The most expensive commercial investment for many pharmaceutical companies is their sales force, and they have worked to increase return on investment (ROI) for as long as sales representatives have been promoting products. Sales teams have historically spent massive amounts of time, and therefore money, pursuing prospects and have always been challenged with the following question: “How can they more efficiently target and convert prospects?”

With the advent of digital, the dynamic has changed. Targeting is more sophisticated and quicker. Pharma companies now have access to various types of data including prescribing information, online activity, social media activity, and so on, which they can then monitor to identify patterns that indicate when a prescriber is ready to change their drugs of choice. Using such analytics to determine the optimal moments to engage the right customer with the right information at the right time will vastly improve sales team success. So the focus is now about developing the agility in sales teams to match this requirement.

Increased flexibility allowing healthcare professionals to choose how and when to engage while meeting an increased demand to demonstrate the value of medicines is the order of the day. This demands agility from commercial models and sales teams that many pharma businesses are yet to fully embrace. But one of the many obstacles slowing the pace of change: Businesses that have succeeded under antiquated models will advocate for business as usual. Rather, pharma executives should harness digital analytics and implement agile sales teams to improve the success of their product portfolios.

The Need for Agility

Over the past 20 years or so, mass-market blockbuster products have been the backbone of big pharma business. The three biggest blockbuster drugs, Lipitor, Humira, Advair, collectively generated sales of over $350 billion, making up a significant portion of their patent owner’s income. The success of such products means they have dictated a simple, catch-all approach to commercial models. Although new blockbusters are no longer a given, there are profits to be made within the industry. Competition abounds, including the threats posed by biosimilar developers.

The market opportunity then for drug makers is in immunology, oncology, rare diseases, and orphan indications, with a majority of new R&D projects in these areas. Invariably these treatments are expensive, exceeding $100,000 per patient, per year in some cases—making them much harder to sell across all markets around the world. Budgets are tightening and political pressure on pricing is a hot topic.

At the same time, modern healthcare professionals have constant, unprecedented access to huge volumes of information, meaning they can self-educate at ease and fewer are willing to spend the time in a face-to-face meeting when they can access the information they want online. The increasing onus on drug companies is to demonstrate the clinical benefit of their products in new ways to a range of stakeholders with unique needs, preferences, and regulatory constraints.

The challenge for pharma businesses is to manage these conflicts and sell to a “new” audience in emerging spaces—and the commercial models need to change to address this. Salespeople now need to deliver unique experiences to each healthcare professional they interact with, incorporating digital channels to broaden the platforms for these discussions and better using data to inform their practices.

In the future, the differentiator for drug makers and their sales teams will be to excel at demonstrating the value of their medicines to a range of stakeholders—each with unique needs. This requires new skills in medical communications, sales, marketing, and the supporting services they offer.

Analytics and the Move to Multichannel Models

With drug makers migrating into the same highly competitive spaces at the same time as more generics and innovative biopharma start-ups enter markets, they are competing for marginal gains across new, and in some cases, existing product portfolios.

This new market dynamic requires a move from the traditional commercial model. The sales representative, TV advertising, and printed marketing materials that communicate a product’s value proposition will need to be complemented by digital engagement strategies that speak to multiple stakeholders, through multiple channels, and cater to niche requirements. The channel mix is shifting as a result of more digital approaches, also driven by its lower cost—but one cannot overlook the impact human interaction has in physician engagement.

There has been some progress and reactive changes from the pharma industry in response to this new environment over recent years. Most noticeable is the shift away from a general primary care rep to a specialist rep supported by others such as field service teams and contact center representatives functioning collaboratively to be the most effective.

Many companies have started to adopt a more multichannel approach incorporating more digital channels into their sales activity. However, very few are integrating their effort and fewer still are using data effectively to inform their campaigns.

Data is the Foundation

Commercial teams need to be more astute at acquiring, interpreting, and circulating data to inform a more nuanced and collaborative approach. Data has to be the foundation for understanding what is working, in which markets, and for which audience types. There may still be a preference for face-to-face meetings among certain demographics in some regions, while others are in the “no-see” category. This is a very rudimentary example, but ultimately, channel effectiveness, channel preference, optimum time and frequency, sales data, and prescribing behavior all need to inform the approach that a sales team takes. It’s also vital that data is used to a) quickly understand where each audience member is in their respective sales cycle and b) provide them with the “content” appropriate for that stage. A healthcare professional who has downloaded safety data may simply be fact-finding.

Most importantly, sales teams must have the flexibility to adapt quickly when these requirements change or the data informs them that a certain approach is preferable or its efficacy is declining. The ability to quickly re-distribute spend to channels that are working is essential as is the flexibility to scale investment in response to changes in market conditions. These decisions must be informed by solid interpretation of sufficient volumes of data. New regulations, product launches, company-wide strategic shifts, and changes in leadership and portfolios will also put pressure on teams to change their approach quickly.

The ultimate goal for pharma sales teams is to fully understand the multichannel engagement mix for each individual customer and create tailored approaches that maximize ROI. The more customized a sales journey is, the more effective it will be.

Implementing Agile Sales Teams

The Agile methodology, which is widely used and much lauded by the IT sector, can be an effective way of helping pharma sales teams be more flexible, data-driven, collaborative, and therefore successful.

There are five fundamental components of an Agile sales model:

1. Daily debriefings

At the beginning of every day, the sales teams (which may be separated into different units depending on portfolios or sectors) has a quick (less than 15 minute) status update meeting where each member updates on what they did the day before, what they’ll work on that day, and whether they need any support.

2. Short-term targets

To make what can be daunting sales targets more manageable, the “sprint” concept can be borrowed from Agile where the overall goal is segmented into “chunks” with milestones and deadlines attributed to each.

3. Flexibility

Sales teams need to be constantly analyzing what’s happening in their world (monitoring competitors, regulations, market demand) and figuring out how to change their process, objectives, or strategy to stay ahead of the curve. Every sales team needs to develop a plan on how they will react in real-time to new data and adapt as needed to a number of scenarios.

4. Accountability

Customer relationship management (CRM) software is an essential component of Agile sales—ensuring that every audience member is engaged at the correct time, on the right platform with the appropriate content. CRM software however is only as good as the teams using it, and ensuring that every team member is accountable for the information in the CRM is essential.

5. Data and Measurement

The measure for whether a strategy is working has to be data, and a range of sophisticated metrics needs to be identified and analyzed against the relevant objectives of a sales team and the individuals within it. For example, rather than simply looking at numbers of calls made, analyze the quality of the calls and create a more granular view of messaging and the receptiveness of different audiences.

New Pillars for Commercial Models

Flexibility and scalability are pillars upon which every commercial model will need to be built, with the agile principle just one of many being touted to deliver these requirements.

Fundamental tenants of every successful commercial model in the future are analytics and data. To make best use of sales teams and marketing assets, pharma businesses need to be able to create and respond to insights on products and market performance. This means the ability to significantly scale back or ramp up specific activity is essential, and drug makers are increasingly outsourcing to meet this requirement. A case in point is a recent outsourced engagement where the provider was able to “flex” and deploy teams quickly to meet market conditions caused by an outbreak in a certain region.

Commercial service providers are positioning themselves as strategic partners that can rapidly experiment with different commercial models and identify ROI more quickly by integrating campaigns and providing analytical tools. Outsourced partners can be more responsive and often have greater market access and more people in the right roles. In many cases, they can provide a more cost-effective and efficient route to engaging HCPs with an optimal multichannel model, as well as the needed agility.

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