If you look at pharmaceutical companies' traditional sales and marketing practices, you might think that all customers are identical. Why else would they treat all physicians nearly the same? In fact, there are many important differences between prescribers, even within the same specialty in the same town. Some are early adopters of new drugs and technology. Others take longer to be convinced. Many physicians are active participants in the sales process: They speak at peer-to-peer functions and lecture about the diseases they know well. Other doctors don't even like to see sales reps.
So can pharma design an approach to fit all of its customers? Probably not. And based on sales practices in other industries—where "one-size-fits-all" approaches have given way to tailored, more flexible sales and marketing models—pharmaceutical companies probably need to step away from traditional "reach and frequency" methods. More than high-call frequency will be necessary to succeed in an increasingly competitive sales environment.Strong prescriber relationships will be a key source of competitive advantage in the years ahead. To build these relationships, companies should rethink prescriber requirements to tailor their sales approach to the disparate needs and attitudes of physicians.
But first, companies need to look for ways to meet needs that otherwise different groups of prescribers have in common. These prescriber interactions, which typically include simple transactions like providing product samples, sharing basic product information, and e-detailing, present opportunities for standardization. Centralized, cost-effective, and consistent delivery of these basic services should be a core function of sales and marketing—it is the "lean backbone" of a marketing strategy.
To develop such a multi-tiered marketing strategy, pharma companies need to take certain steps:
IDENTIFY PRESCRIBER SEGMENTS Physicians need much more than information from pharmaceutical companies and their reps. Thought leaders within a therapeutic category, for example, might want to get involved in clinical trials, speak at peer-to-peer events, and get help determining which patients would benefit most from a product. In general we distinguish four types of primary care physicians:
CREATE A STANDARDIZED, LOW-COST BACKBONE The "lean backbone" comprises the set of sales and marketing activities that a pharma company has to perform across its entire product portfolio, which can be standardized and streamlined. This represents the bare minimum of service that the company would provide to prescribers, primarily information and "self-serve" transactions. These might include:
DEVELOP "HIGH-TOUCH OVERLAYS" for delivering tailored messages to prescribers who value higher levels of sales and service support, and have prescribing potential that's high enough to cover the cost. "High-touch" services include:
In December 2005, The Pink Sheet reported that Eli Lilly is using "portfolio specialist" reps to engage with "no-access institutions"—those that refuse to see standard reps. John Lechleiter, Lilly's COO, said, "Portfolio specialists are single points of contact for these customers, providing product and disease-state knowledge, samples, and referrals to outside expertise." According to Lechleiter, portfolio specialists are helping Lilly get "back in the door."
Financial services company Charles Schwab & Co. does a superb job of segmenting and providing high-touch services. Frontline retail staffers are trained to categorize customers by segment. The company guides them to the appropriate channels. Everyone has access to the backbone of services, which includes easy-to-use online access to accounts. More sophisticated investors get access to more information, while the most affluent get personal attention from independent advisors.
Similarly, Dell was among the first companies in the computer industry to recognize wide variations in what customers want from marketing, from simple transactions to in-depth consultative services.
Our research has shown similar—and growing—variations in what physicians want from pharma sales reps, but many pharma companies have yet to adjust their marketing "touches" accordingly.
Better Product Launches
The benefits of the model are likely to be magnified for growth products early in their lifecycles, when effective promotion will have the greatest impact in shaping long-term physician perceptions and prescribing behavior. And high-touch overlays play a crucial role in launches, primarily to help the product message reach early adopters and key opinion leaders. A high-level blitz of touches is vital in the critical six-month period after launch, when physician perceptions are established and the eventual peak uptake of the product is determined.
Developing a winning physician-interaction model isn't easy. Any change to the existing approach is a bold step, particularly for companies anticipating imminent product launches or promoting recently launched growth products.