As the world continues to monitor the spread of COVID-19, industries of all kinds have little choice but to change on the spot: Educational institutions are quickly transitioning their lessons online and dine-in restaurants are joining the delivery service industry. As measures like lockdowns and social distancing continue to be enforced amid the public health crisis, pharma needs to figure out what that means for the traditional rep-centric model. Putting a stop to in-person physician promotions would reduce traffic across sites of care (for locations that haven’t already restricted access), thereby lowering the spread of disease to healthcare workers, patients and the reps themselves. It’s the responsible thing to do but enforcing a work-from-home mandate—even temporarily—will be challenging. Big disruptions like these are sure to affect everyday business, but they also hold opportunities to rethink existing approaches and try out new ideas.

Healthcare systems around the world are feeling the effects of COVID-19 at varying degrees: Hospitals are feeling pressure from extreme spikes in care while physician practices are treating a dwindling number of (non-COVID-19) patients. The pandemic is shifting healthcare providers’ focus and leaving some with less time and fewer resources to care for patients with other chronic conditions. New patients with noncritical needs might be turned away, and existing patients might begin to delay routine checkups or refuse care for other conditions to avoid potential exposure. All of these factors affect how providers will interact with other stakeholders in the healthcare ecosystem for the foreseeable future. When it comes to the role of the pharma sales rep, there’s certainly no manual for how to proceed during times like these but it’ll be critical to carefully navigate their relationships with physicians and help them put patients first.


Physicians are turning to telehealth to contend with the high number of virus-related requests and to reduce the spread of infection, and in all likelihood, the job duties of pharma sales reps will be conducted from a remote location. The question is how reps will stay engaged with their customers during these times of changing needs and constraints—and ramping up digital deliverables could be the answer.


According to ZS’s 2019 AffinityMonitor findings, 47.3% of physicians engage well with in-person pharma rep meetings, but just 9.6% of physicians engage with digital tactics. The new environment could provide a chance to level the playing field a bit now that reps likely will be coordinating the customer experience entirely via digital channels. The key is to ensure that online engagement helps rather than overburdens physicians. For example, third-party vendors and others likely are pushing out materials through digital channels, too. Our research shows that pharma already relies on digital outreach two and a half more times than rep calls, so companies need to be careful not to add to the noise.


Other customer-facing roles like medical device sales reps, nurse educators and key account managers (both provider-centric and payer-centric) will be under pressure, too. Presumably a good portion of the KAM function can be done remotely, but are other roles like customer service reps expected to report for work in an otherwise empty building, or is remote work an option? The challenge isn’t just about making sure that the functions can be performed remotely, but ensuring that individuals have the tools and technology to do so..

Determining how best to respond to physicians’ changing needs will ensure that these customer-facing roles are armed for success while sequestered. Just like the new virtual teacher-student relationship is sure to hit some bumps in the road, sales reps’ virtual approach to product promotions will likely go through a few trials and tribulations. In addition to understanding and being sensitive to customer needs that change by the day, sales reps will need to find ways to reallocate time typically spent arranging, preparing for and traveling to in-person meetings with physicians.


One silver lining is that pivoting to fill reps’ workdays with tasks that don’t include knocking on office doors could help pharma fulfill its desire to be more tech-minded. In transitioning to a fully digital approach during the outbreak, partnering with marketers to create relevant and targeted messages that engage physicians is more important than ever. And the frequency and timing of digital messages needs to be carefully weighed against the demands of physicians’ unusual case load. With those factors in mind, here are a few ways that sales reps can continue to effectively reach their customers from a home office:

  1. Play a more active role in directing non-personal promotion. Most physicians are open to receiving useful messages from pharma, and now many of them also will be working virtually. With the advent of technologies like artificial intelligence, much of the non-personal promotion function is handled without humans. But there’s an opportunity for reps to use time usually spent in the field to further personalize the machine output—with the goal of further individualizing the customer experience. Customers tend to be more receptive—in some cases, five times more receptive—to rep-triggered emails because of the personalized approach. Companies that have this capability established will have the edge.
  2. Help provide support to existing patients. Brainstorm with customers about ways to support patients in therapy areas that may get less attention due to the all-consuming nature of the pandemic. One example is determining how to help support patients with existing chronic conditions who may be having trouble accessing their doctors’ offices for non-virus-related appointments.
  3. Create even more personalized content—now and down the line. The current climate is a good opportunity to show that pharma is equipped to clearly articulate and respond to customer’s individual behaviors and preferences. In the daily grind, reps often don’t have time to build the documentation function by entering notes that could fuel these insights. With the rep’s input into who a customer is, marketers can create more personalized messages that better engage the customer through virtual channels and address patient needs in the short term. For example, marketers could figure out how to optimize digital channels to provide direct support to patients on specialty medications and ensure that they have an uninterrupted supply.
  4. Sharpen remote detailing offerings. Typically serving as a complement to in-person promotions, tele-detailing is in a good position to pick up some of the slack. For e-detailing to be successful, reps need to find ways to bring the personalization of face-to-face meetings to video-based calls. Although it’s unlikely that we can expect widespread interest (customers are dealing with the demands of their own switch to digital on top of everything else), it could be a good time to try it out with any offices that may be open to an e-detailing approach.
  5. Coordinate messaging campaigns across the organization. One trap to beware of in the “new way of working” is overwhelming or crowding physicians with too many messages. When physical details were the norm, it was unlikely that three reps would end up at the same place on the same day (but it did happen). When messages are being pushed out via email, it’s very likely that all rep-generated emails could show up in a doctor’s inbox on the same day.
  6. Brush up on skills. This is a great opportunity for reps to log some product training time, schedule regular account planning meetings with their teams to identify any overlaps in promotional campaigns and continue learning to optimize customer relationship management systems and other tech tools of the trade.

Beyond looking for ways to optimize job duties, there’s an opportunity for pharma companies to lean on the expertise of these customer-facing roles to help fill gaps in other areas and build some industry trust along the way. When hands-on action becomes impossible, nurse educators, MSLs and sales reps could use their communication and people skills to connect various stakeholders with relevant information.


A few volunteer opportunities that come to mind are coordinating patient outreach programs for populations that might be neglected due to the all-consuming nature of the virus, ensuring that product shipments are fulfilled and on time, and setting up and staffing patient resources like helplines. Another idea is assisting key accounts by delivering critical supplies to homebound patients—and taking precautions, of course, to reduce the risk to their own health and prevent the spread of disease. In addition to possibly having a lasting impact on pharma’s reputation as an industry, these acts of good are just the right thing to do as we all adjust to a new normal.


It’s hard not to look down the line and consider how COVID-19 might permanently alter the way that pharma works. Just look at the food industry: In a matter of a few hours, restaurants that operated for years on a dine-in model began offering delivery. Will those restaurants be able to revert to their former business model, or will customers come to expect delivery from now on? For pharma, some of the changes we’ve outlined above will remain even after the crisis has ended. Once the industry and its customers learn to function in a world without face-to-face detailing, we may see the digital switch flip with physicians preferring to engage via digital channels. In the meantime, marketers shouldn’t be afraid to experiment with multiple channels and treat the current operating environment as a learning opportunity.