Every business likes to believe that it knows its customers. We know who and where they are, what they like and what they don’t, and, most important of all, what they need.
In the past, we relied on anecdotal evidence and gut feeling, more recently on market research and segmentation. But now, as the data trickle swells to a torrent and the digital revolution continues to transform our lives and our expectations, customers are seeking a fundamentally different, more personalized and evidence-based relationship.
The pharmaceutical sales force lies at the epicenter of this seismic shift.
Sales reps carry an incredibly valuable asset; they have a deep understanding of their customers, they know them inside and out,” says Patrik Grandits, Managing Director, Head Commercial Operations EAME Oncology, Daiichi-Sankyo Europe. “There is a great deal of insight and knowledge there, but I do not think it has been optimally leveraged so far in the pursuit to meet our customers’ needs.”
Sales reps’ insight and knowledge must be bolstered by other sources, he says. “Artificial intelligence, big data and digitization have to come in to enable us – at all levels of our organization – to truly understand our customers’ needs and patterns, so we can ask the right questions. We have cultivated data gathering over decades, but we don’t use the data in the smartest possible way.”
The entire sales force must now embrace the value chain – understanding requirements, gathering insights and utilizing knowledge to enable deeper customer sales force effectiveness. “We must move away from the transactional model and try to have a closed-circle approach – you start a conversation, you ask questions and you try to identify the overlaps between the customer need and what our offering is, so you come to a win-win,” says Grandits.
A Curate’s Egg?
Yet, in the multichannel age, those conversations may not take place face to face. “The sensationalists out there will tell you – and it’s trendy in some quarters – that sales reps are not going to exist in five years,” says strategic biopharmaceutical commercial leader, Chris Gish. “But I can tell you that I got into this business in 1991 and I started hearing that in 1992.
“In the last 10 years, it’s been all about digital communication, but the most recent research has consistently shown that there is a strong minority – in the 40-50% range – that like talking to an actual human being as their preferred channel, or in addition to digital,” he says.
Reps have an opportunity to metamorphose into “curators of content”, using digital to their advantage. “It’s all about getting the right information in front of the right person at the right time,” he says.
“There is no end to the internet, every bit of information is out there. The challenge is to curate that down to the vital piece of information that is relevant to a particular physician. I think about it like the gauges and dials on the dashboard of your car, a lot of thought has gone into why that piece of information is presented there for a driver to see at a glance.
“That’s where this will begin. Probably through a fair amount of machine learning and artificial intelligence as big data is used more and more productively,” says Gish.
High-tech machinery aside, attitude matters, says Daiichi Sankyo’s Grandits. “We have to move away from, ‘I tell you what you need and bring it to you’, to ‘You tell me what you need and let me help you understand how I can support you’. It’s reverse thinking and will result in a completely different breed of sales rep. The classical method is obsolete.”
Digital is just a means to an end, he adds. “Just because everyone is jumping on the multichannel train does not mean that everyone should. You have to first understand the customer need and then you utilize whatever multichannel tool you might have to serve that need. It’s important not to use it just because it’s sexy and new.”
Gish is more confident; he sees companies taking the first tentative steps towards this brave new world, although a full transformation will take up to ten years, he says. “Many companies will first have to realize that they need to transform. They will have to rethink the skills they need and the type of people to hire and train. I was in the US Navy for six years and the pharma salesforce is structured in a similar way to the military – it’s very top down – so change will take time as people tend to resist it,” he explains.
“When you look at the way AI identifies different outcomes, what will begin to happen is that we need the person closest to the customer to begin to push information up about what the customer is saying or doing, so that the circle of resources can be fine-tuned based on that.”
As the role changes, fewer people are an inevitability, says Gish. “It’s going to be less about getting someone who can, for example, be in front of Doctor Smith twice a month, and more about someone who can manage a relationship with Doctor Smith on behalf of the company. Sure, they are going to show up in person on a regular basis but it’s just as likely that Dr Smith might prefer the rep skype him instead because it’s easier and faster.
“He may want to do it at 6.30 in the morning or for five mins at lunch rather than have you show up in his office for half an hour. The rep has to be flexible.”
Gish cites companies that, instead of simply giving their reps a visual aid on an iPad (basically just a digitized version of the print one), are giving their reps an iPad that allows them to compliantly select and tailor the content they show their customer based on his or her preferences, and also drive the preferred channel. The new rep will call plays like a quarterback.
Pharma would benefit from the ‘quarterback’ model, he adds. “Right now, customers are forced to endure lots of duplicate material and communications, but in the future this is going to be a lot more coordinated. The rep will be much more of a business thinker, trained more in strategy and armed with a greater understanding of machine learning and big data. “When we have a more coordinated approach, or the quarterback model, customers will be happier. They will want to invest five minutes of their time talking to a rep because they know they will benefit from that interaction.”
The Next Best Action
For Matt Portch, VP Managed Markets at Sunovion Pharmaceuticals, the sales rep of the future must know as much or more about their customer as they do about their product.
“They will need a higher level of collaborative selling skills and clinical acumen, both grounded in data, than they have today,” he says. “And it will center more around health economics, not just around efficacy and safety as it does today.”
Yet, for all the talk about the utopian dream of a rapid-reaction, digitally empowered sales rep, can human beings ever cope with the complexity?
Peter Barschdorff, VP, US Pharma Commercial Insights, at GSK, is more aligned with the idea of a smart, AI-driven engine that handles most instances of HCP multichannel engagement.
“There are certainly important decisions-makers who don’t expect reps to master all the intricacies of orchestrating optimal channel mix for HCPs, particularly given the complex and dynamic US reimbursement market, which also offers numerous means of direct-to-patient promotion,” he says.
With an AI-driven model taking care of omnichannel engagement, supported by a team of analysts and data scientists, reps would simply need synchronized, integrated, easy-to-use tools that convey specific directions about ‘next best action’ within a limited but effective
HCP portfolio, he adds.
There is little doubt that the pharmaceutical sales rep stands at a new frontier of customer-centricity, but are they ready to step bravely forwards? Is the system itself even ready for such a transformation?
“In the UK, parts of the EU, in the US, Japan, every market has regulations designed to control how companies communicate with their customers,” says Gish. “Pharma is a highly scrutinized business and there is concern that change could raise the ire of regulators or state attorney generals, who like to sue pharmaceutical companies.”
Grandits adds: “Pharma is not yet ready. As an industry we are change-averse and as such we have not done enough to transform the system away from the transactional approach. We are still hiring share-of-voice reps and producing multichannel tools.
“We need to get out of our comfort zone and ask the fundamental question – What does the customer need and want? In the same way as we have individualized, targeted therapies, we need to have personalized, customer-centric, targeted and individualized projects for customers. Personalized customer service if you like.”
The debate is set to continue. There are many who truly believe the sales force is doomed, while the more optimistic believe just as strongly that the value of the sales force is irreplaceable. The truth – and the future truth – inevitably lies somewhere in between.
The only certainty seems to be that change is most definitely afoot.
A Product Manager with expertise in pharma marketing and sales operations