When pharma companies called their sales forces in from the road last March due to COVID, they worked swiftly to adapt to a virtual selling environment. And now that HCPs have gotten a taste for virtual engagements, they may not want to go back to the traditional in-person rep visit. According to Bain & Company’s “2020 U.S. Front Line of Healthcare” survey, prior to the pandemic, 77% of 158 surveyed physicians preferred in-person sales visits with pharma reps, but now that number drops down to 40%. Additionally, 43% believe their employers will likely continue to limit in-person interactions with reps even after mass vaccinations.
Of course, restricted access to doctors was becoming a growing problem even before the pandemic, so COVID has only worked to accelerate a necessary change in sales approach. But now that virtual engagements are likely to become a fixture in the new sales model, what does that mean for pharma moving forward? To help companies make this virtual transition or just improve upon their approach, PM360 asked 10 experts:
- As COVID forced restrictions on in-person meetings, what virtual strategies have proven the most effective for HCP, patient, and/or payer engagement? How have sales and marketing teams best been able to simulate or replace interactions that would typically be in-person? Beyond virtual meetings, what other forms of digital engagement are offering the best results?
- How has the role of the sales rep or medical affairs teams had to change during this switch to virtual engagements? What new skills are required? What new things are being required of them? How will this change the role moving forward—even beyond COVID?
- What virtual strategies have not been resonating with HCPs, patients, and/or payers? Has anything lost effectiveness over time as the pandemic has carried on? What are the best strategies to deal with things like Zoom fatigue or an oversaturation of digital marketing or other tactics?
- How will HCP, patient, and/or payer engagement need to continue to evolve in the future? What long-term impact will how things are being done at this time have on the future of interactions between life sciences companies and its target audiences? What technology, tools, tactics, etc., do you expect to become even more prominent than they are now for sales and marketing teams?
Now, well into the pandemic, the way pharma’s Commercial and Medical Affairs roles have had to change is clear. In March 2020, the industry began “Remote Upskilling Version 1.0,” which involved: 1) adopting the use of new technologies (Zoom, Teams, etc.) to host virtual meetings; and 2) learning and implementing the soft skills needed to virtually engage with customers effectively, impactfully, and compliantly.
Version 2.0 began to take hold in September 2020 when managers realized their traditional coaching tactics weren’t as efficient virtually as in person. Managers not only required the same Remote Upskilling 1.0 their teams underwent months prior, but they also needed training on how to coach in a virtual world; provide immediate coaching/guidance digitally to their team without disturbing the ongoing HCP/KOL engagement; integrate a Quality Management System to ensure the quality of call matches with KPIs; and ensure conversations remained compliant.
The New Commercial Model
But ultimately, the pandemic has broken through the virtual walls pharma was previously hesitant to even knock on. Travel bans forced an immediate and intense shift in HCP and KOL engagement, and many teams have successfully been upskilled on the basics of remote engagement. Now, Remote Upskilling Version 3.0 is on the horizon. Pharma has a unique opportunity to develop a more customer-centric, effective, and efficient engagement model for Medical Affairs and Commercial alike. Call it the “Total Office Call (TOC).”
Instead of focusing on getting past the gatekeeper, TOC engages the gatekeeper and other members of the office staff. Successfully deploying the TOC model is proven to increase the amount of effective, impactful, and compliant virtual interactions. Version 3.0 allows for teams to master the art of remote engagement and learn specific techniques, language, and phrases to incorporate conviction into their virtual discussions leading to better experiences for all.
We have learned a great deal about interacting with customers virtually during the pandemic. Fortunately, our Sales Operations Team was quick in setting up our virtual platforms to implement virtual selling, lunch and learns (L&L), peer-to-peer programs (P2P), and sample distribution. Within three days of taking our sales teams out of the field we were up on virtual platforms.
While we originally established all virtual interactions to duplicate our live interactions, we quickly discovered several things to make virtual connectivity work better. First, which seems obvious now, is to meet the customer where they are.
