Half of my career has been in sales and the other in marketing. I have always had a strong affiliation to the sales team because as a marketer, I relied on them to execute the plan that they helped me draw up. My past mentors and other marketing authors call this Smarketing. So, this is a good time to reflect on what the long-term impact of COVID-19 may be on the pharma sales model and why a Smarketing approach is more important than ever. Three areas of change are evident: 1) More digital and virtual engagements from both sales and marketing. 2) Re-examining the value proposition of a sales rep servicing a physician’s educational needs. 3) Sales management and reps re-adjusting their mindset on the meaning of reach and frequency.

According to a survey of 3,500 physicians by the AMA in July/August 2020, the average number of in-person visits to physician offices fell from 97 per week to 57, and with an average drop in revenue of 32%. At the time of the survey, weekly telehealth visits were still almost three times higher than pre-pandemic. The involuntary adoption of telehealth due to COVID-19 has led many physicians to reassess the clinical value of some types of in-person office visits. For example, some practices have found value in pre-surgical orientation and post follow-up as ideal places for telehealth. Many pharma companies have provided sales reps with patient educational resources on how to prepare for a telehealth visit, which the physicians have found useful.

The Rise of Digital and Virtual Engagement

These changes in policy during COVID-19 have also resulted in limitations placed on in-person visitations by sales reps to healthcare facilities or physician practices. No longer can reps expect casual or frequent weekly encounters, and the appointments they do get are enforced in order to discuss updates about their products either through Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Skype. Lunch-and-learns with sales reps have also gone virtual and become less frequent. The new normal for now has diminished the level of influence of personal selling. On top of that, we are also dealing with high unemployment rates, safety protocols in seeing patients or sales reps in the office, and elderly or chronically ill patients holding off on checkups.

The questions will be how long will this behavior stay permanent and once we reach herd immunity what will be the new level of interaction between sales reps and physicians? This is probably the biggest question being asked for forecasting 2021 sales. However, right now the variability is too high to expect sales interactions to return to how they were pre-COVID-19 with the current challenges in rolling out the existing vaccines into the market as well as the impact of the pandemic on the economy.

The positive reaction to this crisis is that the industry has sped up its engagement efforts on digital and virtual interactions. The use of Zoom and Microsoft Teams for virtual meetings have skyrocketed, while reducing the exhaustion of virtual meetings by making the content concise and relevant. Furthermore, closed-loop marketing tools, such as Veeva, have garnered more acceptance and sophistication thanks to an array of digital visual aids, personalized emails, and virtual sampling options.

The virtual/non-personal digital experience has evolved from just a multichannel approach of throwing the promotional kitchen sink of emails and videos from both marketing and the sales team to an omnichannel ecosystem in which the physician or patient is at the center. In this virtual world of interaction, the goal is to make the content and experience more intimate and relevant because if you don’t, the customer can just opt out.

The Changing Role of the Sales Rep

Having a Smarketing approach with a spirit of collaboration across marketing, sales, and even brands within a company becomes essential because many times brand teams are targeting the same physicians or patients. Pharma may need to change its typical mindset to a more bottom-up approach. This will allow the teams to reach their customers in real time and with relevancy. For example, showing the HCP or patient empathy and respect for their time reduces the stalking factor that comes from multiple emails showing why a product is so great. By properly tracking customer engagement regardless if it is a physician or patient will enable both parties to measure the effectiveness of different marketing or sales initiatives.

Meanwhile, the use of integrated platforms or customer relationship management systems (CRMs) that can automate and enforce business rules of engagement allows everyone responsible for the brand to deliver timely, relevant, and personalized engagements throughout each customer journey. This also enables teams to refine the channel, media, and content in order to deliver value to the customer in an efficient and compliant matter. As a result, the one leading the interaction either personally and/or digitally may ultimately be the pharma sales rep. This may change the role of a traditional sales rep to one of a business-to-business development rep in which the goal will be to know when to incorporate digital into the personal interaction.

