Sales woman presenting new product to pharmacist

Pharma’s sales-centric commercial model faces strong headwinds, from poor access to increasingly heavy-handed formularies – and yet, for reasons historical, cultural and strategic, the industry shows little appetite for reevaluating it. In fact, in several recent senior-level strategic meetings addressing how pharma will adapt to the shifting commercial landscape, executives explicitly stated that they have no intention of reducing sales forces.

The challenges reps face are not trivial. Restrictions around seeing prescribers face-to-face are pervasive -- according to our studies, one-half of physicians say they have some kind of restriction around rep visits, whether by company, frequency or some other parameter. Moreover, around two in five indicate they expect these restrictions to increase in the coming years. Then there’s the question of rep relevance and influence in today’s value-based health system, wherein prescribers’ decisions are increasingly constrained by formularies and other emerging decision-based tools tied to evidence and outcomes. In a recent study, physicians said only about half of the scripts they write are based on their clinical preference, while the other half are based on decisions made elsewhere – by payers or their employers.

So why is pharma so complacent about this mismatch? Clients offer several explanations. Some note that the mainframe of pharma’s commercial model is oriented around direct sales, from career progression and leadership to operations and success measures, underscoring the need for broad business transformation. Others point to the historical success of the blockbuster model and the challenges around identifying, modeling and operationalizing alternative approaches, especially considering today’s complex organizational customer landscape. Still others say that no matter how much prescriber decisions are facilitated by technology and shaped by institutional goals, prescribers will continue to value support, and relationships will always matter.

Whatever the reason, large sales forces aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Adapting them to today’s healthcare and technology environment, then, is essential for pharma to maximize investment, optimize information exchange and groom the next generation of commercial sales organizations. Here are a few strategic insights that we’ve uncovered this year to help pharma navigate this path:

  1. Optimize iPad engagements. While satisfaction levels for tablet rep interactions are nearly twice that of non-tablet reps, influence on prescribing decisions remains level. To drive relevance and engagement with physicians, tablet campaigns should:
    1. Build content and services beyond basic product information. Research shows a strong unmet need around content and services such as comparative product information, patient education, cost and outcomes information, and KOL videos;
    2. Keep tweaking who “drives” the tablet during the detail. More than 2 in 5 physicians say they prefer being able to personally handle the tablet and drive the iPad experience rather than the rep;
    3. Develop content for different scenarios. By now, brands should have different experiences for longer, scheduled appointments and shorter “door knob” interactions.
  2. Test virtual reality (VR). If you thought Facebook buying Oculus for $2 Billion in 2014 was a long-term investment and missed the New York Times shipping 1.3M Cardboard headsets with the print edition of the Sunday Times last month, know that at least one pharma is already leveraging VR with reps. I’m usually cautious with a shiny new tech, but not in this case. In fact, I’m a believer that VR will empower physicians to engage with content in an unparalleled immersive environment, and will accelerate learning and decision-making. We’re tracking two vendors thus far who are market-ready:
  • Confideo Labs launched their VR platform, DoctorVirtualis, last year, enabling development of immersive VR experiences across channels, from medical conferences to sales reps. DoctorVirtualis delivers premium visual experiences across staged content modules that blend pre-timed cinematic experiences with free-form interactive engagement. The boutique firm combines leading VR technology (Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, Google Cardboard, etc.) with best in class engineering to deliver new ways to visualize and interact with brand content and medical media. Their founder, Mike Marett, is an innovation advocate who has successfully pioneered a range of new media and innovative technologies for pharma marketers over the years;
  • Klick Labs, the innovation arm of Klick Health, has been developing immersive VR MOA/MOD experiences for its clients to use at medical conferences over the last year. These installations have been received extremely well, to the point where healthcare professionals are sharing them with colleagues. Klick has brought to market an efficient means of creating VR content that can be experienced through headsets such as Oculus Rift or mobile VR solutions like Google Cardboard, as well as desktops and tablets. This “build once, use many ways” approach allows pharmas to engage an HCP in the manner of their preference.
  1. Advance multichannel efforts. While most companies invest in multiple channels, few coordinate their use strategically to support an omnichannel experience. Research clearly shows the benefit of this approach. For example, physicians who interact with iPad reps are more likely to use pharma online resources, including websites and online promotion programs.
  2. Coordinate efforts between sales and market access. The messages and value-added services reps provide will increasingly need to be coordinated with the broader B2B relationships being formed between market access groups and organized customer sets such as ACOs and IDNs. Research shows that formulary decision makers are expecting to partner with pharma in the emerging outcomes-based market in various ways, notably through ”beyond the pill” solutions. Once these initiatives take hold, reps will need to evolve their role and extend and activate programs with physicians.

Pharma can’t swap out a sales model built for the last century overnight – broader transformational change will play out over many years. But by retrofitting commercial organizations to bring them up to date with shifts in policy and technology, companies can better serve their customers – and the bottom line – in the near term.

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