We immediately implemented Veeva Engage, but quickly found we needed to set up our sales representatives on Zoom, Teams, and make other platforms available as well that worked best for each physician customer. This required our marketing teams to develop customer interaction resources that could be shared on any platform and not restricted to Veeva Engage.
Delivering Value to Customers
Another key learning: the continued interest and value of our L&L and P2P programs. Physician attendance for virtual P2P programs averaged double pre-pandemic live programs. Also, L&L activity was higher with more done virtually during a three-month period than any three-month period pre-pandemic.
Lastly, and most important, was the evolution of our customer messaging. We began focusing on customer service as a more important component of physician and office communications. Providing more robust support for patient education, reimbursement support, and patient care programs has been positively received by our customers. And since some virtual interactions will likely be part of the “new normal,” we continue to develop our sales teams’ competencies with virtual interactions considering it requires different skills than live selling. These learnings will allow our company and the pharma industry to redefine our value and relevance with our customers today and in the future.
While Zoom and similar solutions have proven invaluable during the last year, Zoom fatigue is a very real phenomenon. The key to preventing this is to look beyond basic web meetings for things such as medical education and training, advisory boards, and sales rep/MSL visits. That does not mean Zoom has no place in HCP, patient, and payer engagement. Rather, it means that synchronous meetings should be supplemented by other strategies.
One such strategy is to add asynchronous touchpoints to fill the white space between synchronous meetings. Asynchronous touchpoints can leverage tools such as discussion forums, surveys, annotation tools, and visual drag-and-drop mapping exercises to engage participants over several weeks. Benefits of this approach include superior convenience and flexibility. This is especially appreciated during a time when people might be working remotely or homeschooling their children. This format also allows for alternative approaches to customer engagement such as virtual journal clubs, case study discussions, and more.
Another approach is to enhance the typical Zoom meeting by creating immersive virtual experiences. This approach is useful for larger events such as congresses, medical education, and internal corporate meetings. For virtual events to replicate, or even improve upon, the in-person experience, thinking outside the box is required. Gamification of events is very useful in this regard. Virtual events can be gamified by awarding points for completing certain tasks such as attending presentations and workshops, engaging with exhibitors, networking, or completing polls. Gamification can also involve real-time activities such as virtual scavenger hunts or trivia competitions. In these cases, having everything on the same platform is key to ensure a seamless experience.
Another consideration is to incorporate time for fun networking or wellness sessions during longer meetings. Despite the Zoom fatigue, we all crave and need social connection right now.
The pandemic accelerated a long-coming shift towards a more digital and personalized healthcare delivery model. In essence, the industry quickly adapted its processes and systems to engage with patients, payers, and HCPs in a remote, digital-first approach while still keeping their personal communication preferences in mind. The life sciences community came together to empower patient care and will continue to progress in the next normal with a data-minded and partnership approach.
The industry has the opportunity to further enhance its digital and hyper-personalized patient and HCP experience, underpinned by real-time access to critical data. Effectively mining data will undoubtedly inform and calibrate future care delivery and R&D efforts. This will usher in a new wave of predictive analytics and insights to drive better business decisions and improve health outcomes. As enormous volumes of data are added to the healthcare ecosystem, securing patient data and privacy will continue to be paramount.
The Future is Built on Collaboration
COVID-19 has firmly reinforced the idea that the “go it alone” business model is no longer an option. Life sciences companies have demonstrated the power of traditional and unconventional alliances in delivering innovation, such as vaccines, of the highest value at unprecedented speeds. This ecosystem collaboration will continue to prevail and provide a portfolio of capabilities with which new solutions can be personalized for each and every patient. This includes digitally driven care with frictionless exchanges of data, powered by new technologies such as AI and Internet of Things (IoT), and supported by social media.
As we move forward together, it’s critical we leverage these lessons of this pandemic to help re-shape the future of health and innovation.
If given the option, many brand marketers would switch to pre-COVID-19 era strategies to engage HCPs. However, the pandemic did serve as an accelerator for digital marketing to evolve in the pharmaceutical industry. This will elevate the baseline for programmatic marketing efforts to engage HCPs.
