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Opening Digital Doors: Remote Selling During COVID-19

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive-12-01-2020
Volume 40
Issue 12

Adoption of digital by biopharma reps has added an element of flexibility to their engagement strategies, resulting in better communications with HCPs.

Every biopharmaceutical company has changed the way they work in response to COVID-19. For most, this has been a significant opportunity to rethink commercial operations and accelerate the move to digital as a way to better serve healthcare providers (HCPs). Thinking has shifted from short-term problem-solving to long-term digital transformation efforts.

Moving ahead, digital will become more than just a way to communicate, but also enable key services from drug sampling and HCP consent to medical inquiry management. Companies will better meet HCPs on their terms with the information and services they need through any channel, any device, at any time, in every therapeutic area.

For digital adoption to take hold, rep relationships will be key to opening the door to more digital opportunities with HCPs and advancing the adoption of new digital approaches. The ability for reps to work in a digital, virtual environment will certainly be critical, but relationship-based selling will continue to be just as important.

Digital will be driven through the rep, leading to a greater mix of face-to-face and digital interactions with HCPs. For reps, expect three shifts to happen. Remote selling will become a much bigger part of a rep’s engagement strategy; reps will have much greater flexibility to meet customers on their terms; and there will be a significant mindset change to complement reps’ existing ways of working with new digital approaches.

Remote selling here to stay

Companies are connecting with HCPs in new digital ways, from email to remote meetings and virtual events. The most dramatic digital shift has been the use of remote meetings as a primary way to engage HCPs.

Since February, the number of virtual meetings has increased nine times, with biopharma companies connecting with hundreds of thousands of HCPs online. Rep engagements with doctors have been longer and more in-depth, lasting an average 19 minutes versus the typical six-minute sales visit.

As the industry looks ahead, in-person access with physicians and hospitals won’t return to the same levels. Remote meetings provide HCPs a convenient and efficient way to connect with reps, while giving field teams another channel to complement face-to-face visits.

“Without a doubt, digital is the way to go,” said Andrew J. Moore, MD, hematologist and oncologist at Southeast Cancer Center, at Veeva Summit Online when asked if he prefers remote meetings or in-person visits. “The biggest impact COVID has had on our clinic is the efficiency and workflow of our day. I would like to see virtual visits continue, absolutely.”

Doctors will have varying preferences for how they want to engage reps. Some doctors will continue to prefer face-to-face interactions. But more are looking to digital, driven by the fact that nearly 70% of all HCPs are now digital natives.1

Digital drives greater flexibility

When it comes to virtual or in-person doctor visits, much of the industry discussion has centered on the move toward a hybrid approach in engaging HCPs. Conventional thinking says that the rep will split their time between home and being in the field—between meeting remotely versus in-person.

But how a rep works in the future will be much more nuanced and blended. In the age of social distance selling, biopharma companies and their reps need flexibility to meet customers where they are—both in terms of access policies and an HCP’s preferred method of engagement.

Access to doctors is going to vary widely by district, state, region, and country. Some offices have eliminated in-person visits altogether, while others have less restrictive policies in place and are seeing more reps face-to-face. In other instances, a rep may be accustomed to doing a “total office call”—or engaging multiple HCPs during a visit—but now is only getting access to one doctor.

This is a significant shift for an industry that has relied heavily on in-person interactions. Access policies are continually changing based on circumstances. Doctors that typically prefer in-person visits are now moving to virtual interactions because of patient safety concerns.

With a hybrid engagement approach, reps now have the option to host a remote meeting instead. This not only gives reps another option to meet “face-to-face” virtually with the doctor, but calls can be just as productive and still deliver the services HCPs need like signing for sample requests.

This flexibility gives reps the option to go digital depending on the situation. No matter the scenario, all physicians have the same prevailing need—continue treating and caring for their patients. It’s up to the rep to be more agile in their engagement strategies.

Digital gives reps more flexibility than ever before to meet doctors on their terms. Establishing relationships with customers in a virtual manner will be key to ensuring patients receive the medicines they need, regardless what the future holds after COVID-19.

Use content to strengthen connections

For many reps, leveraging digital to complement their existing ways of working will require a growth mindset. Some will need to think beyond traditional coverage models, for example, because geography is less of a barrier with digital. Charismatic reps that flourished in face-to-face interactions will now have to translate that success into different digital channels.

Digital, in many ways, will require reps to think differently about their overall engagement strategies, including the use of email. In fact, many organizations will need to completely re-learn how to best use this traditional digital channel.

The industry has leveraged email mostly as a mass marketing tool to drive a consistent message to many HCPs. This has helped biopharma companies achieve excellent brand recall around the world. Moving forward, email will become the connective tissue between what reps are used to (in-person interactions) and new digital engagement methods (remote meetings).

More than two-thirds of HCPs now prefer email to other forms of engagement.2 This is good news because now there are many more ways to engage HCPs over email with different types of content. There is a big shift to creating modular content—distinct bite-sized content that fits together to tell a cohesive story, from text and images to graphics, charts, and tailored social media.

In a virtual world, having this modular content readily available will be key for reps to engage in relevant, useful conversations with HCPs at the right time.

Consider the rep who finished an in-person meeting with a doctor. Based on the information gathered during their visit, they can use email to reconnect, share a piece of content that builds on their conversation, and suggest a remote meeting as follow-up.

The digital opportunity for reps is to stay engaged and maintain deeper, sustained relationships with customers. Selling becomes a much more iterative, storytelling approach with modular content. Reps can build upon each HCP engagement and bring customers along their journey in a much more effective, virtual way.

Moving ahead with digital

Relationship-based selling will continue to be important, but the ability for reps to operate in a digital, virtual environment will be just as critical given the dramatic shifts in face-to-face access and HCP preferences for digital.

Digital opens the door for reps to become more flexible and engage more effectively to deliver what HCPs need, at any given moment. Decline in physical access has created a sense of urgency for every biopharma company to rethink how they connect with HCPs using digital and help them continue delivering care to patients.

As the industry moves ahead, digital channels will complement in-person visits in a much bigger way. Digital, from remote meetings to email, will become a more important and useful component to companies’ engagement strategies. This will create opportunities for some reps to connect with customers that they haven’t spoken with for years.

With newfound flexibility to engage customers on their terms and get doctors the information they need when they need it, the industry is entering its greatest era of effectiveness and efficiency in serving its many customers.


  1. mHealth. Addressing the Need for Digital Engagement with Healthcare Providers. January 22, 2020.
  2. BlueNovius. 4 Digital Strategies Eveyr Pharma Marketer Should Know to Engage with Busy HCPs. April 6, 2020.

Mark McLaughlin, Commercial leader for a large biopharma company, Brian Mahoney, Global Business Consulting Manager, Veeva Systems

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