How COVID-19 has changed the role of pharma sales reps

The demise of the pharmaceutical sales representative has been greatly exaggerated over the years. But in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an even greater need to re-examine the rep’s role. How can a field force evolve to deal with current challenges and be future-fit for the way we will be working in the post-pandemic world?

The current restrictions on face-to-face meetings have exacerbated the trend of sales reps’ reduced access to healthcare customers. It’s also unlikely that reps will be able to go from one hospital or physician office to another, as they once did, anytime soon. But despite these challenges, there has never been a better, or more appropriate, moment to reimagine and evolve the role of the field force.

Make the technology help

Kevin Kelly, former editor of Wired noted that: “The future happens very slowly, then all at once.” The acceleration in adopting digital healthcare tools and services has been more out of necessity recently. Luckily, most field forces had infrastructure that was more or less able to cope. Had this crisis happened even a few years earlier, working remotely and staying connected with one another would not have been as easy.

However, many jobs cannot be simply copied and pasted into the digital world. Many people have had to feel their way into remote working, stumbling across positives and negatives in the process.

“It’s important to consider what added value the sales rep provides – they do a lot more than parade product information”

We spent time recently talking to surgeons and dentists about congresses. The trend to simply take an event and ‘digitise it’ clearly did not work for them. One surgeon said of online events, “I don’t solely go to conferences to watch speakers” adding that he met his future wife at a surgical conference in California.

The key is to remember that the technology needs to respond to human needs to make the interaction more enjoyable.

This is not a cost saving exercise 

The exercise of re-evaluating the sales force should not be viewed as an efficiency drive either. The Doorman Fallacy – as explained by vice-chairman of Ogilvy UK and expert on consumer behaviour, Rory Sutherland – is that you cannot just remove a doorman and simply replace him with an automated door in the name of efficiency. This ignores the real value that the role brings to a business like an hotel. The role of the doorman is more nuanced and multi-functional – hailing taxis, added security, providing local knowledge, recognising customers – in short ‘a personalised experience’ that could even justify a hotel charging more. What is necessary or unnecessary in a role is not always obvious.

So, it’s important to consider what added value the sales rep provides – they do a lot more than parade product information.

Measure what matters

Simply replacing reps with a virtual version is fraught with issues. A cautionary tale about over-promising the power of technology comes from our own sector. To prove the benefits of Babylon Health’s artificial intelligence (AI), our team decided to show how it was better than a doctor. Not only did it cause a rift with doctors, but it also missed the point – because it should be about showing how combining Babylon’s AI with a human doctor could improve patient outcomes. Because those are the outcomes that matter.

This is how we need to reframe the remote digital rep – so what outcome are we really working towards?

Building a centaur

To steal a phrase from the AI chess world, a ‘Centaur’ brings together human and technology skills to enhance the capabilities of both. What does a rep do in the context of customer interaction? In an ideal world, “we want a rep who understands the science, who is interested in patients, who is capable of having a meaningful discussion with the HCP on a patient case, and not trying to push a marketing message, but instead finding the right treatment for the right patient and giving advice on how to use the product properly,” says Florent Edouard, global head of commercial excellence, Grünenthal group.

Applying a robust service design approach should allow pharma to uncover often hidden needs that the customer has, but also developed in tandem with the rep’s needs.

Creating a total experience is vital. This means bringing all relevant team members to the table as part of the design process and then experimenting with new ideas and rapidly prototyping in the real world. It is experimentation on these fringes that will identify where competitive gains can be made. And this is not just an added benefit; the first company to nail this will not have long to benefit exclusively before everyone else cottons on.

The rep’s purpose has evolved – they are not just an efficient way to achieve personal communications. They should be an orchestrator for the healthcare professional (HCP) to navigate the difficult landscape. Think of the rep as a service.

Offering the right tools and training then becomes imperative. A common complaint is that the technology is not being fully exploited. For instance, there is functionality on the iPad that can really enhance a sales call. This is where looking to other industries can pay dividends. Sectors like automotive have reimagined their sales model – just look at how Tesla moved into shopping centres rather than the standard car dealerships.

According to The Economist, a wise incumbent tries lots of new, small ideas to see what works. Now imagine adding in machine learning to create a true centaur. That’s the real future goal. This is the beginning of that journey.

About the author

Jason Galla-Barth is managing partner of Tribal Worldwide. An experienced healthcare marketing professional, Jason has over 15 years experience in developing and delivering large effective multi-channel global healthcare programmes.