In his heyday, the pharma and life sciences sales representative enjoyed a level of autonomy rarely afforded to professionals in other industries. The savviest and most experienced reps mastered the art of territory management by maximizing relationships with their best, most engaged healthcare professionals (HCPs) using strategies for total office engagement. Actual days in the field were optimized, with reps often gaining access to HCPs by sponsoring early morning grand rounds, evening peer-to-peer meetings, and weekend staffing exhibits and medical meetings.
The archetypal drug rep is becoming harder to find. Pharma and life sciences organizations have, over the past two decades, slowly transformed their sales organizations from the strongly demarcated inside/outside model into a hybrid where professionals toggle between in-person and virtual interactions with HCPs who dictate the pace. If building a sales organization from scratch were feasible, leaders would naturally look for a mix of qualities—work and soft skills, character traits and tech aptitude—that are conducive to success in a hybrid selling environment.
For now, an experienced sales organization awaits, and they need support to hone skill sets that were once mutually exclusive. Leaders must quickly shift their mindset to rethink training and development programs that help both inside and field reps transform into hybrid sales reps capable of representing the brand in whatever way HCPs may chose.
Defining the Hybrid Selling Experience
The restrictions of 2020 and 2021 solidified the fact that HCPs prefer greater choice and flexibility in how they engage with sales reps. For example, a May 2021 Sermo study1 predicted that physicians would prefer a hybrid approach to engagement with sales reps in the future. That same study also reported that, when it comes to their preferred method of engaging with sales reps for the information they need, most HCPs want low- and moderate-touch, remote engagement. Current trends by channel include:
In Person: Face-to-face meetings remain a powerful way to initiate, build, and sustain relationships. However, even HCPs who enjoy in-person meetings recognize that remote engagement is more convenient. A Sermo study of U.S. physicians2 revealed that 84% expect remote interactions with reps to increase compared to pre-COVID rates.
Email ranks high: Email is less expensive and likely to be an HCP’s preferred form of contact. The method is effective when prospecting and as a follow-up with links to information the HCP requested. In our own experience, we have seen close to a 20% increase in contacts with targets when engaged through email.
Video offers best of both worlds: Physicians expect video interactions with reps to double compared to pre-COVID levels. Whether reps are sharing news or presenting information about disease states treated by a certain therapy, video is highly effective for educating remotely with a personal touch.
Physicians are social too: About 15% of HCPs turn to social media to research products and find more information. Marketing teams are now routinely monitoring social content for product quality control and to address product complaints to reduce the chance HCPs will be met with misinformation in open forums such as Twitter or Facebook.
Don’t overlook regular mail: Snail mail can add significant value to the sales cycle. HCPs who distribute printed patient education materials and vouchers, often must be validated by a sales rep to participate. Connecting a remote touch point to follow up on the mail also presents opportunity for interaction.
Same Difference, Inside or Out
Veteran field reps quickly adjusted to remote selling out of necessity, however, the specter of switching to a hybrid selling model may be a bridge too far for many. Those who are accustomed to a high degree of flexibility and independence may struggle to permanently adjust to a more rigid working style and routine that includes new reporting and processes designed specifically for digital HCP engagement.
In a hybrid model, inside reps may not fare any better than their field counterparts—albeit for different reasons. These professionals are acclimated to a full eight-hour workday in which they may cover twice as many accounts as the field rep (without geographic restrictions). The workflows are repetitive, however, logging engagement in a CRM platform gives the inside rep visibility and important feedback about the impact of their work in real time. Compensation for an inside rep is roughly 55% of what a field rep receives, still those who excel in these roles report high job satisfaction.
Inside and field sales professionals generate significant brand value and revenue. But their roles are quickly going the way of the archetypal drug rep. The training team must spend ample time helping reps adapt to the new hybrid reality before the most experienced talent looks toward the exits.
Developing the Hybrid Sales Representative
In the past, it was enough for an inside rep to possess superior phone skills or for a field rep to skillfully handle objections. Hybrid reps must be adept at these skills, plus demonstrate flexibility and the capacity to easily find—and share—information, all while seamlessly working across multiple touch points.
To shape the hybrid seller, trainers should resist the urge to merely dust off the existing training and development curricula. Though much of it remains relevant, a fresh look is needed to be sure that the content captures the nuances that will help new-style reps retain their old positions as your brand’s best promoter. Reexamine the following training hotspots for opportunities to create an approach that blends the best of both worlds:
Soft Skills: High-performing sales professionals excel at building rapport; asking good, probing questions; and expressing empathy. In the hybrid model, the differences in how inside and field reps apply these skills will become evident in short order. Trainers should be prepared to emphasize role playing to help field reps improve their active listening and warm calling skills; insides reps may need help sharpening their in-person presentation skills including non-verbal cues and maintaining eye contact.
Call Messaging: Resist the temptation to invest more resources into training field reps on the finer points of pre-post call planning, core brand messaging, call objectives, and the like. For the new hybrid rep, call messaging becomes part of the broader ecosystem of messaging across multiple touch points. Everyone will need help with techniques on how to smoothly pick up the conversation where they left off. Reps previously dedicated to inside sales will also need support to develop strategies to manage the new cadence with HCPs they are also now engaging in person.
Video Detailing: Video communications require detailed planning and prep for reps to appear comfortable and competent. Hybrid reps need to be highly trained to seamlessly access and communicate important brand information. Prepare your standing salesforce with regular video call simulations and extensive role play along with instruction on troubleshooting technical glitches to resolve barriers to engagement.
Quality and Compliance: A proactive approach to quality assurance and compliance management to avoid penalties and fines is assumed. In their respective roles, inside and field reps knew well how to stay within the bounds of Fair Balance, adverse events recognition and reporting, HIPAA and PHI protections, and other requirements. Hybrid reps will need frequent and specific instruction to ensure they recognize the constructs to remain in compliance regardless of the touch point through which they are engaging the HCP.
Internal Collaboration: Simply declaring “we are all one team,” will not break down long-standing divisions between inside and field sales reps. Leaders should establish long-term plans to create and foster cohesion, while trainers provide services and support to reinforce new administrative processes and ensure emerging best practices are reflected in ongoing training and development.
Tech and Data for the Win
Nothing can be more disruptive (or transformative) to a hybrid selling structure than new processes and technologies. Reps rely on CRM platforms for everything from entering new contacts and scanning for notes to leveraging data analytics to identify key HCP targets, changes in a physician’s prescribing habits, referral patterns, patient volume, and channel preference.
A collaborative digital platform can help alleviate a bumpy transition and improve reps’ abilities to efficiently collaborate for sales success. Integrating digital interactions puts everyone on the same starting line and can greatly reduce administrative burdens and improve time management. Moreover, unified data empowers hybrid reps to offer more relevant information and messaging to their HCPs, and consequently, more value. Prior to fully integrating data, organizations must establish a strong data strategy foundation, including:
- Qualitative data: bases guidance and decisions on HCP insights and information
- Quantitative data: optimizes the channel mix through regression models
- Knowledge and skills: AI and machine learning-based platforms for real-time insight on the next best action in engaging the HCP
Facing the Future
Whether the hybrid rep is engaging HCPs in their offices, over the phone, or via live video streaming, they are serving one goal: To nurture targeted relationships as part of a hyper-focused, long-running brand campaign.
1. “COVID-19 HCP Sentiment Series Part 6: Remote Engagement & Physician Information Sources,” Published May 2021, Sermo.
2. “COVID-19 HCP Sentiment Series, Part 5: Current & Future Remote Engagement with Pharma Sales Representatives,” Published December 2020, Sermo.