Blended and augmented: Reimagining the role of the rep
SummaryThe events of 2020 have compelled pharma to reimagine the role of the rep to better adapt to the new rules of engagement As pharma tentatively contemplates a post-pandemic future, it is clear that the old sales model has been swept away by this year’s lockdown and that the field force must adapt.
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Blended and augmented: Reimagining the role of the repThe events of 2020 have compelled pharma to reimagine the role of the rep to better adapt to the new rules of engagementAs pharma tentatively contemplates a post-pandemic future, it is clear that the old sales model has been swept away by this year’s lockdown and that the field force must adapt.
Industry research from Reuters Events Pharma revealed that 70% of those surveyed expected sales reps’ face-to-face access to HCPs would not return to the status quo ante when pandemic restrictions cease. The research also revealed that the size and disposition of sales teams is under review and smaller field forces look likely.
As the research also made clear, the role of the rep must be rapidly reimagined into more of a digital/face-to-face hybrid given the rapid digitalisation of HCP engagement. The survey revealed that the most effective avenues of engagement during the pandemic were led by live remote or phone detailing, webinars, e-meetings and email.
This offers a clue as to the ways HCPs will seek to engage from now on.
HCPs are also increasingly looking for insights, not sales pitches or collateral now. They want integrated, personalised and value-driven interactions as opposed to brand-driven interactions.The new quarterbackIn such an environment, where interactions will be increasingly digital and part of an omnichannel experience, reps have a unique new role to play.
Given the time they spend with HCPs and the specific knowledge this gives them, reps can help focus and personalise omni-channel approaches.
In this sense, the sales rep has to become more of a quarterback or orchestrator, choosing when to bring in MSLs and proactively taking decisions on what meetings to have or data to send.
“We need to rethink their role in the ecosystem,” says Karan Arora, Chief Commercial Digital Officer, AstraZeneca. “That human touch is going to be super important. It's a valuable asset. The question is, how do I use their precious time with the customer? They have less and less time to spend with different channels right now. How do I make the best use of that time that they're spending together to really rethink that relationship? How can I help them move from one stage of the funnel to the next?”
It is clear that significant retraining will be needed to create reps able to create new value in the digital era, however. Sales reps are on a steep learning curve and need help in using the new digital tools and platforms as well as enhancing their ‘soft’ skills for a digital setting, says Danilo Pagano, VP, Digital & Customer Engagement, Lundbeck.
“They need proper training to let them do the job through a screen. They need to sharpen their approach in the way they promote product and disease awareness using all the digital communication tools because they are all key touch points for us now.”Digital skills need to be developed and honedAn important area of competence that needs to be developed and improved is reps’ ability to work with data and data technology.
But it works both ways, and the tech can help reps improve too. AI tools have great potential to help more reps take more effective actions, says Chetak Buaria, Global Head Customer Engagement and Channel Evolution, Merck. “For me the mind of a smart rep is the best personalization, smart AI engine anyone could think of.
“Part of their job is to assimilate all sorts of data points to create the experience for the customer that we are all aspiring for. The job of AI is how you can pull out some of the thinking that is going on in your smartest reps to convert into an algorithm that can help uplift the rest of your reps.”
The more remote and often solitary digital work setting of the rep today also means a refocusing of some sales skills, but pharma has a problem in the immediate aftermath of a rapid switch to remote engagement, says Norma Piggott, VP, Commercial Learning & Development, Takeda.
“We have generally grown up inside the industry, we have sales reps who have never sold virtually, being led by people who have never sold virtually, being trained by people who have never sold virtually."
The solution to this is to look beyond pharma for help and expertise from outsiders who have been selling and coaching virtually for decades, says Piggott. “We have to open our aperture and look at who has been doing this well and start having conservation with people who have done telesales or tele retailing."
A lack of skills is not the only challenge here. Another is a different mindset required among those whose roles will need to be redefined, adds Piggott. “We are having to have conversations in particular with some more tenured sales leaders and say being a super rep and sales leader is not what we need right now.”
Commercial leaders now need to be effective coaches, capable of motivating and reassuring teams in the new remote and more solitary context, she says. “That is something we are really trying to double down on. We need to spend time asking people how they are doing.”
Training to influence mindset is in many respects taking priority over skills and knowledge, since the latter two can be taught.More productiveFor those organisations that manage to crack the code and develop the right blend of hard and soft skills, there is already evidence that a far more effective and productive sales force can result.
An arguably surprising outcome of the pandemic and the resulting digital engagement to date has been higher rep productivity, says Candy Liang, Director, Commercial Effectiveness, Akebia Therapeutics.
“Reps were able to make more calls, they were able to do four virtual lunches a day. They didn’t have to drive and so they could use their time more efficiently. The reps who were able to make more calls had more touchpoints with the customer so that age-old saying that ‘you hustle more and you get more’ that we knew before in person, that didn't change.”
Clearly, while the way reps engage may have changed, many of the core skills and abilities have not, adds Liang. “We ran a study during the summer to know what's the best way to engage customers in virtual and we learned that the folks that performed the best in virtual are the folks that still sell naturally or carry through the clinical selling model that we've trained them in and didn’t get distracted by the digital setting.”
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