I expect pharma brands will share their learnings and successes during the COVID era, which will inspire other brands to embrace digital technologies and advance the digital marketing mindset. Programmatic endeavors will become a part of all future media plans to streamline communications. The in-person conversations that were previously prevalent will move somewhat towards digital platforms as they provide physicians with quicker access to pharma representatives. On account of this, face-to-face visits of medical representatives will decline. Additionally, many medical events and congresses will become somewhat virtual, if not virtual-only.
The Benefits of a Switch to Digital
An advantage marketers will gain from the shift to digital campaigns is the ability to gather real-time metrics. The aptitude to refine messages and methods mid-campaign based on the data received on their target audience will raise the value of programmatic initiatives for marketers that previously had to wait until non-digital campaigns concluded. Those insights will empower marketers to more effectively deliver contextual messages within the targeted digital mediums and use those learnings in forthcoming campaigns.
The industry also swiftly turned to telemedicine platforms during COVID-19 and that evolution will continue to raise its usage by HCPs, given the comfort experienced by both physicians and patients. The usage of point of care networks is in early stages and will be a significant channel for pharma marketers to reach and engage HCPs. Therefore, pharma marketers will invest more resources to better understand the behaviors and practices of HCPs and deliver hyper-targeted messages that resonate with their target audience.
The biggest change, from my perspective, has been the need for extensive training in inside sales skills for those who have been in the field, in a traditional role, such as sales reps and MSLs. Overnight they basically had to learn an entirely new skill set—those of an inside sales professional. We were fortunate in that we have an existing inside sales team, and they were instrumental in training the field sales force to refocus their efforts on selling in the virtual environment. Going forward, I believe we’ll be in a hybrid environment where the field sales force and the MSLs will see customers both in-person and virtually, depending on the need and the value of the discussion. The ability to adapt to the changing environment will be key to their success.
How Will Interactions Evolve in the Future?
No one can predict what normal will look like in the future, even the best guesses from what I have seen would be a 50/50 split, maybe 60/40, in terms of live interactions versus virtual interactions with healthcare professionals. The days of dropping by the office will not work anymore, and simply calling the office can quickly become a maze. So how we deliver our messages to our customers, in the way they prefer to consume it, and with the content they are asking for will be important going forward. We will need to continue to push the envelope in terms of our ability to develop digital tools that will allow for meaningful conversations with our customers.
COVID-19 disrupted the life sciences commercial model by injecting digital technology into every HCP interaction, obliging the industry to go all-in on omnichannel. The deluge of virtual and non-personal communication that followed didn’t just underscore the need for deeper personalization—it also generated even more data. As we move from scratching the surface of omnichannel to full-on adoption, we’ll need to use the resulting data-driven insights to be more tailored in our engagement. Identifying relevant content for an HCP “segment of one” will be fundamental to helping physicians improve patient outcomes with the right patient education, community care programs, clinical trial results, and new therapies.
Similarly, pharma companies will need to continue to respect physicians’ time by staying vigilant about message continuity and channel alignment in their omnichannel orchestration efforts. As the hybrid engagement model becomes standard, the industry will need to learn which HCPs prefer which interactions, when, and for what circumstances. They’ll also need to rethink how they allocate resources. Embedding a process to measure HCP preference against predicted impact, such as promotion response modeling, will help organizations strike a balance between optimal customer experience and smart resource use.
The Power of Advanced Tech
Advanced technologies are well-suited to address these dynamic questions. For example, more commercial teams will turn to Natural Language Processing (NLP) to identify patterns in message affinity across channels and fine-tune the content being served to HCPs. Artificial intelligence and analytics tools that distill scattered insights into actionable guidance will be critical in helping companies optimize the customer journey in real time, not only by increasing operational efficiency but by making personalization possible at scale. Above all, brands that successfully close the loop between strategy and execution to continuously improve the HCP experience and provide genuine value to the medical community will come out ahead.
We have been advocates for virtual HCP engagement for several years. However, only a handful of clients were willing to venture into virtual meeting engagements until the lockdowns began in 2020. Resistance to virtual meetings faded once clients saw how easy, reliable, and user-friendly they were.
