Life Sciences R&D & Medical

How to design the medical affairs customer engagement model of tomorrow

By Sunil John, and Shrikkanth Gopalan

March 31, 2021 | Article | 7-minute read

How to design the medical affairs customer engagement model of tomorrow

As the demand for scientific information grows in a post-COVID-19 world, medical affairs groups will continue to gain prominence, yet will still face challenges as customer expectations evolve. In an industry where in-person, face-to-face interactions were once considered the norm, communication has become less personal and more virtual. Medical affairs groups must now adopt these new virtual channels, which bring their own modes of information-sharing. They must cover new customer bases, including digital influencers and physician assistants, who have distinct preferences and needs. All of these changes demand new customer engagement strategies.

The medical affairs customer engagement model needs reassessing post-COVID-19

Regional characteristics, healthcare access and patients all impact an area’s medical needs. To develop customized engagement plans, medical affairs groups must understand these nuances. As the landscape and customer needs evolve, medical affairs groups must focus on developing skill sets that will remain relevant. A one-size-fits-all approach driven by workload will no longer be effective for shaping deployments and customer engagements, especially after the pandemic. As we head into the next decade, medical affairs groups must define and develop a robust customer engagement model that will be ready for the future. 

5 steps to agile engagement with medical affairs stakeholders

Content and information consumption preferences are evolving. Healthcare providers (HCPs), key opinion leaders (KOLs), payers, investigators and other industry stakeholders increasingly rely on digital platforms to help them consume medical content. They need new types of information quickly, delivered through their preferred channels. They also expect it to be personalized to their specific needs and interests.


With this in mind, here are five steps to help you meet changing customer needs and improve your medical affairs customer engagement strategy.

  1. Map the broader customer group outside of tiered KOLs. Given the increasing demand for scientific information, the medical affairs customer map must dramatically change. Medical affairs stakeholders now range from traditional KOLs to digital influencers, provider networks and accounts—among others. The pandemic has prompted the rise of new stakeholder groups, such as physician assistants, who will play a key role in vaccinations.
  2. Understand customer preferences and unmet medical needs. Profile customers in-depth to gain insight into their current needs. Medical affairs groups may have to revamp existing customer tiering systems and incorporate new parameters to better understand their customers. Historically, medical science liaison (MSL) teams have been reluctant to segment customer groups, assuming they already know enough about their stakeholders. In reality, customer types and needs are quickly changing and expanding. For example, medical affairs groups should determine which customers prefer virtual interactions to further segment these customer groups.

    Unmet medical needs vary by geography or local healthcare market, due to issues including access or education gaps. It is essential to understand the local medical landscape for all of your customer types, as well as the healthcare providers’ and patients’ unmet medical needs in each of those regions.
  3. Align the MSL role to customer expectations.. According to a ZS white paper on defining customer centricity for field medical teams, an MSL can best ensure customer-centric engagements with scientific acumen, responsiveness and appropriate communication. The healthcare industry generally expects MSLs to contribute to value-based discussions with payers. But the MSL of the future will have to wear many hats and optimize the customer journey while sustaining client relationships.  For example, clinical trial support for investigators is one area where the need for MSL support will increase. 
  4. Train for high-impact virtual conversations. ZS estimates that approximately 25% of future engagements will be virtual interactions. Organizations must train MSLs with this in mind. They should consider questions such as: Will the entire team be trained? Will there be a separate virtual and face-to-face team? Should organizations vary interactions based on the region’s medical needs? Can contract MSLs be an option for only nonpersonal interactions? Organizations must contemplate recruitment complexities and their associated costs, customer preferences, relationship sustainment and company goals as they develop training modules. 
  5. Build systems, processes and practices to effectively capture MSL insights. The move to omnichannel engagement will help expand data capture for medical affairs groups, which is minimal today. Organizations should design well-rounded feedback loops based on this new data to understand a region’s specific, unmet needs, trending questions and asks. Medical affairs groups can use these insights to refine their content, determine customer affinity for various channels and dynamically vary their interactions by designing, developing and implementing appropriate technology. This can, in turn, help to redefine their key performance indicators (KPIs). Once these systems, processes and practices are built, then it’s time to gauge how scientific needs vary across geographies.

