The digitization of go-to-market channels offers the opportunity to rethink marketing and strengthen cooperation between internal services and field sales staff. But there is often some resistance to the reorganizing of customer contacts. To understand and overcome these tensions it is worth taking a look at the power structures that are still in place – and how they are currently being shaken up.
When we talk about digitization, we are nearly always talking about technical problems – sophisticated tech challenges such as software-defined data integration or just the question of why our Zoom screen has frozen again. One problem is often forgotten. Digitization is also having a huge social impact resulting in power games and a redistribution of power within a company.
This can be observed particularly well in pharmaceutical marketing. Even before the pandemic, it was clear to most people that change was underway. Corona just accelerated the transformation and revealed the pros and cons of digitization – just like in a real-life experiment no one had asked for. Since hygiene measures made on-site visits by the pharmaceutical industry’s sales force staff impossible. So, conventional sales channels had to be digitized, at least to some extent.
But as many companies have observed, the process of digitizing customer contacts has been accompanied by trench warfare between internal services and field sales teams. This not only entails a new division of labor, but also puts well-established working relationships to the test. In order to successfully digitize sales, it is important to anticipate these effects and ask questions like these: How was power distributed between internal services and sales staff? How is this changing as a result of digitization? What are the desired and undesired effects and side effects? And what is power anyway?
Distribution of power between internal services and field staff
People who can solve other people’s problems while simultaneously keeping people guessing as to whether they will actually solve them are powerful players in any organization. This does not necessarily mean they are more senior, but rather that they demonstrate a level of accomplishment others can hardly do without. Such interdependence can be easily observed in the relationships between internal services and field sales staff in the pharmaceutical industry.
By using good arguments to convince physicians about a treatment option, sales staff ensures product sales and secures a powerful position at the decision-makers’ table. As the face of the company, the sales department is also responsible for building up trusting relationships with physicians. Knowing their needs is essential in order to individually adapt to them. This knowledge helps a sales force to maintain its relevance within an organization. Sales staff have the discretionary power to decide what information is fed back to the organization.
For a field sales force, these sources of power are nevertheless constrained by their dependence on internal services staff, who ultimately dictate what material a field sales force heads out with. It is internal services staff who provide the relevant scientific information and work on the positioning of a product. Field sales staff can only position themselves as relevant discussion partners if their internal services colleagues give them good stories and material a customer can relate to.
The separate work of these two departments then reconverges at a pivotal point – successful interactions with physicians. For sales representatives, it is the core of their work; for internal services staff, such conversations have long been a kind of black box.
Digitization transforming the traditional power game
This is precisely where the digital reorganization of a company’s contacts’ structure comes in. The new digital touchpoints being set up with physicians are changing the balance of power between internal services and field staff:
Consultations with physicians, an area of expertise hitherto solely occupied by sales staff, are now being co-guided via digital channels. Thanks to data trail analysis technology (e.g., which specialist discipline is especially interested in the side-effect management of one particular therapy?), customer knowledge is now spread more broadly throughout an organization. The direct contacts sales staff have with customers no longer entitle them to claim sole authority on what those customers’ needs are.
Digital formats are also enabling other actors to interact with physicians. Headquarters staff can join in discussions during online meetings. And if you rely on webcasts with opinion leaders, medical office staff can also find points of contact with customers.
Just two examples that prove how dramatically digitization is shaking up the old corporate power structures. However, this is precisely where great potential exists for using digitization to not only adapt job profiles to the new situation, but also to discuss and shape the tension-laden but productive interdependencies between internal services and field staff.
Smart forms of cooperation in the new digital reality
When information about customers is conveyed to an organization through more diverse channels, it is important to establish arenas in which those affected can negotiate their roles in the new go-to-market model. Where is face-to-face communication required to reach a broader target group? Where is digital background noise useful? What is the best way to feedback information that is increasingly being accumulated centrally to colleagues in the field, and vice versa? What does this mean in practice for interacting with customers? What matters now is to use the current trend in the market to question well-worn patterns, not least from a long-term perspective. This is especially true when considering how digital and analog touchpoints can be effectively integrated.
For example, if internal services has made plans to establish a digital information platform to enable centralized contacts with physicians, the project can be structured so as to benefit colleagues in the field. Opportunities can be created for them to talk to physicians and work out content and procedures for the project together. Agreement still has to be reached on which customers are to be involved via one-on-one consultations and which ones are to be considered part of the platform’s target group. At the same time, it is important to consider how internal services staff, who can use such a digital platform as a touchpoint to collect and interpret data trails from customers, should relay this information to their field sales force.