collaborative model work, you need sales reps who are willing to be team players rather than “lone wolves” who feel they can do everything on their own. These individuals should be able to recognize when a physician needs information beyond what they can provide and be willing to bring in medical affairs to fill the gaps.

4. Deliver the Right Information at the Right Time

Physicians expect more real-time information and feedback, and they want this information to be more localized and personalized. At the same time, patients have become much more involved in the care decision-making progress. Think of patients weighing the pros and cons of the various COVID-19 vaccine options available and selecting the clinic that has the vaccine of their choice.

To succeed, pharmaceutical companies need to give both the doctors and their patients the information they need at the exact point in which they are making a decision on treatment. Therefore, your sales and marketing teams must understand how to use data to deliver the right information at the right times and through the right mediums.

“Optionality is good for the customer,” said Romp. “They should be able to receive information in a way that feels most effective to them. We have broadened that in pharma and made those delivery vehicles much more efficient and engaging across the board.”

Digital marketing has begun dominating pharmaceutical marketing practices. Your company needs experts in this area who can develop and deploy a solid strategy aligned to your audiences.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges and opportunities to pharma manufacturers in terms of physician engagement. Physicians have found greater comfort with virtual meeting tools, which has opened the door to new ways of connecting. It has also enabled pharma companies to connect with more individuals in a shorter period of time compared with traditional in-person sales calls. But this convenience comes at a price.

Pharma companies must invest in their sales, marketing, and medical affairs teams in terms of talent, tools, and training. There’s no going back to the old ways of doing business. Nobody knows exactly what the future holds but if you keep on top of the trends, you can build a team that continues to gain momentum.

References:

1. “Reinventing Relevance, New Models for Pharma Engagement with Healthcare Providers in a COVID-19 World.” Accenture Healthcare Provider Survey May 2020. https://www.accenture.com/_acnmedia/PDF-130/Accenture-HCP-Survey-v4.pdf#zoom=40.

2. “The Impact of COVID-19 on Manufacturers’ Commercial Model.” Numerof & Associates, December 2020. https://info.nai-consulting.com/acton/attachment/5655/f-6a353041-b931-4c47-b816-67c863dd07af/1/-/-/-/-/Numerof%20Commerical%20Model%20Report%20-%20December%202020.pdf.

3. “Reinventing Relevance, New Models for Pharma Engagement with Healthcare Providers in a COVID-19 World.” Accenture Healthcare Provider Survey May 2020. https://www.accenture.com/_acnmedia/PDF-130/Accenture-HCP-Survey-v4.pdf#zoom=40.

  • Dave Melville

    Dave Melville is CEO and Founder of The Bowdoin Group, a Boston-headquartered executive search firm. Dave’s focus as CEO is on providing superior service through a strategic business approach, exceptional industry expertise, and an obsessive pursuit of excellence. With over 30 years of search experience, Dave leads Bowdoin’s strategic planning initiatives and is involved as a key resource for the firm’s growing client base.

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