Artificial Intelligence (AI) is rapidly becoming pervasive in enterprise applications and embedded within specific workflows across the commercial life sciences organization. It is no longer a question of whether AI will be a reality, but rather, whether or not companies can organize to fully leverage its power.

AI gives commercial teams insights on customers and their digital preferences to suggest how, when, and where is most effective to reach healthcare professionals (HCPs). So, it is easy to see why 48% (McKinsey & Company, 2019) of pharmaceutical companies have already adopted an AI program. Digital leaders, including Merck, Novartis, and Pfizer, are successfully incorporating AI into their sales operations to help field teams be more efficient and successful when engaging HCPs.

But the road to AI and becoming a data-driven organization requires business leaders and employees to think differently to realize AI’s full potential and, ultimately, be more effective in helping physicians treat patients. Key operational changes must be considered when implementing an AI program.

For example, how will sales reps shift their approach if AI suggests new ways or times to reach the customer? Are field teams set up for success with their current schedule, goals, and metrics? What more is needed from marketing to enable reps to act on the insights AI unearths? How will teams ensure the consistent input of new data that is critical to AI’s ability to improve over time?

Three ways life sciences organizations can reset their commercial operations to ensure a successful AI program are:

1. Work Cross-functionally and Gain Alignment

A successful AI program relies on many stakeholders from across the business, working together with a common understanding of AI’s functionality and value.

Kicking off their AI pilot in March 2020, Flexion Therapeutics’ IT team collaborated on their execution plan, involving commercial analytics to validate account activities and behaviors, marketing to create the messaging, and sales to understand and define the expected customer journey.

Haziq Haque, Director of Commercial and Medical IT, and his team developed use cases, with a suggestions-based framework that focused on connecting objectives with execution. The framework allowed stakeholders to picture what increased success looked like with the help of AI and then refined the AI program to best suit every team’s needs. “It will take time to hone this strategy and fully align as a company on how best to use the information, especially if it challenges day-to-day operations.”

Haque continued, “It’s important to build trust amongst the sales teams that AI suggestions will improve their success metrics and be a differentiator.” Achieving aggressive sales goals requires that every hour be spent on the highest value activities. AI may contradict existing assumptions and upend familiar sales approaches. “That’s a hard transition for experienced sales teams who are used to operating a certain way with traditional compensation structures. It will take time but it’s critical to success. It is a long-term investment,” added Haque.

Because AI may introduce insights that challenge traditional field operations, a successful program requires input from both technology and business experts. For example, one top-20 biopharmaceutical took a blended approach that combined external AI expertise with the vision of insiders who are familiar with the company’s objectives and operations. Otherwise, said a spokesperson, “If the ‘intelligence’ served up to teams conflicts with the objectives of a company, it will be difficult to realize AI’s full potential.”

With AI, commercial organizations also have an opportunity to align field teams (sales, medical, and market access) with brand strategy to enhance HCP engagement. Saket Malhotra, Head of Decision Intelligence and Innovation at Takeda, is in the early stages of changing his company’s vision to incorporate AI to power intelligent engagements and align field and brand marketing teams to take advantage of AI-based suggestions.

“Defining cross-functional digital/channel business objectives and engagement strategies is critical, and AI can enable this in a more efficient and effective way,” said Malhotra. “What is the best way to engage with the HCPs to predict customer channels and messages? How can we drive intelligent engagements and deliver personalized customer interactions across teams? AI can connect the dots across different data sets to predict the next best action with personalized content.”

Malhotra adds that AI’s enhanced insights are also key to continuous improvement across all strategies. In addition to call data, sales volume, formulary data, and claims data, Malhotra says that AI can show how digital content is performing. This type of information can help teams work more cohesively to improve marketing content and field execution over time.

2. Update Sales Metrics to Include AI-driven Outreach

Most pharmaceutical sales reps work a traditional business schedule, with goals tied to in-person visits, call volumes, and units sold. However, as the AI engine looks at various data points, it may suggest alternative ways or times to reach the customer, such as sending a drug comparison sheet or case study through email or calling after-hours when the provider is not seeing patients.

