Sustaining Commercial Operations During a Pandemic

April 15, 2020

Dan Schulman and Steve Trokenheim outline how life sciences companies can respond to the current crisis in measured ways to set them up for long-term success.

The coronavirus pandemic presents challenges for the life sciences industry. While efforts to find a vaccine for COVID-19 accelerate,1 some clinical trials are being delayed.2 And sales forces are grounded, hampering their ability to connect with existing customers and prospect for new prescribers. 

How life sciences companies respond to the current disruptions will define them for years to come. Those that behave in seemingly selfish ways – impulsively cutting sales force headcount or incentive pay or forcing employees back into the office too soon – will damage their brands and reputations. But those companies that demonstrate sincere care for their employees, the medical community, and the patients who rely on their products could actually enhance their brands and strengthen their commercial efforts.

In this time of uncertainty, life sciences companies are looking to respond in measured ways that set them up for long-term success. Here are a few steps companies can take to weather this storm.

From sales to service: Life sciences companies must shift to a more service-minded, versus sales-minded, approach to business. Many companies, especially those that manufacture orphan drugs, have created patient-support and therapy-access teams to assist patients through the treatment process and ensure compliance with life-saving therapies. These teams may help customers navigate challenges with payers, instruct them on dosage and answer questions they have about administering the therapy. Sales reps may contribute to this effort by communicating with physicians’ offices regarding the required steps in the patient enrollment and treatment process. Life sciences companies should double-down on these efforts, even beyond orphan drugs, and seek to serve as useful and trusted resources for both physicians and patients. This more service-oriented approach could also include efforts as simple as adding a section to the company’s website that describes how patients can access a particular product in an era of social distancing. Or, it could be as involved as creating a home health option that can administer therapy to patients where they live. 

Refocus on digital: With the sales force stuck at home, accelerating digital promotion efforts is an obvious and necessary move, especially when some physicians are moving their appointments to the digital realm. But, even using digital tools, it will likely be difficult for field sales representatives to make inroads with busy physicians, especially if they don’t have an existing relationship. So, companies should pivot and prioritize peer-to-peer events like speaker programs, which can easily take place in a virtual environment. After all, while a physician may balk at squeezing a Skype call with a sales rep she doesn’t know into her busy schedule, she may be open to attending educational programs where she can hear from and interact with other physicians.

Pursue partnerships: An emerging life sciences company on the verge of launching a new drug can’t afford to delay launch too long, if at all. However, it may be nearly impossible to get the drug in front of prescribing physicians who don’t know the company or its reps – especially if the product is a new entrant in a crowded therapeutic market. So, a company in this situation may want to consider a partnership with a larger company that has established relationships with key physicians. A partnership can ensure its new product makes headway in the market in the crucial early stages of launch.

Prioritize marketing collateral: Marketing collateral can sometimes be of secondary importance when a sales rep meets a physician in person. In a face-to-face meeting, the rep’s dynamism and expertise may rule the day. But when a rep has to walk a physician through slides on Microsoft Teams or Zoom, marketing collateral takes on outsize importance. So, companies should spend extra time honing their visual content and ensure it’s engaging and informative. It’s also important to ensure the marketing collateral mirrors the sales rep’s messages.

Be flexible: Stuck at home, many reps are watching their sales goals fade further and further out of reach. Company leaders may have the same feeling about their forecasts. A good move today is to be flexible, understanding and communicative. Instead of stubbornly sticking with pre-COVID goals, a company should consider creating a payout floor to protect reps’ bonuses. Companies can also motivate reps with a special kicker to incentivize an achievable goal. These adjustments can help sustain sales force engagement and motivation. 

When it comes to forecasting, companies should build flexible models – if they don’t have them already – that allow for easy adjustments to the forecast’s various inputs. Building flexibility into a forecast model will allow a company to quickly revise the forecast in line with twists and turns in the marketplace. For example, the rate of new diagnoses for an illness that is typically identified during routine physicals may decline in this environment. The ability to easily adjust this number and immediately see the impact on the forecast will help a company nimbly adjust its commercial strategy in this environment.

Winners, losers and the analytics advantage

There will be winners and losers in the current environment – and some of the factors that determine the winners and losers are outside a company’s control. For example, it’s possible immunocompromised patients will shy away from going to medical facilities for infusion treatments. So, brands with these therapies could fall behind. Similarly, the market for elective therapies (think aesthetic medicine) could dry up, for a time. On the other hand, companies with therapeutics that are unaffected by these trends – such as diabetes medications or orphan drugs that treat rare but debilitating conditions – may be more likely to meet their commercial goals. Companies that manufacture drugs that could improve patient survival during this pandemic, such as respiratory agents, may thrive during this time.

But no matter their therapy areas, companies can position themselves for maximum commercial success by embracing a data-driven and analytics-based approach to business. Despite the large amounts of data and sophisticated analytical capabilities available today, many companies still rely much too heavily on gut instinct to make commercial decisions. In this challenging and almost completely unpredictable marketplace, company leaders must empower their analytics departments and lean on insights that come from thorough analysis of data to guide commercial decisions. Those who ground commercial decisions in analytics will be most prepared to navigate today’s uncertainty and turmoil.

Steve Trokenheim is a partner and Dan Schulman is an associate partner at Beghou Consulting

Notes

1. www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-johnson-johnson/jj-moderna-sign-deals-with-us-to-produce-huge-quantity-of-possible-coronavirus-vaccines-idUSKBN21H1OY

2. www.wsj.com/articles/coronavirus-upends-testing-of-new-drugs-11585301412