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Why A New Mix of Field Skills is Crucial to Thriving in the Digital Era


Evolving preferences of HCPs during the pandemic have put an emphasis on learning new skillsets for pharma reps.

The role of the life sciences rep has changed significantly over the last year. Since the onset of COVID-19, reps have not only had to adapt to new remote ways of working, but to the evolving behaviors and engagement preferences of healthcare professionals (HCPs) as well.

Digital channels, such as virtual meetings and email, have given doctors a convenient and efficient way to connect with reps online. And even as the COVID-19 vaccines increasingly make in-person visits possible again, digital engagement will continue to play an important role in strengthening relationships moving forward.

Mark McLaughlin

Mark McLaughlin

In fact, according to a recent survey of 720 HCPs, 87% said they want either all virtual or a mix of virtual and in-person meetings even after the pandemic ends.1 To prepare for this new blended engagement model, now is the time for commercial leaders to reinforce their digital capabilities and make sure their teams can meet doctors how they want, when they want.

Enabling existing reps with digital skills is a key part of the process, but additional progress can be made by hiring talent with digitally native skills as well. As the industry shifts toward a new hybrid reality, the following strategies will be crucial in building a more flexible and adaptable field force for the future.

Coaching reps to think digital-first

Despite advances in digital engagement and a continued decline in HCP access over the years, the nature of the rep’s job hasn’t fundamentally changed until recently. For many, face-to-face selling is far easier—relationship building comes more naturally when you have the ability to read someone’s body language or other in-person cues.

With digital channels, however, engagement takes on a new form, one in which content and information sharing become the rep’s primary focus. This is due in large part to the extended duration of virtual meetings, which average 19 minutes2 compared to the typical three-minute office visit. Veeva Pulse data (which provides an industrywide view of HCP engagement across life sciences) shows that in roughly 80% of virtual rep-to-HCP meetings, digital content is being shared versus just 30% of in-person calls.

Jim Whitaker

Jim Whitaker

Considering these changes, it’s not uncommon for some reps to be resistant to a digital-first engagement model. They may feel remote meetings aren’t as effective as face-to-face interaction, or they may have preconceived notions that HCPs are unwilling to engage virtually. In these situations, industrywide benchmark data can be a powerful tool for shifting mindsets and driving greater adoption.

For example, in a situation where reps are reporting difficulty in getting HCPs to commit to meeting virtually, you can use industry benchmark data to show that those same HCPs are in fact engaging digitally with reps at other companies. In this way, data can shine a light on what’s truly happening through digital channels and the opportunity that exists through remote engagement.

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.

Whatever their stance on digital, the best way to ease the transition for all reps is to provide the proper training and coaching needed to be successful. Help them understand the different nuances between engaging through remote meetings, email, and face-to-face. And arm them with data to tailor engagement based on the channel preferences of their customers.

Reps can even establish an informal contract with doctors at the beginning of each quarter that outlines which channels they’d like to engage in and how often. The key to making digital engagement stick is to meet customers where they are, while incorporating omnichannel tactics and new productivity metrics into business planning.

Recruiting digital natives

Enabling existing reps is a critical first step in ensuring digital success, but it’s not the only thing commercial leaders can do. After all, the most effective teams are made up of individuals with complementary skill sets. Where tenured reps bring industry knowledge and relationship-building expertise, newer reps with different backgrounds and profiles can bring much needed digital expertise into the fold.

Take, for example, a recent college graduate. They grew up with social media, online chat, and other digital communication channels, and were likely required to use videoconferencing and collaboration solutions as part of their studies. Not only would they help bolster the team’s digital capabilities, but they’d also come in as a blank slate. Their lack of industry experience means there wouldn’t be any preconceived notions or fixed mindset of how engagement is supposed to look like.

To find the right kind of talent, start by building an ideal candidate profile outlining the key skills your team needs now and in the future.Consider including skills such as digital marketing, digital analytics, and experience using virtual meeting platforms as requirements in the job description. Going through this exercise may even result in entirely new types of roles, like a digital sales manager.

Once the job description is defined, start narrowing your search by targeting graduates from relevant universities in your area. Prior internships or jobs working in online marketing or advertising are helpful experiences to look for, as is digital sales or communications experience in other industries, such as software and technology.

While it may take longer for an industry newcomer to get up to speed in the role, having strong digital talent will bring greater longer-term success to the organization. Tenured reps can act as mentors to newer reps; newer reps can help tenured reps navigate the intricacies of digital; and together, they will build a new type of field force optimized for hybrid engagement across in-person and virtual channels.

Building the field force of the future

Starting the digital recruitment process now will help ensure field teams are one step ahead of where the industry is going. Digital and email content are being used more and more each day. In fact, Veeva Pulse data shows that commercial content volume has gone up fourfold over the last year.3 Pharma sales is at a turning point and it’s up to commercial leaders to start building the right field model for the future.

By enabling longstanding reps with new digital skills and bringing in digital natives, commercial organizations will gain greater agility to adapt to the evolving needs of the customer. A more diverse field force will help sales teams innovate and experiment with new engagement strategies, while giving doctors the flexibility to meet in whatever channel is most convenient for them.

With more effective engagement and a continued focus on relationship building with doctors, patients will ultimately benefit by getting access to the right medicines at the right time. Where companies take their digital strategies from here will be key in driving greater health outcomes and commercial success moving forward.


  1. “Is COVID-19 altering how pharma engages with HCPs?” Accenture, August 2020.
  2. Veeva Pulse Trends, Global Market, February 2021.
  3. Veeva Pulse Trends, Global Market, February 2021.

Mark McLaughlin is a commercial biopharmaceutical leader with experience in the development, launch, and commercialization of blockbuster specialty medicines. He is currently a sales leader at one of the world’s leading biopharmaceutical companies, developing digital capabilities to operate in a hybrid commercial model.

Jim Whitaker is VP of US Commercial Strategy at Veeva Business Consulting. He and his team are responsible for working with Veeva’s customers to accelerate digital engagement and business transformation.

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