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Are C-Suites Ready to Go All-In with A Digital Engagement Model for Their Frontlines?


Todd Nichols, chief commercial officer of Alkermes, gives his top three recommendations for going all-in to digitally transform the frontline sales team.

In this installment of the Harvard Business School Healthcare Alumni Association (HBSHAA) Q&A series, Todd Nichols, chief commercial officer of Alkermes, gives Michael Wong his top three recommendations for going all-in to digitally transform the frontline sales team.

Michael Wong: In 2000, just as many Fortune 500s chased the dream of eCommerce fortunes, a number of prominent pharma firms pursued “e-Detailing” proof of concepts (POCs).1 While some achieved five-plus minutes of meaningful dialogue between pharma’s front-line sales forces tele-detailing doctors versus the typical thirty-second reminders in front of “sample closets” which were then the norm, many POCs eventually stopped. As other industries have gone all in when it comes to digitally transforming their frontline sales forces, are biopharma c-suites finally ready to move from POCs to production-level digital engagement?

Todd Nichols: In the pharmaceutical industry, within scientific innovation there is a great deal of flexibility and creativity, but historically there is a lack of agility when it comes to business models and approaches to commercialization. Healthcare in general has lagged other sectors like financial services in digital transformation given our propensity toward risk-aversion, but there are good examples out there like CVS, which leveraged their digital platform to address an insurance pain-point at their stores. (CVS leveraged their digital platform to embed a process change that fixed the pain point within a year across their 4,000+ retail pharmacies (at that time) and drove CSAT from 86% to 91%.2

Todd Nichols

The dynamics of managing change has always been a major challenge for biopharma. For many of us now in the c-suites who started out “carrying the bag” and rose up the ranks, the traditional playbooks of success (i.e. adding more sales reps often led to a step increase in sales) may seem to be the only way forward in such a rigid industry. But I have found that every organization, every market, every patient group is different, and that adaptability is crucial to success. With COVID-19 affecting all aspects of life, business, and healthcare delivery, I am seeing an enormous amount of agility — more than I ever have in the commercial space — and more than I have seen since the PhRMA Code Guidelines starting during the 1990s. This is the industry’s “ah ha!” moment, and for our part, Alkermes has been very nimble to adjust to the current circumstances. We knew that the only way to achieve our mission, to help elevate the standard of care for patients suffering from serious mental illness and addiction, was to rethink patient access and how we engage with our healthcare providers.

So what are the top three recommendations that you have for going all-in to digitally transform your frontline team?

First, stop depending upon historical playbooks of linear planning and help evolve your team’s mindset to an adaptable one where they become comfortable with a daily engagement model that, at least in the beginning, will not feel as organized and disciplined as the past. By purposely choosing the right combination of field talent and digital assets, we can build models that produce valuable outcomes.

Second, start to challenge your teams to reimagine what’s truly possible for HCP interactions by leveraging available resources and data for decision making. For Alkermes, we’ve uncovered a number of cost efficiencies as we lean into a new hybrid promotional model that incorporates remote engagements and builds on our existing commercial infrastructure to establish an industry-leading capability. We are strategically investing in this transformation, which we believe will provide an important foundation for growth. And an added plus has been that our new model has the capacity to reach a broader audience with our optimized commercial field infrastructure.

Finally, continue to provide a north star for your teams to understand why you’re investing in digital transformation. At Alkermes we are focused on meeting the needs of populations of people, specifically those affected by serious mental illness and addiction, who are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of this pandemic. Our efforts on the commercial front have been matched by creativity in helping to improve access by expanding our injection site network to counter physical distancing guidelines, and delivery of care through telehealth by supporting policies and programs that can enable more patients to benefit from this type of care. We have even aligned our corporate responsibility programs to assist other groups fulfilling similar missions. In the end, our entire organization is unified in adapting to find ways to drive value for all of our stakeholders.

Todd Nichols, chief commercial officer of Alkermes, has more than 25 years of executive experience at leading life sciences firms including Biogen, Celgene, Merck, and Schering.

Michael Wong is an Emeritus Board Member of the Harvard Business School Healthcare Alumni Association.


1. https://www.pharmaceuticalonline.com/doc/physicians-want-edetailing-so-why-arent-they-0001

2. Westerman, George, Bonnet, Didier, and McAfee, Andrew, Leading Digital-Turning Technology Into Business Transformation, 2014, Page 168.

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