Stop me if you've heard this before. Recent analysis by Forrester Research predicts that a million B2B sales representatives in the US alone will lose their jobs to e-commerce by 2020. Other commentators go further, forecasting that sales professionals will eventually be replaced by robots, pointing to some industries where they already have.
If this all sounds horribly familiar that's because it is. But in the pharmaceutical industry, where the threat of technology replacing reps has been mooted for years, the narrative has evolved. Pharma's field force may have signifi cantly reduced in recent years, but the age-old argument about man versus machine has finally moved on. We no longer talk about digital replacing face-to-face engagement – the discussion now centres on how technology can be used to enhance customer interaction. The salesforce and digital have at last developed a symbiotic relationship where each constituent can play a valuable part in stakeholder engagement. Choosing which channel works best, however, is not pharma's decision to make. In a world of multichannel communications, it's customers, not companies, who are dictating the rules of engagement
Forrester's 2015 findings are actually reassuring for pharma. Its Death of a (B2B) Salesman report suggests that reps involved in basic 'order processing' for commodity products are most vulnerable, while sales professionals that promote more complex products will continue to add value to customer interaction. That's encouraging news for medical sales professionals for whom stakeholder engagement not only encompasses scientific detailing but also extends to discussion around clinical studies, patient populations and health economics. It's a highly specialist role. Moreover, although Forrester says that e-commerce has “taken away the need to talk to someone to explain things”, a Sermo study reveals that many US physicians still prefer to have their questions answered in person by a sales professional. It's a finding that's mirrored in Europe too. The value of the medical field force no longer seems in question. However, with access rates still in decline, it's no surprise that pharma has sought to leverage digital channels to supplement face-to-face activity. This has led to the deployment of digital tools such as e-reps, live video chat and other interactive technologies to augment traditional methodologies.
Healthcare professionals are incrasingly adopting digital processes - but they're not really satisfied with what pharma is offering them
The trend reflects a growing appetite for online communications among the industry's customerbase – but there is plenty of room or improvement. “Healthcare professionals are increasingly adopting digital processes – but they're not really satisfied with what pharma is offering them,” Says Liz Murray, senior director, multichannel strategy, Quintiles.“What they currently get is very variable and poorly integrated;they are now getting different channels from pharma but want them better connected. Our own research shows that, while they like new approaches such as e-reps and virtual engagement, many retain a strong commitment to face-to-face interaction and still like to see their representatives.”
That said, there is increasing evidence that doctors are open to consuming information via an e-rep channel. It's an activity that's steadily growing in popularity with the most recent Across Health survey of multichannel maturity showing that 15% of pharmaceutical companies would now consider having an e-rep as standard practice. “The e-rep approach allows companies to conduct a virtual call with an HCP and surround it with online materials that can&;fulfil;their information needs,” says Liz. “This can not only help companies offer alternatives for access but it can also mark the start of a journey to integrate data in a way that suits HCPs.”
The issue of integration is key;digital cannot be an isolated activity.“Ten years ago people were billing digital as a panacea for pharma sales, but now everyone realises that it can't be used just as a channel - it needs to be integrated with people and processes,” says Lee Wales, digital strategy director, Ashfield. “Moreover, as people's expectations of online services have changed, the industry has recognised that HCPs use digital technologies in the same way as everyone else. They expect a seamless experience, whether they're interacting with a medical sales professional or booking their holiday online. However, we can talk about everyone being consumers and how this is driving needs, but those that do digital well recognise that the needs and drivers aren't the same for everyone. There is not a one-size-fi ts-all approach to digital marketing. Different customers have different needs – success is about understanding that and tailoring your strategy in line with the different touch points you have with that individual.”
As ever, how organisations capture,share and interpret data is critical to success – and the sales force has a vital role to play in assuring that data-driven decisions align with real-world customer needs. “The cornerstones of digital excellence are data, content and media,” says Tim van Tongeren, managing partner at DT Associates. “If you are smart in utilising data you can drive better content to your customers and respect their wishes and preferences. It's only when you have data and content in place that you can effectively use all the media channels that are available to you. The fi eld team may be perceived internally as one of those channels - but in fact they are probably the ones that have to choose which channel will work best for their customer. That's an alignment that can be optimised a lot better in the future.”
Another aspect that often gets overlooked is how companies assess their internal capabilities.“A good multichannel strategy relies on delivering the right information at the right time, but although companies have all sorts of different channels sometimesnone of them talk to each other. Data is not being optimised,” says Lee. “You can have iPad apps, virtual representatives and video portals but if your data is not joined up, it's diffi cult to develop a coherent and effective strategy.”
According to Tim van Tongeren, digital teams – in collaboration with colleagues in medical, marketing and sales – should examine internal disciplines through four phases of digital maturity; assessment, launch, acceleration and optimisation. “There are four key questions that must be answered to deliver digital excellence. In the assessment phase, is there a set of business and customer metrics that is consistently embedded across the organisation? The companies that do this fare better in digital than those who don't. Secondly, is there a clear strategic plan in place? That plan should be based on a clear vision that's shared by the sales and medical teams and aligned to one another – and it should specify exactly what you want to achieve with digital. Thirdly, are the digital capabilities that you're rolling out consistently meeting the requirement of your internal teams? Too often this is not the case – either because digital teams didn't listen or because compliance challenges were more diffi cult than initially imagined. And finally,can you benchmark effectively? A digital team needs the capability to track how people internally use all of these technologies in order to improve over time. Too often the technology is almost thrown over the wall and not being looked after from that point.”
The cornerstones of digital excellence are data, content and media
Another important factor is how salesforces are incentivised. “Sales metrics traditionally boil down to the number of contacts and, ultimately, the volume of sales – but when developing a multichannel strategy, these may well be the wrong metrics,” says Lee. “Some companies are now starting to incentivise their sales teams based on patient outcomes and customer evaluations. This is a positive step. It's not enough to focus solely on the number of interactions and touch points, it's about recognising the value-added interactions.
It's no good using digital to have one-way interactions that simply broadcast information. Digital needs to support the conversation – and it needs to be a conversation that the customer actually wants to have. It needs to be relevant and to add value. If you get that right then the channels and the strategy around it become a lot easier.”
It's clear that digital technologies are helping to facilitate engagement and enhance traditional interactions. They're also helping assure content is delivered to customers at the time that suits them - another challenge that the industry's old model has historically struggled to address. “Customers defi nitely want information about the industry's products. But they want it when they need it most – when the patient is sitting in front of them,” says Liz. “There has long been a disconnect between when an HCP wants to consume information and when pharma has traditionally made it available to them. Virtual solutions can help provide that point-ofconsultation support. But that doesn't mean replacing face-toface interaction. Sales engagement is not an 'either/or' decision. It's about fi nding the mix that works for individual customers and situations, refl ecting how we behave as consumer. For example, I do my banking online – but sometimes I need to speak to somebody. The world of pharmaceutical sales is no different.”
And so, as other sectors prepare for a significant cull of sales resource – and the prospect of reps being replaced by robots draws nearer – the value of human interaction in the detailing of pharmaceuticals is no longer being questioned. In a multichannel world it's simply being enhanced by digital technologies that enable stakeholders to consume vital information at the time they need it and through the channels of their choice. The rules of engagement are changing – but people, on both sides of the interaction, are still the ultimate driving force.