Companies, however, do not need to make a choice between a digitalized sales experience vs. a face-to-face experience. According to an Accenture Survey in August, HCPs still want the personal connection with pharma sales reps with 87% indicating either all virtual interactions or a mix of virtual and in-person meetings even after the pandemic ends. Only 10% of HCPs want to go back to pre-COVID norms for in-person meetings. This means pharma will need to determine how to use digital technologies to make sales interactions more relevant. Technology is already available to track customer accounts, trigger alerts, and monitor other non-personal interactions. The challenge is to find the right applications to help tailor the personal experience by bringing to light information an individual physician or patient may care about such as financial assistance, education about local managed care access, and the availability of other care programs.

So, if one of the lasting effects of COVID-19 is that some form of virtual engagement is indeed here to stay, then the secret sauce will be connecting on a human level in a multichannel ecosystem. How does a pharma sales rep adjust to this? Sales reps have been trained on the whole in-person call continuum from pre-call planning to closing, but the ability to tune into someone’s needs and concerns virtually is a new requirement since it is harder to pick up on non-verbal cues or tone of voice through the screen, phone, or even text. A lot has been written recently about how an organization can teach its pharma sales reps to show empathy virtually, adapting to different non-personal ways of communication and still maintaining a certain level of intimacy. This is where organizations may need to rely on their district sales managers for ideas on how to train these soft skills.

For example, this may mean having technology that allows a district sales manager to listen in on a call either on a video platform or by having a three-way conversation with a physician in order to evaluate these soft skills during the call instead of waiting until the end and then asking how it went. Because in the case of the later, the typical answer by the sales rep is that it went well. Once again, this calls for pharma to incorporate more of a bottom-up approach and to ensure the organization collaborates with district sales managers on the best way to teach this new skill set in a compliant manner.

Redefining the Meaning of Reach and Frequency

This brings us to the last point on how the industry should change its mindset around call planning and reach and frequency. There is excess capacity out in the field. District sales managers and sales reps are limited in their travel, so coaching must be done virtually as well. Plus, no matter what approach an organization takes during this time, they must rethink what success looks like.

Does the measure of success in sales during this pandemic rely on face-to-face interaction or how well the sales rep employs the non-personal marketing communication tactics? The measure of success could also be how well a sales rep employs the medical, regulatory, and legal approved emails as well as virtual Zoom-like meetings that show some sort of relevant marketing message or patient education content to either the physician or the office staff. Furthermore, should face-to-face, a phone call to the physician or office, an approved email or text, and a Microsoft Teams virtual meeting all be considered a call? If any of these points of contact is considered a call, will the sales rep be more adaptive to the needs of their customer and even be able to expand their reach to whitespace? This is critical now since calling on high-value targets because of COVID-19 has been limited.

It’s important for pharma to pursue change and innovation in their approach in reaching physicians. That means taking a Smarketing approach in which marketing and sales are more collaborative and not a continuation of the status quo of traditional calls on HCPs. The risk is missed opportunities to evolve from a multichannel approach to an omnichannel approach that provides HCPs and patients value that is relevant around a brand. The consequences of not doing so in a timely fashion can mean losing the race in being the brand of choice by physicians.

Disclaimer: This article is the product of the author’s thoughts after taking into account his professional experience, educational background, industry-related publications, and personal observations. It does not, and is not intended to, represent the opinions of the author’s previous employers.

  • Santos Torres, Jr., MBA

    Santos Torres, Jr., MBA is a Pharmaceutical Marketing and Sales Consultant. Santos is an operations and marketing leader with extensive experience developing and executing market strategies. He has a proven track record of maintaining sales levels for products reaching the end of their lifecycle and beyond their patent expiration. In his career, he has repositioned brands, segmented targeted audiences, and delivered more with less using a digital/multichannel strategy.

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