COVID-19 has been game-changing for pharma sales, driving demand for new models and reps with the right competencies and skills to succeed in a hybrid sales environment.
While the need to shift sales strategies in response to market changes is nothing new to pharmaceutical marketing and sales leaders, the COVID-19 pandemic has swiftly shattered conventional methodologies and channels.
What hasn’t changed is the value that physicians gain from trusted relationships with their sales reps. In fact, 2020 research conducted by consulting firm Accenture found physicians want more information on patient drug therapies and manufacturers’ support services. More than half of physicians surveyed indicated that they are interested in learning about new therapies1 and they are increasingly connecting with reps despite the in-person restrictions in place—61 percent of physicians surveyed said they are interacting more with their reps during COVID-19 than they did before the pandemic.2
The challenge lies in how pharma companies sell to physicians in a pandemic environment and beyond. Sales reps’ meetings with physicians shifted from 64 percent in-person prior to COVID-19, to 65 percrent virtually during the pandemic. In many instances, reps must attempt to recreate this type of in-person interaction and connection through an online meeting platform.
Chip Romp, Executive Vice President, U.S. Commercial at Seagen, a global biotechnology company that discovers, develops, and commercializes transformative cancer medicines, explains how the delta of impact between “good reps” and “great reps” has widened as a result of the physician access challenges presented by the pandemic.
“COVID-19 is making the competition for physician time even more important,” says Romp. “As a result, there’s an effort to generate greater value from the time with the customer you do get. A ‘good rep’ may get his or her foot through the door, but a ‘great rep’ has the skills to deliver what the physician truly needs.”
There are those physicians who say they would prefer to meet with reps this way moving forward and others who have voiced their desire for a more hybrid model after the pandemic ends. Acknowledging this trend, 93 percent of life sciences executives and decision makers surveyed said they expect “virtual detailing” to become a “prominent part of their sales model” moving forward.3
“If you think about the number of Facetime calls you got a year ago versus today, it has gone up dramatically,” Romp said. “Those used to be reserved for family or personal interactions, but they are now much more common in the workplace. The technology for virtual interactions has existed for years now, but the permission and norms from a business perspective hadn’t. The pandemic is changing that.”
Will a one-size-fits-all approach of virtual, in-person or hybrid model work for all customers in all regions, or must pharma companies tailor their outreach and interactions based on individual physician preferences?
Here are four areas to consider when rethinking your sales teams and their approach to physician engagement.
In the Accenture survey, 87 percent of healthcare providers said they want either all virtual or a hybrid model even after the pandemic ends.”4 Pharmaceutical marketing and sales leaders need to take a step back and determine what model works best for their customers. Are the physician populations you are targeting fairly homogeneous so that you can leverage a single approach across them all? Or are there differences by region that you must accommodate?
For years hiring a commercial team was a very tactical experience but, with COVID-19 widening the impact delta between “good” and “great” sales reps, hiring conversations have become much more strategic. Companies are aiming to build teams that can rapidly innovate and respond to physicians in a transformative way. They are looking more closely at the preferences of physicians based on demographic factors and hiring reps who have the skills to succeed within those specific customer populations.
“One of the things this pandemic is surfacing is that quality matters,” said Romp. “A rep at a local level with deep understanding and deep knowledge has a better chance of finding the preferred path for a customer and engaging them.”
Regardless of the approach, pharma companies need sales talent that understands these differences and is willing to adapt based on physician preferences. In many cases, that means acknowledging when past strategies are no longer relevant and a willingness to be innovative and adaptive to changing their approach moving forward.
Even before COVID-19 hit, there was evidence of a growing desire among physicians to connect with resources within pharma companies beyond the sales reps, such as medical affairs. The days of a “lone wolf” rep who owns the physician relationship and serves as the sole face of the company are over. Today, the role of the sales rep is increasingly becoming more of a “quarterback,” where they connect physicians with relevant subject matter experts.
Moving forward, physicians say reps will “need to be skilled in addressing clinical and scientific questions beyond the product detail, as well as represent multiple products.”5 When surveyed, 82 percent of physicians said they have seen pharma companies change how they communicate during the pandemic, specifically broadening their communication beyond product information to “support that meets their most pressing needs.”6
In Romp’s experience, this quarterback approach provides greater value to the physician in enabling him or her to efficiently gain access to needed resources within the company. “The customer at the end of the day is receiving better value because their questions are answered immediately,” he said. “As a leader in an organization having those insights in real time is extraordinarily valuable. Strategic shifts can take place sooner.”
