The pandemic has forced the industry to reconsider the role of pharmaceutical sales professionals. Have the changes brought about by COVID-19 made them obsolete?
Pre-COVID challenges have been intensified
It has always been a challenge for pharmaceutical companies to capture the attention of busy physicians and inform them about products and treatments. In recent years, this undertaking has grown ever more difficult as access to hospital doctors has become scarce. Doctors struggling with increased patient loads have less time available for sales representatives; growing competition between pharmaceutical companies increases the pressure felt by health care providers, which in turn creates pushback against sales staff. Complex regulatory constraints and hospital rules restrict access even further.
COVID-19 accelerated these trends and brought this situation prematurely to a breaking point. Previous habits and ways of working became obsolete overnight, forcing sales representatives and their managers to urgently rethink their positioning and their interactions with hospital physicians.
Existing sales approaches are being called into question
What they discovered in the months that followed calls into question the notion that things could resume as usual once the pandemic fades. After these sales professionals overcame the shock and frustration of being cut off from their customers for several months, they took a step back to consider key insights the pandemic had laid bare: Feedback from the field revealed that some doctors actually felt relieved to no longer be seeing the sales representatives, and for many physicians’ digital visits weren’t welcome unless they were connected to something new or an ongoing project. Furthermore, sales representatives had quickly realized how hard it was to have a significant impact in a virtual visit, especially when trying to build a new relationship.
A Glimpse Into the Future
With the entire mission and function of sales representatives called into question, stakeholders throughout the industry began to ask: What will the post-pandemic future look like for pharmaceutical sales staff as health care providers carry their experiences into a new era? In an effort to answer this question, we interviewed a number of sales representatives and their managers. Their analyses vary widely — but three main scenarios emerge:
Scenario 1: The end of hospital sales representatives
Some foresee the end of a business model that relies on physical visits and the cultivation of “personal” relationships. Pharmaceutical companies have been quite slow to update their commercial model into a more digital one, and the COVID-19 crisis presents a unique opportunity for leadership teams to test new approaches. However, the elimination of hospital sales representatives would probably bring about dramatic HR consequences, and the industry may not want to opt for such a radical change.
Scenario 2: Back to business as usual
Despite the pandemic, some physicians frequently skip virtual calls but are willing to meet representatives in person. These health care providers are getting tired of virtual relationships and want to reconnect face-to-face with their colleagues and even with sales representatives. Some managers in the industry see this as a sign that old routines will be stronger than new habits. However, as the crisis continues and new practices become more entrenched, this scenario seems increasingly unlikely.
Scenario 3: Repositioning of sales representatives through value-added projects
Before COVID-19, some hospitals already required that sales representatives have a precise reason or special project in order to be granted access. The ongoing crisis has reinforced that trend, and some believe it is likely to become a common institutional policy. With such rules in place, sales representatives will remain useful players only if they can bring value to their customers. “Friendly” personal relationships will no longer be enough.
To us, this third scenario seems the most likely eventuality. It is also the one pharmaceutical companies appear to be betting on, as demonstrated by a variety of steps they have taken.
What types of pharmaceutical industry inputs and contributions physicians and hospital staff find most attractive
To prepare for a future focused on a service-minded sales model, industry leaders must first understand what kinds of initiatives physicians and hospital staff will perceive as delivering added value.
To answer that question, we conducted a workshop with oncologists that revealed a great deal about what types of pharmaceutical industry inputs and contributions health care providers find most attractive. These are the key benefits and value points the physicians highlighted:
- Clinical research and creating access to treatments (i. e., early access programs)
- Medical education and information
- Optimizing patient care and patient pathways
- Improving relationships between health care providers (such as pharmacists, other specialists, etc.)
- Improving relationships between health care providers and other stakeholders (such as health authorities, patient associations, innovation labs, startups, etc.)
Shrewd pharmaceutical organizations are already developing and expanding programs that serve these needs. In our work with industry clients, we support a growing number of initiatives. These programs tackle such challenges as reducing the inequality of access to cancer patient care in a given region; creating a group of young(er) regional leaders in hematology committed to rethinking patient pathways in the post-COVID-19 era; and improving neurology patient follow-up through digital tools.
How Pharmaceutical Companies Can Prepare
In order to develop these kinds of innovative projects with health care institutions, sales representatives will need to develop novel approaches, a fresh mindset and new skills: They will need to question stakeholders, investigate institutional needs, consider the desires of various stakeholders, develop innovative solutions, create buy-in for those solutions, and reconcile these new initiatives with company guidelines. These may be common project management skills, but they are far from a given for most sales representatives. And the requirements don’t stop there: Representatives will need to tailor their methods to the specifics of the relevant health care systems and to the culture and processes of the representative’s own employer.
Under this approach, sales representatives would be taking on an ambitious mission: to centralize the expertise and knowledge of the pharmaceutical company (and, at times, of other stakeholders such as suppliers and startups) — all to bring a meaningful solution to a single customer.
Breaking new ground requires strong leadership
In our work with clients, we have seen that for this new approach to work, strong direction from company leadership is necessary, as is the introduction of comprehensive internal programs. In the case of one pharmaceutical client, we are currently involved in training 75 hospital sales representatives in oncology and creating new internal structures and guidelines. This work will support the development of innovative projects with cancer care institutions and departments.
With this shift in approach, it is more important than ever that sales staff be given the opportunity and skills to master digital interactions — just as they once mastered face-to-face interactions. In virtual formats, health care providers’ attention is harder to capture, and it is harder to create the informality necessary for effective relationship-building. Sales representatives will need to better prepare for their interactions with health care providers, and they will need to invest time and resources into fine-tuning their approach.
A New Opportunity
The profound shifts of the COVID-19 pandemic have created openings for flexible transformation across all industries. Pharmaceutical sales is no different. For those organizations that can move swiftly to embrace this new model, this crisis doesn’t present a threat so much as an opportunity to create a new and more effective way for pharmaceutical companies to partner with hospitals and health care providers.