Experts discuss the field force’s customer-centric future

Sales & Marketing
Pharma sales rep talking to a GP over video conferencing

The ways in which HCPs prefer to engage with pharma has been changing for quite some time, and the digital transformation brought by COVID has dramatically accelerated that. In a recent pharmaphorum webinar, in partnership with Axtria, commercialisation experts from across the industry discussed how the right field force training and execution in combination with the appropriate technology can help to transform this engagement model.

Opening the ‘Customer engagement and pharma’s field force future’ webinar, Vandana Singh, principal, commercial excellence at Axtria, noted there have been multiple environmental pressures forcing pharma sales teams to adapt and innovate in recent years, both before and during COVID.

“Access to HCPs has been growing more difficult for a while now. Meanwhile, their preferences are changing and technology and AI are transforming healthcare.

“We are seeing more focus on personalised, omni-channel marketing and on patient centricity, and silos are being broken down. There are also more companies investing in technology and infrastructure to enable data-driven decision making.

“A lot of the traditional norms are being questioned and reshaped as we speak.”

Because of this, the risk of wasting a HCP's time is now greater than ever before, said Steve Green, head of sales operations, neuroscience at Takeda. 

“We've got to make sure that we're focused on the needs of the HCP and delivering care to their patients.

“Historically, we've been very good at broadcasting our message via brute force, but we don't have the opportunity for that frequency anymore. We've got to get more adept at being customer-focused and delivering true value.”

Manvendra Singh, senior director, head of sales innovation, international operations at Novo Nordisk, added that customer-centric reps have always been more successful, and this is only going to become more pertinent in a post-COVID world. 

“Previously we've paid a lot of lip service to customer centricity and patient centricity, but we haven't lived up to it; we have still mostly organised and governed ourselves from a product-centric viewpoint.

"All the basics are still there – you need to be calling on the right customers with the right message at the right frequency. But now you also have to deal with the right content, right channel and right context.”

"If we remain in our old habits, we're going to have a hard time justifying the size of our sales forces going forward" 


Highlighting success stories from other industries, Melchior Mpanjo-Penda, head of sales force excellence, incentives & compensation at Sanofi, said pharma can take some cues from banking when evolving its customer engagement.

“Look at the operating model of the banking industry 20 years after the internet was brought in. Can you imagine not having your bank account on your mobile phone? We are at the beginning of that journey in pharma.

“For me, learning from other industries is essential. That's what I do in my team. We go to forums, we listen to Ted Talks, we talk to partners that we have in other industries, just to make sure that we speed up our learning curve on this.

“Ultimately all of those guys have done this way faster and much, much earlier than we have, but they were under pressure. Now, we're under pressure too.”

Data-driven change

Dany Labrecque, a global biopharma independent advisor and consultant, said that being truly customer-centric will require the industry to be more flexible in the channels it uses, so that it can meet HCPs where they are.

“That means the operation team will need to focus on better profiling and segmentation of their customer base.

“Post-COVID, customers will want more immediate and specific information delivered succinctly in the real time and on demand.”

There are already some signs of this change. In Axtria’s US Customer Engagement Planning And Execution Benchmarking Survey, 44% of companies said that they are currently rolling out multi-channel activity plans, with several more saying they were considering it for the near future. 

But the study also showed that many companies were hesitating or were unable to roll out these activities.

“The key reasons for that were because they felt that they didn't have good enough data to do so, or because they felt that their reps can make the best decisions and they didn't want to be providing that kind of guidance from headquarters,” said Vandana.

She noted that data had also shown a shift towards new, dynamic segmentation methodologies, where preferences are being analysed to figure out which channel to use when targeting each customer.

Because of this, she said, a successful field force needs to know its customers and their preferences, and understand how it can engage with various customer types. 

“You can no longer have a one size fits all model in terms of customer engagements,” Vandana said.

“Customer preferences are changing, but it’s not necessarily been overt,” added Steve. “We've had to dig into the data to figure it out, and to monitor how it evolves.”

Discussing how Takeda had achieved this, Steve said they had partnered with data organisations that allowed them to better understand the preferences of their customers.

“Those analytical minds did some predictive modeling, and we've ended up with some useful segments, such as doctors that are more interested in virtual communication and doctors that are more traditional. With the help of Axtria, we've been putting out an effort plan based on that preference data.