Organizations should take these five steps to build their agile and customized resource distribution scenarios by geography, region and customer type. We then recommend developing ecosystem-based engagement models and introducing new roles such as on-demand MSLs to help design the medical affairs customer engagement model of tomorrow.

Recommendation No. 1: Develop an ecosystem-based customer engagement model

Yesterday’s medical customer engagement models mostly relied on workload-based metrics and account distribution. Organizations hadn’t sufficiently considered market landscapes, stakeholder needs, treatment modalities, internal organizational objectives and pipelines. When taking an ecosystem-based approach for tomorrow’s field medical engagement, ZS recommends developing a quantitative medical need index (MNI), which can accurately illustrate medical needs. This index empowers organizations to:

  • Make ecosystem-based resourcing decisions that account for the broader landscape, therapy area and region-level dynamics
  • Tailor customer engagement strategies based on regional information needs
  • Avoid over-indexing on workloads; figure out the actual medical needs
  • Establish the need for MSL(s)

Considering the varying nuances and needs across therapy areas, organizations should develop their MNIs and ecosystems at the therapy area level. Ecosystem-based engagement models will also catalyze compliant medical-commercial collaboration and help stakeholders to harmonize engagement plans.

Recommendation No. 2: Deploy an on-demand medical science liaison

Given the rising importance of virtual interactions among KOLs and the demand for quick answers, an on-demand MSL with 24/7 availability could provide value across geographies and therapies. The on-demand MSL role could be a geographically diverse team of MSLs who are responsible for establishing strong scientific relationships—including virtual connections—with their customers and not just a reactive role. This independent, on-demand MSL role could either replace or work alongside existing MSL teams.


Organizations can adjust deployment models to suit a region’s needs and customer types, as well as the MSL team structure. When designing these models, organizations should consider:

  • How to geographically deploy on-demand MSLs to ensure availability
  • How to address language barriers
  • Local compliance considerations

Where and how to pilot the on-demand medical science liaison role

In the European Union (EU), limited MSLs typically cover multiple countries. Dedicated medical advisors cover strategically important KOLs. An on-demand MSL role may work well for lower-tiered EU KOLs. They may not be required to provide scientifically complex information, but lower-tiered KOLs will still need scientific information. On-demand MSLs can effectively address this need, thereby expanding stakeholder coverage.


KOLs are highly concentrated in the U.S., which leads to a high volume of questions. The on-demand MSL can play a supplementary role to address quick turnaround requests and tag-team with existing MSLs. They can also develop relationships and manage engagements with digital online influencers, community HCPs and other stakeholders.


Organizations with presences in Japan and other Asia-Pacific countries, which have relatively low expert concentration, can explore the on-demand MSL role as a multitherapy area option.

Empowering and scaling on-demand medical science liaison teams to engage customers

When MSLs are available on demand, then stakeholders are able to access information and reach cross-geography field medical personnel in real time. These liaisons can coexist with traditional MSLs, helping field medical teams to support many customers and establish strong virtual relationships. Organizations can cross-train on-demand MSLs to work across disease states, including therapy areas with sub-disease states such as oncology and immunology—empowering on-demand MSLs to scale their efforts as needed. Organizations should consider using on-demand MSLs over contract MSLs to form dedicated, scalable teams.


By weaving in the work of on-demand MSLs and by creating awareness around the potential of on-demand MSLs, medical organizations can drive home impactful customer engagement strategies. The overall success of tomorrow’s customer engagement model will rest on a mix of short-term priorities, long-term strategies and a host of evolving customer considerations.

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