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How Digital Will Redefine the Role of the Rep in 2021—and Beyond


What the industry has learned navigating the pandemic and what the future holds for field teams.

When COVID-19 hit earlier this year, pharma companies were abruptly thrown into the deep end of digital, forcing a massive shift in the way field teams operate and engage healthcare professionals (HCPs).

According to the tens of thousands of field rep activities that were captured in Veeva CRM since January, the use of virtual meetings for rep-to-HCP engagement increased more than eightfold, while rep-sent emails also saw a sevenfold increase in a matter of months.1 Digital channels have dramatically changed the face of HCP engagement—and many are now viewing them not just as a short-term necessity, but as an opportunity to reimagine the customer experience and improve rep productivity well into the future.

As we work with leaders across the industry and look ahead to next year, it’s clear that digital will continue to play a critical role in driving commercial operations, even as in-person visits become possible post-COVID. But in order to be successful in this new hybrid world, reps will need to be more flexible and fluid in how they interact with HCPs, meeting them where they are based on individual channel preferences. Modular content and data will also be key in optimizing engagement and enabling digital excellence moving forward.

The need for more content, faster

One of the most interesting trends we’ve seen in our industrywide data (which we refer to as “Veeva Pulse” data) from Veeva CRM has been the increase in average duration of sales calls since COVID. Virtual meetings extended the amount of time HCPs were able to meet with reps from an average of three minutes to 19 minutes, when compared to traditional, face-to-face meetings.

Meanwhile, rep-sent emails also saw significant engagement with an average open rate of 37% in contrast to the 3% average open rate of headquarter-sent emails. What both of these Pulse trends highlight is the vital importance of rep relationships in opening digital HCP doors. They also signal a growing need for more content to share in longer meetings and follow-up emails—not to mention, the ability to quickly tailor that content for different HCP audiences.

The industry’s global adoption of virtual meetings has increased by 8x since January, while average meeting duration has remained at around 19 minutes. (click to enlarge)

Digital engagement requires a more scalable and agile approach to content that allows reps to deliver highly personalized—and compliant—information to HCPs even faster. And for a growing number of companies, modular content has been the answer.

Unlike traditional content strategies that require each new asset to be built from scratch, a modular approach simply reassembles existing, pre-approved content blocks, or modules, to help streamline content creation and customization for different audiences and channels. Brand teams can define pre-approved components, such as text, images, and claims, that reps can then easily mix and match to create a variety of polished assets in minimal time.

For an industry that requires strict adherence to approval workflows across medical, legal, and regulatory teams, modular content provides significant benefits. In fact, one global life sciences company was able to increase their average speed to market by 28%, while reducing the cost of content creation by 19% and the number of review cycles by 22% by implementing a modular approach.2

In a hybrid world, having modular content readily available will be key in filling the content gap and allowing reps to engage in relevant, useful conversations with HCPs at the right time. Selling will become a much more iterative, story-driven process, as each customer touchpoint delivers new insights and information for better decision making.

Setting reps up for success through data

Data is another critical component in ensuring effective digital engagement. For one, it provides visibility into the speed at which field teams and HCPs are adopting digital. Second, it highlights which strategies are working and how reps can leverage digital in the most effective ways possible.

Now is the perfect time to look back at the frequency of virtual meetings and rep-sent emails over the last six months, with an eye toward gaining greater insight into rep behavior, as well as what might be driving their decisions to engage via one channel over another.

Some reps may feel remote meetings aren’t as effective as face-to-face interaction, while others may have preconceived notions that HCPs are unwilling to engage virtually. For those who are shying away from digital channels, industrywide benchmark data can be a powerful tool for shifting mindsets and driving greater adoption by shining a light on what’s truly happening through digital engagement.

For example, at some companies we’ve worked with reps have reported difficulty in getting HCPs to commit to meeting virtually. However, our benchmark data revealed that there were roughly 80% of HCPs who were engaging with reps at other companies through those same digital channels. By highlighting these insights with the team, field leaders were able to make it clear to reps that perhaps the problem isn’t the channel itself, but the way in which they’re approaching it.

Digital adoption can also be encouraged by measuring rep productivity in new ways. A metric like time on content places greater value in the amount of time HCPs are spending consuming content over the number of visits reps are making, thereby sending the message that virtual meetings are worth the extra prep and pre-call planning.

Through frequent, ongoing analysis and level-setting with data, field leaders can show their teams that there is, in fact, an opportunity in digital; it’s just a matter of finding the right way in which to engage customers through those channels.

Hybrid selling requires customer-centricity

Even for reps who are gung-ho about digital engagement, that still begs the question: what is the right blend of virtual and in-person channels? Between remote meetings, email, and face-to-face visits, when, and how often, should each be leveraged?

Unfortunately, there is no one-size fits all solution. Not all customers are the same, and each will have different preferences for digital. Even within the large (70%) subset of HCPs who are now digital natives3, there may be individuals who still prefer face-to-face engagement on certain occasions. And asking a rep to figure out what those 200 different preferences look like is near impossible.

That’s were channel preference archetypes can help. This method of categorizing customers based on common traits and preferences leverages industrywide data to recognize patterns in HCP behavior.

For example, on one end of the spectrum you may have a group of “digital engagers” that frequently use virtual meetings and email. On the opposite end you may have “traditionalists” who rarely engage through digital and prefer face-to-face interaction.

In working with companies to measure channel preference, we have found a relatively even distribution of channel preference segments across their most important customer deciles. By evaluating these preferences across all customer touchpoints, reps gain a much clearer understanding of the best channels to use when engaging a particular HCP.

This kind of customer-centric approach toward measurement and engagement is critical to effective hybrid engagement; it will better serve doctors and strengthen the salesforce even further.

The real test for digital is yet to come

While the industry has made tremendous progress in adopting digital this year, its real transformation has only just begun. Where companies take their digital strategies from here will be key in determining commercial success in 2021.

To achieve true digital excellence, field teams will need to skillfully navigate virtual and in-person channels, flexibly adapting content and engagement tactics to the needs of each customer. The lessons learned over the last 12 months will serve as a useful guide for empowering reps to maximize their digital impact for years to come.


  1. Veeva Pulse Trends, Global Market, October 2020.
  2. How to Launch a Global Modular Content Strategy,” Veeva, 2020.
  3. Guide to Digital HCP Engagement,” Veeva, 2020.

Dan Rizzo is the global head of commercial business consulting at Veeva. He and his team are responsible for working with Veeva’s customers to accelerate digital engagement and business transformation.

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