“I’m beating a drum here, but companies do need to remember that there's data out there that will help them understand what their customers want.”

Other drivers of change

Beyond data-driven segmentation, companies will also need new metrics to assess the outcomes of these approaches. 

“The company must be innovative in how they measure the quality of interaction with the HCP, which means this operation team will have to be able to articulate that and bring that back within the organisation.

“You need to ensure that the digital resources that you’re investing in are seen as a valuable new channel."

Likewise, companies should rethink their reward mechanisms, said Manvendra. 

“If you're going to reward based on product performance and not customer performance, then how are you going to move away from the old model? You'll also have to look at team-based rewards versus individual rewards if you want to have more customer-centricity in your organisation via a collaborative approach.”

He added that field forces will also need to ensure they get buy-in from management when evolving their customer engagement methodologies.

“If they are not aligned, then this cannot work at an affiliate or a market level.

“The finance people might want an ROI within a couple of quarters, but that's not going to happen. These are entrenched models. Rome wasn't built in a day. We need to ensure that we have the patience for these processes to take place.”

If we remain in our old habits, we're going to have a hard time justifying the size of our sales forces going forward,” Steve added. “Everybody on the team has to make sure that that interaction with our customers is the best it can be every time.”

Vandana noted that more successful companies will likely be those who take a holistic view of this change, rather than doing it in isolated pockets.

“If you don't look at all aspects of your sales operations in terms of promoting customer-centricity, you may not be able to achieve the desired results. We’ve seen companies who have only implemented one thing and wondered why reps weren’t adopting it – but that’s because it was just one element and nothing else about the rep’s work changed.

“Companies need to take a holistic look at sales operations processes and have a clear vision of where they’re going. You will still need a test-and-learn approach, but having that clarity on where you’re headed is extremely important.”

For more discussion view the full webinar.

About the panel 

Vandana Singh, principal, commercial excellence at Axtria, has over 20 years of experience in various strategy, operations, and analytical roles in the pharmaceutical industry. She joined Axtria from Bristol-Myers Squibb, where she held a variety of positions with increasing levels of responsibility and during the BMS-Celgene integration led the insight generation and recommendations for re-branding BMS. Before joining BMS, Vandana worked at Sanofi-Aventis in multiple field force effectiveness roles for four years and at ZS Associates for five years.

Steve Green, head of sales operations, neuroscience at Takeda, has been with the company for 22 years and has held roles in sales and sales operations leadership. He has established expertise in all areas defined as sales force effectiveness and in his current role of director, sales force effectiveness for the neuroscience business unit.  He supports two sales teams (specialty and primary care) with approximately 800 representatives.

Manvendra Singh, senior director, head of sales innovation, international operations at Novo Nordisk is an award winning global pharmaceutical healthcare executive with proven leadership skills in delivering outstanding commercial results and change management (coaching and mentoring top leadership teams with best-in-class commercial practices) in emerging and developed markets. He is a subject matter expert in commercial effectiveness with experience in setting up and running commercial effectiveness departments at global and regional level for innovative and established pharmaceuticals.

Dany Labrecque, global biopharma independent advisor / consultant has spent most of his 30-year career at Bristol-Myers Squibb leading business teams across multiple geographies around the world. He was most-recently worldwide vice-president of field force excellence and capabilities at BMS, during which he successfully centralised its field force training organisation and established worldwide capabilities, across commercial and medical, to enhance business performance globally. He is also a staunch advocate for inclusion and diversity, and mentors many young and aspiring leaders.

Melchior Mpanjo-Penda, head of sales force excellence, incentives & compensation at Sanofi has more than 25 years experience in the pharmaceutical industry, working across brand management, marketing, sales support, and international & global programs management. His specialties include pharmaceutical product management, marketing planning & execution, sales forecasting, Customer Relationship Management (CRM), reporting, team building and advanced analytics and datamining.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by Melchior during this panel discussion are personal views / opinions and do not reflect the official policy or position of any of his current or past employers.

Dominic Tyer, interim managing editor, pharmaphorum [moderator] Dominic Tyer is a trained journalist and editor with over 20 years of pharmaceutical and healthcare publishing experience. He serves as interim managing editor at pharmaphorum media, which facilitates productive engagement for pharma, bringing healthcare together to drive medical innovation. He is also creative and editorial director at the company’s specialist healthcare content consultancy, pharmaphorum connect.

7 June, 2021