“Traditionally, pharmaceutical companies worked in siloes across sales, medical, marketing, and market access,” Malhotra said. “We are now implementing cross-functional, integrated brand strategies and field engagement models for better interaction with customers and enhanced field execution. With AI, we can now incorporate additional ways to connect with physicians or organizations, including sharing digital marketing content.”

Companies with traditional schedules and goals may need to alter their daily operations to include these new actions suggested by the AI system. Team performance might now include a rep’s interaction with the AI solution, measuring weekly actions taken, or call notes entered (which are needed to continually improve the AI engine and make it smarter over time).

As COVID-19 has already forced teams to incorporate virtual meetings and digital touchpoints into the customer journey, some companies may already be well on their way to incorporating outreach actions that don’t involve a one-on-one phone call or office visit. The next step is to re-evaluate the commercial strategy and update the team’s performance goals to include AI.

3. Expand Digital Communications Program & Materials

With AI, many companies unexpectedly find that they need additional digital content. Without content, reps may not be able to respond to AI’s recommendations. For instance, AI may suggest a multiple-touch email journey to reach the customer, but if there are only one or two approved email templates to send, it will be difficult to act on AI’s suggestions. In addition, with traditionally long approval cycles required by legal and regulatory teams, companies could fall behind with content creation.

One global pharmaceutical company is working to accelerate content development so the company is better equipped to use AI’s suggestions. It is one of the top challenges their sales team has faced in leveraging AI, but the company is implementing new ways to get ahead of demand.

Companies must also consider issues around digital consent, which requires teams to obtain permission from healthcare providers in order to send them materials electronically. If a provider has previously opted out of digital communications, consent must be re-activated through a personal conversation. As the industry increases digital touchpoints and healthcare organizations continue to limit face-to-face engagement, new roles will be created to focus only on obtaining this consent.

For instance, companies may need to invent a new role, like a Digital Compliance Manager, to focus on managing digital consent. This is important because field reps are not always successful when having these conversations, as  the customer often uses the opportunity to discuss other topics, such as ordering drug samples. Digital engagement, as a supplement to traditional field calls, is critical so gaining this consent should be a priority.

Another area of opportunity that exists outside of the traditional field rep visit is the webinar or virtual speakers’ bureau. With the recent rise in video conferencing capabilities due to COVID-19, hosting an online event may be a smart way to provide digital education. In fact, between January and March 2020, the use of online meetings jumped 2,347% with meetings lasting at least 16 minutes.

“There’s more receptivity now to digital engagement,” said Haque. “Reps used to avoid digital communication because it couldn’t replace the impact of face-to-face. In today’s climate, especially, reps are seeing the productivity benefits of digital as a communication channel. And, with AI, we can operate smarter and find more opportunities to sell.”

AI will not replace the personal element of the sales relationship, but it will inform reps on what topics or messaging to use when they do have the opportunity to speak or visit with a customer. “We can create unique experiences for our customers, discussing topics they are interested in and follow with digital communications to supplement these conversations efficiently,” noted one spokesperson.

Innovation Drives Commercial Success

AI shows great promise in increasing efficiency, improving sales and marketing targeting, and enhancing HCP education. The key will be to reorient the commercial organization to leverage AI’s potential. It may take time, but with the right amount of cross-functional alignment and executional collaboration, companies will be armed with the tools necessary to become a data-driven business without losing sight of commercial fundamentals.

“While we don’t know what AI will create in the future, we do know that the future will look different than today,” concluded Malhotra. “Most important, it will allow forward-thinkers to succeed.”

  • Brian Mahoney

    Brian Mahoney is the General Manager for Veeva Andi. He has spent more than 12 years in the pharmaceutical commercial and IT space. Mahoney previously held roles at Veeva in Business Consulting and Global Services. Prior to Veeva, he worked as a management consultant at Accenture and Vynamic. Mahoney is based in Hoboken, NJ.

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