With an increase in virtual meetings, sales reps have a greater opportunity to pull in additional company resources when meeting with a physician. If the physician has a question for medical affairs, for example, the rep can schedule a Zoom meeting where a Medical Affairs team member is present.
“A customer shouldn’t have to go through his/her contact list to figure out who to call at a company when a need arises,” said Romp. “With a rep-centric model, the customer’s main contact is the rep, who can then reach into their company to field the customer’s questions.”
With the broadening role of sales from lone wolf to quarterback, companies need reps who are great collaborators and communicators, can make necessary connections, and are willing to share their physician relationships internally with other parts of the business.
The pharma sales field has predominantly been a culture of “close physician contact” with reps leveraging their in-person connections and meetings with physicians as a way to build relationships and trust. In rethinking their sales strategies, pharma companies and their reps need to uncover how they can capitalize on virtual models for operational and financial success.
The acceptance of virtual meetings among physicians opens the door for sales and marketing teams to have greater contact with a broader range of customers in a shorter period of time. Virtual meetings also take the pressure off the rep to answer strategic questions on the spot. In an in-person meeting, the rep may find him/herself having to leave the meeting to connect with the resource who can provide the requested information. On the other hand, when meeting virtually, the rep may be able to connect the physician with that resource in real-time via Zoom, Facetime, or another platform.
Another benefit of virtual interactions is the opportunity for sales and marketing teams to gather insights from a broader range of customers. Said Romp, “The pandemic is making us more efficient and effective. In a single day, a marketer can now reach out to multiple areas around the country and never have to leave his/her office. Instead of having to piece together insights from disparate visits, which may not be connectable, the marketer can uncover common themes among customers in a short period of time, which in turn, helps the company better direct its resources.”
Romp says his company’s use of virtual physician events has made it both easier and more effective to conduct market research across its customer population.
“What we see now through virtual outreach is that many more customers can participate,” said Romp. “I believe that when you have that additional level of participation you get a more holistic viewpoint of what the marketplace is thinking. And because the market research is more complete, you can craft a more effective strategy to respond to it.”
There are some sales rep attributes that will always be important regardless of the market conditions, such as the ability to form relationships, a greater motivation beyond quarterly numbers, a commitment to patient care and the drive to provide value to physicians beyond products. While none of this is going away, there are additional key attributes required of today’s reps.
“The value proposition between quality and quantity is greater and, in that quality, there are ranges,” said Romp. “This has shown that the best reps find a way to provide service to their customers. They have to be adaptive and collaborative in this situation.”
In its survey, Accenture said pharma manufacturers must “plan for operational and talent impacts” moving forward. Companies should take the time to understand and plan for “how customers are now targeted, how reps are now incentivized, and how new competencies and skills are now embedded.”7
When looking internally to develop talent, add to your growing team or build a new sales organization structured around your new strategy, look for those individuals who have the capacity to be nimble and flexible when addressing changing physician needs. The new reality requires a sales team that has the creativity to overcome these types of limitations.
“Time is the universal equalizer—there is no way to create more of it. We make decisions all day long on who we are going to give our time to,” Romp said. “The underlying question is, ‘what value is in it for me during that interaction?’”
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced all healthcare stakeholders—physicians, drug, and device manufacturers, hospital leaders, regulators, and even patients—to rethink how they interact, how care is delivered, and how they move ahead in this time of uncertainty.
Pharma companies and physicians agree that the role of the sales rep remains invaluable as an individual who connects caregivers with therapies that are life-changing and/or life-saving for their patients. As Romp explains:
“If you look across the industry the past 20 years, we’ve seen tectonic shifts. The sales rep has been there the entire time. Their role as a trusted advisor to physicians who can provide insight on the newest advances in a therapeutic area has not been replaceable. This situation is no different. The sales rep will adapt as they have in the past to changing environments. It’s difficult to predict what that will look like in the future and we are experiencing changes as a result of the pandemic, but it’s not the end of the sales representative.”
The role of the sales rep is growing and expanding as the market adapts. The reps who will be the most successful are those who are willing and able to meet physicians where they want to be—whether that is sitting across a table or face-to-face via computer.
Dave Melville, CEO & Founder, The Bowdoin Group, Inc.