Why pharma isn’t yet achieving digital excellence, and how it can get there

Nearly 70% of HCPs are now digital natives, with no interest in going back to pre-COVID sales engagement methods. To thrive in this environment, pharma needs to move from ad-hoc and reactionary digital transformation to long-term ‘digital excellence’, says Veeva’s Sebastien Noel.

COVID has seen pharma sales experience three years’ worth of digital transformation in the space of just a few months – but while the industry has embraced digital tools and techniques, most companies are still far from being experts with these innovations.

“I don’t think we’ve seen any companies get digital 100% right yet,” says Sebastien Noel, Veeva’s director of multichannel strategy. “Some organisations are certainly going in the right direction, but no one can yet claim to have truly achieved digital excellence.”

Noel defines digital excellence as “The ability to use real-time insights to deliver the best customer experience, resulting ultimately in better patient outcomes,” but Noel says that companies are still figuring out exactly how to make digital a core part of their strategies in this way.

For example, few companies are making full use of the huge amounts of activity across digital channels they now have.

“They need to take a serious look at what’s going on in that channel’s activity,” Noel says. “That involves cleaning it up and understanding what happened with each HCP’s interactions and what the results were.”

Meanwhile, field teams’ promotional content is still reflective of the pre-COVID paradigm, and Noel says companies need to rethink what content messages will be beneficial for HCPs.

“Reps should not just be pushing product messages – they should be asking doctors what they need right now and how they can help.”

Pre-COVID, digital sales engagement was mainly about emails – both reps-triggered emails that tended to be more personal and email campaigns prepared by HQ teams.

Only a few companies started exploring hybrid models before COVID, building customer journeys looking for the right balance between face-to-face and digital interactions.

“Those companies were the first to react and adapt to the pandemic in 2020 because their teams were more prepared to shift to a new model – and of course, they are faring much better today,” says Noel.

“A lot of companies, though, still don’t have that mindset, even a year into the pandemic.”

More worryingly, Noel says that many field teams are still hoping for a return to how things were pre-COVID – even though that is almost certainly not going to happen.

“Physicians adapted quickly to COVID restrictions because it was what patients wanted and needed,” says Noel. “They’ve now seen how useful digital engagement can be and they want the best mix of in-person and virtual engagement.”

Market pressures

As noted by Veeva and Across Health’s whitepaper, ‘The Power of Sales and Marketing Collaboration for Omnichannel Engagement,’ nearly 70% of HCPs are now digital natives, fewer than one in three physicians want to continue to receive the same number of rep visits as in pre-COVID times, and over 60% of physicians want fewer in-person engagements and much more digital.

Veeva highlights in the whitepaper that marketing and sales functions need to work closely together to deliver the right messages aligned with doctors’ real needs.

“Pharma needs to listen to what doctors are saying,” Noel says.

For example, he adds, doctors often want to have more detailed clinical data discussions and have medical teams more involved in these discussions. They are also interested in hearing more about patient support services.

“Pre-COVID, pharma was mostly pushing product messages. But we know doctors have many needs beyond that – they want to support and educate patients and help them understand the impact of their conditions.

“Reps should not just be pushing product messages – they should be asking doctors what they need right now and how they can help.”

Noel says that this has not been particularly common in the industry before, but when field teams try it, they can get some surprising answers.

“While doctors say that they know how to treat and support patients, they sometimes struggle with the psychological process of explaining the long-term effects of a disease to patients and families.”

Meanwhile, increasingly empowered and informed patients want to have access to the most recent treatments, and they challenge HCPs to share the most up-to-date information.

“These are all gaps the industry can help fill if marketing and sales work together to achieve digital excellence – and much of it is about building empathy between reps, doctors, and patients,” says Noel.

Achieving digital excellence

Noel says that this idea of empathy and a focus on teamwork will be key in helping companies on their “journey” to achieving digital excellence.

“That means breaking down silos that don’t have any positive benefits for customers. You can no longer work in a way where marketing doesn’t speak with sales; brand managers don’t understand what’s happening with field teams, etc.

“Companies need to experiment with new ways of working and not be afraid to fail. I’ve often seen customers who focus too much on success in KPIs, but these days, with so many unknowns, you need to understand that it’s okay if something doesn’t work on a first try. And when you do find something that works, you need to be ready to scale it.”

Not too long ago, conventional wisdom might have said that resistance to digital transformation came from pharma executives, but Noel says that leaders are now embracing change, and it is field teams who are more reluctant about digital engagement. “The change is huge for the field teams. They’re hoping that face-to-face will once again become the primary way of engagement – even when doctors are thinking the exact opposite.

“The real challenge for executives is to build the right vision and show the rest of the company why it makes sense to go in that direction now.”

Noel adds that Veeva is a partner in this change for the pharma industry. This includes using its technology as a ‘digital excellence cloud’ to harness data, content management, insights and execution while also offering business consulting services to help pharma companies with strategy, processes, and change management.

“We’re in the privileged position of both having the technology that can enable this change and having field teams using our system, and we want to make sure we work on achieving this digital transformation together with our customers.”

Noel notes that successful companies will be flexible enough to find the right balance for each customer.

“Many customers I speak to see remote engagement only as a replacement for physical interaction during COVID, which is a shame. We need customers to understand why this is a real game-changer. They can use this opportunity to build a model that is entirely new and works better for everybody.

“The companies who are able to embrace that change will soon find themselves ahead of the pack in the pharma industry.”

For more on how pharma can empower sales and marketing to think, plan, and act as one, see Veeva and Across Health’s full whitepaper.

About the interviewee

Sebastien NoelSebastien Noel is Veeva’s Strategy Lead for Multichannel CRM in Europe. He started his journey with Life Sciences more than eight years ago, working relentlessly with pharma companies to build new commercial models based on remote engagement and digital channels. He also worked five years as an international business developer for a French tech company and three years as an international relations coordinator for a local government in Japan.

About Veeva Systems

Veeva is the global leader in cloud software for the life sciences industry. Committed to innovation, product excellence, and customer success, Veeva serves more than 975 customers, ranging from the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies to emerging biotechs. As a Public Benefit Corporation, Veeva is committed to balancing the interests of all stakeholders, including customers, employees, shareholders, and the industries it serves. For more information, visit veeva.com/eu.