Now, reflecting on the past year, several key learnings about virtual meetings materialized. A few of them are highlighted below:
- Limit meetings to four hours or less: Zoom fatigue is real. Two days of shorter meetings is more effective than one extended, all-day meeting.
- Not all virtual engagements need to be live: Asynchronous platforms offer great alternatives to foster collaboration or accommodate busy schedules.
- Make it an event: Attendance increases when representatives invite HCPs to a series of talks over several dates, covering different topics.
- Regional-level speaker programs take a village: Ensure that all representatives within a region receive credit for inviting HCPs.
- Speaking to a camera is very different than speaking to a live audience: Speakers and moderators need to be comfortable in an environment where they cannot draw energy from the audience.
- Actively encourage participation: It is easy for audiences to become distracted. Live polling, break-out rooms, and chat box activities should be tailored to fit the size of the group or type of feedback needed. Also, encourage cameras to be turned on when possible to enhance interactions.
- Expect the unexpected: Nothing is worse than a disruption in your presentation. Designate a stage or event manager to assist with unexpected technical, timing, or other challenges that pop up.
- Do not forget the food: Sending a meal delivery gift card to participants better facilitates remote lunch and learns.
Any behavioral scientist will tell you “context is king.” So, when sales reps had to shift overnight to conducting their work online at the beginning of the pandemic, it was no surprise that the 1:1 transfer of their in-person tools and approaches to the digital world didn’t see 1:1 effectiveness. It’s now time to engage new tools, including behavioral science, to redesign sales for our virtual context.
Reps have traditionally built relationships and conveyed technical information face to face. In this new context, on top of being treatment experts, they must now also update their expertise in real time to educate customers about how treatments interact with COVID-19 illness, therapies, and vaccines as more science emerges. They have also had to provide greater support for patients in accessing treatments in these financially and logistically challenging times. Doing this via video meetings, phone conversations, or email also necessitates a more strategic communication approach.
Mastering the Psychological Drivers of Decision-Making
Behavioral science provides much-needed guidance here. In a randomized study of physicians, the way a treatment was framed—presenting the same information with a positive or negative lens—had a dramatic impact on decision-making. When shown the survival rate, 83% of doctors opted for the treatment. When shown the mortality rate, only 50% did. While this may be alarming to some (surprise—doctors are people too!), it’s a powerful opportunity in our new age of online-only communication.
It’s clear the shift from in-person contact towards digital communication is here to stay. The most successful reps will become experts both in connecting on an individual level and in coordinating a whole ecosystem of non-personal promotion designed to be maximally effective based on a deep understanding of customer decision-making. Behavioral science will give them critical skills to realize success in this new context.
Pharmaceutical sales reps are reporting that restrictions vary based on the practice type, as well as therapeutic area—making a one-size-fits-all strategy impossible. These realities have encouraged new strategies and encouraged marketers to develop innovative digital tools that provide flexibility, giving reps the ability to present in-person or virtually, based on the social distancing mandates in their area at that time.
How Reps Are Having Success
Many reps are reporting that HCPs still want to engage and are eager for information that will help them identify, manage, and ultimately help treat appropriate patients. In this regard, reps need to be consultative and align with the individual needs of their customers. Many have seen success through digital programs that are hyper-targeted, provide individualized engagement opportunities, and empower the rep to deliver a consultative experience virtually. These types of platforms have performed extremely well during social distancing mandates, increasing virtual engagement times by 50% in some cases.
In the absence of rep access, many companies have had success delivering innovative video vignettes featuring reps, clinical nurse educators, medical science liaisons (MSLs), and key opinion leaders (KOLs) that are also hyper-targeted, personalized, and customized for each office using technology that can be incorporated within Veeva to streamline the process. This has proven to be extremely successful, delivering email open rates between 35% and 45%, even as HCPs are reporting “email fatigue” during the pandemic.
The mix of virtual and physical communication strategies will likely endure because they provide individualized and personalized experiences that are meaningful and accessible.