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In the age of digital transformation and the COVID-19 induced acceleration of online customer interactions, sales forces remain one of the biggest commercial expenses for the pharmaceutical industry. Every year, pharma companies spend $10B to $15B on salesforce in the US alone. This fact shouldn’t be surprising considering that “personal selling” could contribute up to 20% of incremental drug revenue. But from a brand marketing standpoint, a sales force is an expensive channel which is hard to optimize because sales reps are usually employees of the company and can’t be turned on and off like an email campaign.
Over the last ten years, pharma brand teams have been experimenting with various digital channels, attempting to get closer to an omnichannel approach to outbound marketing. Omnichannel promotion is important not just to reach physicians with more than one medium, but it can also decrease the reliance on sales force resources and sustain or expand sales margins. As a result, the number of total sales reps has declined over the years, but the overall marketing effectiveness hasn’t improved as much as the industry had hoped it would. Year over year, pharma companies continue to shed their field force headcount while struggling to replace it with automated non-personal engagement with the customer.
Moving From Selling To Building Relationships
Coming to pharma from a B2B healthcare technology background, I have always struggled to see a sales rep as one of the marketing channels. To me, a marketing channel is an email, a text message, a mobile app or a TV commercial. In the B2B world, sales and account teams are viewed as strategic partners who don’t just sell a product, but offer a solution to a customer’s pain point. I always liked to imagine pharma’s commercial, medical, and patient account experts forming a dream team to build a kind of relationship with a physician that addresses her needs holistically, from learning about new clinical trials happening in her therapeutic area, to choosing the right treatment regimen for her new patient, to dealing with insurance companies and streamlining patient approval for a prescribed drug.
It has been very encouraging to see new initiatives happening in non-pharma industries that get us closer to this new model. Imagine customer account teams operating as mini-businesses that are held accountable for the revenue they bring to the HQ. At the same time, they are provided with the full suite of digital tools to manage their sales pipeline, address customers’ ongoing challenges and communicate with them. This is where digital transformation powered by AI becomes key to the success of this new business operation.
A New Augmented Intelligence Approach
If your brand has 30 sales reps, 10 medical science liaisons (MSLs) and 5 patient support liaisons (PSLs) and they operate as individual mini-businesses, you’re looking at a model where you are responsible for orchestrating daily activities of about 150 teams consisting of customer facing experts who often don’t interact on a daily basis and sometimes are not even aware they need to work together. This is where digital technology and AI come into play. Through an integrated and seamless CRM interface powered by hyper personalized algorithms, a sales rep, an MSL or a PSL can see which physician accounts they need to attend to and for what reason. The AI identifies specific customer pain points, suggests the best intervention and the team acts on it.
If a clinical study has just come out and it’s important to increase awareness of new data, an MSL can make the first visit to the doctor and tell her about the results of a trial. AI then assigns the next steps to the sales rep covering the same account based on the outcomes of a medical discussion and anticipated needs from the physician. A recent HBR article authored by a famous chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov and a behavioral science scholar David De Cremer calls this human-machine collaboration Augmented Intelligence.
Because customer account teams can drive their own marketing plan, they have access to a suite of digital marketing tools with AI-driven recommendations about the next best action and automated marketing cadences that account owners can trigger. Everyone on the same account team can see what activities their customer has engaged in, in-person or virtual. This AI-driven customer-centric approach puts the frontline teams in a driving seat and elevates the role of sales, medical and patient support associates. It also focuses on building a trusting relationship with the customer and emphasizes supporting their needs through coordinated and optimized engagement.
As an additional benefit, a solid strategy with the right amount of support makes each account owner less likely to leave the company because in this new model the solution is provided by the entire account team, rather than by an individual. The long term benefit of retaining key talent is undeniable.
In the new customer-centric reality pharma industry is moving towards AI and digital technology do not replace sales, medical or patient support reps. Instead, they amplify one’s ability to build long-lasting relationships with the customer and move the conversation from selling to creating value.