COVID-19 has been game-changing for pharma sales, driving demand for new models and reps with the right competencies and skills to succeed in a hybrid sales environment. Read about the key areas you must consider when rethinking your sales team and strategic approach to physician access below.
Selling in a pandemic environment
While the need to shift sales strategies in response to market changes is nothing new to pharmaceutical marketing and sales leaders, the COVID-19 pandemic has swiftly shattered conventional methodologies and channels. Early on in the pandemic, healthcare organizations prohibited in-person rep access to their facilities and physicians, and restrictions have remained in the form of strict visitor access policies and social distancing guidelines.
What hasn’t changed is the value that physicians gain from trusted relationships with their sales reps. In fact, 2020 research conducted by consulting firm Accenture found physicians want more information on patient drug therapies and manufacturers’ support services. More than half of physicians surveyed indicated that they are interested in learning about new therapies – and have the time to do so.  And they are increasingly connecting with reps despite the in-person restrictions in place—61% of physicians surveyed said they are interacting more with their reps during COVID-19 than they did before the pandemic. 
The challenge lies in how pharma companies sell to physicians in a pandemic environment and beyond. Over the past year, marketing and sales teams have rapidly adapted to accommodate the need for a virtual sales model. Sales reps’ meetings with physicians shifted from 64% in-person prior to COVID-19, to 65% virtually during the pandemic. Instead of walking into a physician’s office, shaking hands and sharing information across a table, in many instances reps must attempt to recreate this type of meaningful interaction and connection through an online meeting platform.
Chip Romp, Executive Vice President, Commercial at Seagen, a global biotechnology company that discovers, develops, and commercializes transformative cancer medicines, explains how the delta of impact between “good reps” and “great reps” has widened as a result of the physician access challenges presented by the pandemic.
“COVID-19 is making the competition for physician time even more important,” says Romp. “As a result, there’s an effort to generate greater value from the time with the customer you do get. A ‘good rep’ may get his or her foot through the door, but a ‘great rep’ has the skills to deliver what the physician truly needs.”
Change is here to stay
Physician surveys and other industry research indicates that there is no going “back to normal” post-pandemic when it comes to the pharma marketing and sales model, at least not entirely. There are those physicians who have grown accustomed to virtual sales and support meetings and say they would prefer to meet with reps this way moving forward. Then there are others who have voiced their desire for a more hybrid model that includes a mix of in-person and virtual rep communication even after the pandemic ends. Acknowledging this trend, 93% of life sciences executives and decision makers surveyed said they expect “virtual detailing” to become a “prominent part of their sales model” moving forward. 
“The pandemic is driving new personal norms,” Romp commented. “If you think about the number of Facetime calls you got a year ago versus today, it has gone up dramatically. Those used to be reserved for family or personal interactions, but they are now much more common in the workplace. The technology for virtual interactions, whether it is Facetime, Zoom, or some other platform, has existed for years now, but the permission and norms from a business perspective hadn’t. The pandemic is changing that.”
This has left pharma manufacturers questioning the future of their sales models and whether COVID-19 has driven lasting and impactful change that will last well beyond the pandemic. Pharma marketing and sales leaders are reevaluating their strategies and teams to meet the needs of a completely different selling environment. Will a one-size-fits-all approach of virtual, in-person or hybrid model work for all customers in all regions, or must pharma companies tailor their outreach and interactions based on individual physician preferences?
Is your sales team positioned for success?
Here are four areas to consider when rethinking your sales teams and their approach to physician engagement, including tips for selecting talent that will enable your company to succeed in “the new normal.”
1. Understand and accommodate what your customers want
When asked about their preferences for sales meetings during the pandemic and beyond, physician responses vary. Some still want that personal, in-person connection, while others have happily adapted to virtual meetings and want these to continue. In a 2020 survey by Accenture, 87% of healthcare providers said they want either all virtual or a hybrid model (mix of in-person or virtual) even after the pandemic ends.” 
Pharmaceutical marketing and sales leaders need to take a step back and determine what model works best for their customers. Are the physician populations you are targeting fairly homogeneous so that you can leverage a single approach across them all—virtual, hybrid, in-person? Or are there differences by region that you must accommodate, e.g., physicians in the South preferring in-person contact, while those in the Northeast opting for virtual interactions?
For years hiring a commercial team was a very tactical experience. The main concern for pharma manufacturers was operationally hiring the same phenotype across many different locations and onboarding them at the same time. Now with COVID-19 widening the impact delta between “good” and “great” sales reps, hiring conversations have become much more strategic. Companies are aiming to build teams that can rapidly innovate and respond to physicians in a transformative way. They are looking more closely at the preferences of physicians based on demographic factors, such as geography, and hiring reps who have the skills to succeed within those specific customer populations.
