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Digital Drives Customer-Centric Sales Engagement


Digital channels have been with us for decades, yet pharma companies have been slow to fully embrace multichannel sales programs. Until recently, face-to-face visits with sales reps were still the rule, even for younger “digital native” healthcare providers (HCPs).1,2

COVID-19 changed all of that. HCPs have openly voiced their preference for virtual-only meetings, even after the pandemic ends. In fact two-thirds of HCPs say they’ll prefer to engage remotely or through both remote and in-person interactions over the next 12 months, with half wanting to engage with pharma only one to three times per year.1 They also want content that better addresses their challenges and needs.3

Pharma companies are responding by adopting digital-first strategies centered around the customer and making their commercial content more relevant and accessible.4 In the process, the role of the sales rep is changing from primarily transactional to a more collaborative model, moving from order-taker to influencer. Reps are learning new skills, such as how to interpret digital metrics around HCP usage patterns and preferences.5

Digital-first thinking is proving to be a win-win, for both HCPs and pharma. Virtual meetings expand the number of calls reps can make and enable them to connect with HCPs who were often unreachable in the past. Reps who engage with customers virtually are making 15% more calls than those who rely on in-person-only approaches.6 They’re also now reaching 25% more target HCPs than they did before the pandemic.

Paul Shawah, Veeva Systems

Paul Shawah, Veeva Systems

As reps climb the digital learning curve, pharma sales leaders note that their teams are better equipped to meet customers’ channel preferences, and that they are not only reaching more customers but deepening relationships with them. What’s more, they are achieving all of these goals while improving efficiency and agility.

This article explores results that companies such as Impel NeuroPharma, Inc., a small innovator launching its first-approved therapy, are seeing as they take a customer-first approach to digital engagement.

Putting the Customer First

Based in Seattle, Impel is a commercial-stage biopharmaceutical company preparing to launch its first product, TRUDHESA™ (dihydroergotamine mesylate) nasal spray, which received FDA approval in September 2021. The company is taking a customer-centric approach to developing its sales goals and strategy for reaching both HCPs and patients. This means shifting from the typical emphasis of pharma sales outreach and messaging.

“Instead of beginning with a company goal and cascading that down to physicians and patients from the inside out, we start with the customer first,” says Adrian Adams, Impel’s chairman and chief executive officer. “We call it a ‘customer-in’ approach, where we develop our strategy to meet customer needs from the outside in, which, in turn, enables us to harness the power of targeted, digital marketing.” For instance, Impel focuses on personalizing interactions, working closely with physicians to learn their preferences, and being responsive to them in real time.

As a small, public company, Impel must also be smart, nimble, and opportunistic since it competes with major players well established in the neurological space. “Our salesforce must maximize its efficiency and effectiveness to compete against companies with larger sales operations of hundreds of people,” says Adams. “Our digital-first approach will help us maximize the value of every interaction and every precious minute we have with healthcare professionals, whether neurologists, headache specialists, or primary care physicians.”

The company plans to keep its salesforce focused on understanding and engaging a core group of HCP targets. In parallel, they’ll leverage what they learn about those physicians’ needs to broaden their reach through a mix of more cost-effective digital marketing channels.

Digital Fuels Valuable Insights

Digital transformation involves three essential stages—from fixing core technologies to adopting advanced tools that facilitate the quick sharing of digital content with HCPs to experimenting with innovation to gain a competitive edge. For example, a unified data strategy can incorporate valuable intelligence into a company’s digital platforms.

As it prepares for its launch, Impel recognizes the powerful role that data and analytics play in optimizing business decisions. The company is analyzing all the interactions it will need for a successful product introduction, such as those with medical science liaisons, and capturing data to inform more impactful conversations.

Competitive market insights are also informing Impel’s launch plan. The company notes that although one large competitor has a 500-person field sales team, around 75% of its prescriptions come from just 5,300 physicians. “Having this information reinforces our strategy of taking a highly targeted, direct, and digital approach to sales and marketing that will maximize efficiency and reach as we launch our product,” says Adams.

Work Smarter by Accelerating Marketing Cycles

In a digital environment, the growing demand for information requires a steady stream of valuable content. Some forward-looking biopharmas are shifting from ad hoc content development across markets and geographies to modular asset creation and management processes, in which content is developed once, stored centrally, and then repurposed to meet the diverse needs of various audiences and regions.

This type of approach helps companies reduce costs, because they don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time there is demand for new content. High-impact content is essential for effective digital marketing, which accounts for a major part of Impel’s new product launch budget. “By complementing salesperson interactions with a variety of different content, we can reach a broader audience in a cost-effective way while still taking a targeted approach,” says Adams.

Anticipate New Ways to Engage HCPs and Other Key Audiences

Many of the changes seen during the pandemic will likely become permanent as commercial engagement, channels, and job roles shift. Given this, teams need to continue getting smarter in the ways they work and ensure their connections with HCPs are informed by data.

Adams, a veteran of more than 25 commercial product launches before joining Impel, sees a data-driven strategy as being smart and imperative for the company’s first launch. “We’ve had time to observe how HCPs want to engage with companies like ours, which is why we’re investing in specialized training and resources to ensure that we’re using face-to-face and digital interactions and sales and marketing tools most effectively,” he says.

The past year has proven the benefit of strong digital sales channels and engagement programs, and the need for customer-focused content. A growing number of companies are using these lessons learned to develop more effective field strategies that combine digital and in-person engagement to drive commercial success.

Paul Shawah is Executive Vice President, Commercial Strategy, at Veeva Systems.


1 J. van den Burg, “Addressing the Need for Digital Engagement With Healthcare Providers,”The Journal of mHealth, Jan. 22, 2020

2 “Intelligent HCP Engagement in Europe: An Across Health Remote Engagement White Paper”

3 Accenture Life Sciences Research Report, “Is COVID-19 Changing the Way Pharma Engages With HCPs?” August 2020

4 McKinsey, “Omnichannel Engagement in Med Tech: The Time Is Now,” May 19, 2021

5 M. McLaughlin and J. Whitaker, “Why a Mix of Field Skills Is Crucial to Thriving in the Digital Era,” PharmExec.com, April 20, 2021

6 Veeva Pulse data, US Market, June 2021

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