“One of the things this pandemic is surfacing is that quality matters,” said Romp. “A rep at a local level with deep understanding and deep knowledge has a better chance of finding the preferred path for a customer and engaging them. That is very difficult to do if you are new to that marketplace.”
Regardless of the approach, pharma companies need sales talent that understands these differences and is willing to adapt based on physician preferences. In many cases, that means the capability to acknowledge when past strategies are no longer relevant, and a willingness to be innovative and adaptive to changing their approach moving forward.
“Customers should be able to receive information in the way they feel is most effective for them,” Romp added. “We are broadening that and making those delivery vehicles much more efficient and engaging across the board.”
2. Approach sales like a quarterback, not a lone wolf
Even before COVID-19 hit the U.S., there was evidence of a growing desire among physicians to connect with resources within pharma companies beyond the sales reps, such as medical affairs. The days of a “lone wolf” rep who owns the physician relationship and serves as the sole face of the company are over. Today, the role of the sales rep is increasingly becoming more of a “quarterback,” where they connect physicians with relevant subject matter experts, rather than being the expert on everything.
Moving forward, physicians say reps will “need to be skilled in addressing clinical and scientific questions beyond the product detail, as well as represent multiple products.” When surveyed, 82% of physicians said they have seen pharma companies change how they communicate during the pandemic, specifically broadening their communication beyond product information to “support that meets their most pressing needs.” 
In Romp’s experience, this quarterback approach provides greater value to the physician in enabling him or her to efficiently gain access to needed resources within the company. It benefits the company as well, providing the opportunity to capture direct customer insights, and at the same time, showcase its broad knowledge, expertise, and resources to its customers.
“The customer at the end of the day is receiving better value because their questions are answered immediately,” said Romp. “As a leader in an organization having those insights in real time is extraordinarily valuable. It changes how you can run your business. Strategic shifts can take place sooner.”
With an increase in virtual meetings ushered in by the pandemic, sales reps have a greater opportunity to pull in additional company resources when meeting with a physician, analogous to a triage service. If the physician has a question for medical affairs, for example, the rep can schedule a Zoom meeting where a Medical Affairs team member is present. As Accenture stated in its 2020 report, Reinventing Relevance, New Models for Pharma Engagement with Healthcare Providers in a COVID-19 World:
“Selected reps could be assigned new responsibilities alongside their marketing colleagues such as supporting physician journey mapping and helping design the omnichannel experiences that will resonate with their customers best.” 
“A customer shouldn’t have to go through his/her contact list to figure out who to call at a company when a need arises,” said Romp. “With a rep-centric model, the customer’s main contact is the rep, who can then reach into their company to field the customer’s questions. That way, the company has better clarity on the request and a better chance of answering the question quickly and effectively.”
This new approach again goes back to talent. With the broadening role of sales from lone wolf to quarterback, companies need reps who are great collaborators and communicators, can make necessary connections, and are willing to share their physician relationships internally with other parts of the business.
3. Think bigger—expand your reach
While the pharma sales field has predominantly been a culture of “close physician contact” with reps leveraging their in-person connections and meetings with physicians as a way to build relationships and trust, the changes driven by COVID-19 don’t have to be seen as strictly negative. In rethinking their sales strategies, pharma companies and their reps need to uncover how they can capitalize on virtual models for operational and financial success.
The acceptance of virtual meetings among physicians opens the door for sales and marketing teams to have greater contact with a broader range of customers in a shorter period of time. Meetings with physicians in remote regions, where the rep previously had to take hours out of his or her day to travel to the site, can now take place online in a matter of minutes.
Virtual meetings also take the pressure off the rep to answer strategic questions on the spot. In an in-person meeting, if the physician asks a question the rep is unable to answer, the rep may find him/herself having to leave the meeting to connect with the resource who can provide the requested information. On the other hand, when meeting virtually, the rep may be able to connect the physician with that resource in real-time via Zoom, Facetime, or another platform.
Another benefit of virtual physician interactions is the opportunity for sales and marketing teams to gather insights from a broader range of customers, according to Romp. He states:
“The pandemic is making us more efficient and effective. In a single day a marketer can now reach out to multiple areas around the country and never have to leave his/her office. Instead of having to piece together insights from disparate visits, which may not be connectable, the marketer can uncover common themes among customers in a short period of time, which in turn, helps the company better direct its resources.”
Romp says his company’s use of virtual physician events has made it both easier and more effective to conduct market research across its customer population. When holding in-person market research events, they could only engage with physicians who had flexibility in their schedules to drive/fly to an event. But a virtual approach provides the opportunity for the company to engage with a much larger population of physicians.
“What we see now through virtual outreach is that many more customers can participate,” said Romp. “I believe that when you have that additional level of participation you get a more holistic viewpoint of what the marketplace is thinking. And because the market research is more complete, you can craft a more effective strategy to respond to it.”
4. Prioritize flexibility and creativity on your talent wish list
There are some sales rep attributes that will always be important regardless of the market conditions, such as the ability to form relationships, a greater motivation beyond quarterly numbers, a commitment to patient care and the drive to provide value to physicians beyond products. While none of this is going away, there are additional key attributes required of reps addressing physician needs in the pandemic environment and beyond.
“The value proposition between quality and quantity is greater, and in that quality, there are ranges,” said Romp. “This has shown that the best reps find a way to provide service to their customers. They have to be adaptive and collaborative in this situation.”
Based on the results of its 2020 physician survey, consulting firm Accenture says pharma manufacturers must “plan for operational and talent impacts” moving forward. Companies should take the time to understand and plan for “how customers are now targeted, how reps are now incentivized, and how new competencies and skills are now embedded.” 
When looking internally to develop talent, add to your growing team or build a new sales organization structured around your new strategy, look for those individuals who have the capacity to be nimble and flexible when addressing changing physician needs. If a rep can’t take a physician out for lunch, what mode will they use to connect in the same meaningful way? The new reality requires a sales team that has the creativity to overcome these types of limitations.
In its December 2020 report, Reshaping pharma’s strategy in the next normal, McKinsey and Company states:
“As pharma companies gear up for remote launch activities, they can help their sales reps build new capabilities that can enhance their impact on launch success. As virtual calls replace in-person visits, reps can foster a sense of proximity with healthcare providers by learning to make the most of cameras, screen sharing, and other interaction tools. Soft skills such as deep listening will help sales reps gather insights on physicians’ unmet needs and sources of dissatisfaction.” 
Romp relays the story of a sales rep who hosted a physician breakfast in a parking lot to comply with social distancing guidelines when this type of gathering could not occur indoors in the close confines of a conference room. He stresses the need for pharma companies to hire sales reps who find ways to deliver value to their customers, particularly during a time when physicians confront increased pressure and conflicting priorities.
“Time is the universal equalizer—there is no way to create more of it. We make decisions all day long on who we are going to give our time to. The underlying question is, ‘what value is in it for me during that interaction?’ That determines whether a physician will walk down a hallway and take an immediate right when they see a rep, or in the current environment, whether they hit the green button or the red button when a virtual call comes in from a rep.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the face of healthcare across the world, forcing all stakeholders—physicians, drug, and device manufacturers, hospital leaders, regulators, and even patients—to rethink how they interact, how care is delivered, and how they move ahead in this time of uncertainty.
Because we don’t know when the next pandemic will hit or what the next big disrupter to our industry will be, life sciences companies need to put into place an infrastructure and individuals who can carry their companies forward in an ever-changing climate.
Pharma companies and physicians agree that the role of the sales rep remains invaluable as an individual who connects caregivers with therapies that are life-changing and/or life-saving for their patients. As Romp explains:
“If you look across the industry the past 20 years, we’ve seen tectonic shifts, including the introduction of the internet and regulations associated with how pharma companies interact with customers. The sales rep has been there the entire time. Their role as a trusted advisor to physicians who can provide insight on the newest advances in a therapeutic area has not been replaceable.”
“This situation is no different,” he added. “The sales rep will adapt as they have in the past to changing environments. It’s difficult to predict what that will look like in the future, but I am very comfortable in saying they will adapt. We are experiencing changes as a result of the pandemic, but it’s not the end of the sales representative.”
The challenge today is for sales and marketing leaders to identify and cultivate those individuals who can navigate change and provide greater value to healthcare providers at a time when they need it most. The role of the sales rep is growing and expanding as the market adapts. The reps who will be the most successful are those who are willing and able to meet physicians where they want to be—whether that is belly-to-belly across a table or face-to-face via computer.
 Pharma Companies Have Improved How They Engage with Healthcare Providers During COVID-19, Finds New Research from Accenture, Accenture, August 10, 2020
  The Impact of Covid-19 on Manufacturers’ Commercial Model, Numerof & Associates, December 2021
     Reinventing Relevance, New Models for Pharma Engagement with Healthcare Providers in a COVID-19 World, Accenture Healthcare Provider Survey May 2020
 Ready for launch: Reshaping pharma’s strategy in the next normal, McKinsey and Company, December 15, 2020