Here’s where pharma sales interactions stand today: A ZS study of 25,000 physicians found that on average, providers experience nine face-to-face touchpoints by sales reps every day (and even more for certain targeted providers). In this environment, it’s no wonder that the number of accessible customers is declining—ZS research shows that only 50% of providers are fully accessible today. And with more products geared for smaller populations that may be less relevant to targeted customers (among other contributing factors), the number of interruptions is likely to only complicate the customer’s experience.
As an industry, pharma needs to move out of “interruption” mode and advance the customer experience through a deeper understanding of their journey. That’s why it’s time to rethink the traditional brand-centric pharma sales model and reimagine how to deliver for customers in a way that unlocks value for everyone.
Customers need and expect more personalized experiences. And there’s an opportunity to leverage data and technology in a way pharma hasn’t been able to before to achieve an individualized customer approach.
What could this future look like? With a face-to-face field team and an understanding of customer needs and context, pharma reps can focus not only on how often they are seen, but how they can accomplish more when they are present.
Thanks to technology, the rep and their organization can use richer information to guide them as they act differently. They can truly understand more about their customers—their practice, patients, work processes and systems, not just their preferred treatment choice or their channel preferences. What’s more, they can understand the customer’s needs in a broad context and position their offerings as solutions to problems.
Armed with information from a variety of sources and channels, reps can focus the conversation on the customer’s specific context, focusing on things the customer cares about—patients, diseases, outcomes, services and solutions—and develop strategies to meet their needs in that very moment.
That’s deep personalization. This could be a reality in the near future with the right mindsets, data and operating model in place.
To get to this future, pharma will need to move from a one-size-fits all approach to a future defined by a new commercial model. This model empowers personalization of the customer experience at scale, aimed at helping customers move along an adoption journey by addressing their individual preferences, needs, barriers, contexts and mindsets.
The industry has made some advances in customer experiences through omnichannel strategies that collect data (about face-to-face and digital channels) that informs subsequent trigger or sequence-based approaches. But omnichannel capabilities are only as useful as the content we feed in. While many companies have developed the ability to deliver content aligned to how customers want to receive it, the content itself is far too limited today to address many customer needs and opportunities. And while pharma collects plenty of data, it hasn’t connected that data to insights that help customers make decisions in their context. It doesn’t have enough of a view into the entire patient journey to provide the most optimal customer experience and robust personalization.
Instead, pharma needs to discern what it wants to achieve with each customer and how it can best engage them individually.
To do this, pharma needs to make six transformative moves:
- Develop a more robust data collection capability: Enable collection of information about customers’ preferences, needs, barriers and mindsets from a variety of different sources, including input from the rep.
- Lead with strategy: Think through an organizational customer value strategy, considering what the complete organization seeks to achieve holistically with that customer.
- Reimagine planning: Calibrate the marketing organization’s content creation and engagement designs to match where each customer is on their individual journey.
- Optimize execution: Empower field teams to act on the deeper insights they now have on customers and deliver on the promise of personalization. Finally, the teams can feed back additional insights in an ongoing loop.
- Measure intentionally: Ensure that metrics and incentives are aligned with the organization’s customer-centered strategy.
- Enable scale with technology and AI: Use these to generate better customer-level insights. These insights would be collected across an organization and fed compliantly into a “single source of truth.”
The current commercial model is designed around the field rep acting as the owner and orchestrator of the customer relationship. That model has been successful for decades, but it has two significant limitations now:
- Field sales teams are particularly good at delivering tailored clinical messages or differentiated content for three to five provider customer segments. But a sales rep typically has a target panel of 50 to 100 customers. We cannot expect that rep to effectively manage 50 to 100 individualized content and channel journeys.
- The “rep as customer relationship owner” mindset is also limiting from a data and insights perspective. Much of what a pharma company can know about a customer resides in the heads of field team members. But given the presence of omnichannel engagement and the increasing importance of other field roles, the rep is simply unable to know everything about a customer that they used to. It’s no longer realistic for them to be the ultimate owner of the relationship. What’s more, personalized engagement requires significantly stronger collaboration. For example, it requires information sharing between the field and headquarters with feedback loops that continually help the rep identify the next best content and channel from a broader set of possibilities.
Another limiting factor is the way pharma companies think about the information they collect. At the most basic level, this customer information should flow like a pipe running in a loop from headquarters to the rep to the customer and back again. Today, the flow of information is limited by the amount of information a rep can personalize. There’s little or no information flowing back from the rep to headquarters for better knowledge sharing.
This lack of information sharing means that pharma misses the complete customer insights it needs to achieve the level of personalization customers want and expect. What’s needed is a transformation in how field teams are designed and in our expectations of how they will work.
Instead of working in a model based on organizational pressure to hit activity-based KPIs and direct all knowledge about the customer through the sales rep, reps will be free—or “unbundled”—to focus on the activities that build trust and relationships. This will set them up for greater success, make their customers happier and advance the organization toward better outcomes and business results. Here’s what that transformation could look like from an ecosystem point of view:
In the new commercial model, a great customer experience is supported by multiple stakeholders across the company. The organization has a cross-sectional view of its customers, thanks to an information infrastructure compiled from a variety of sources, coupled with sophisticated analytics and AI. Members of the organization across commercial teams have a better understanding of the customer, their problems and challenges—and they also have more support in solving them. New kinds of marketers like customer engagement designers can help create smart, predictive and flexible customer journeys based on a deep understanding of the customer and their preferred routes of engagement. Others, like product strategists, will help align the pipeline and portfolio with customer needs.
For example, a rep today is tasked with a long list of activities. Not all need to be done in person, and not all are equally impactful. Based on data collected by the company across many channels, the organization can ensure the reps are completing the most high-value tasks and handle any tasks outside of those through self-service portals and digital channels. Instead of completing multiple activities that drive less value, the rep can be freed up to build relationships, identify pain points and help solve problems.
“Unbundling” the rep doesn’t mean this role is going away. The rep can add value in new ways—for example, generating insights that feed customer engagement planning across channels. They also will be freed up to drive greater impact in the interactions they do have. At the same time, this is an opportunity to reduce the extraneous interruptions that hinder the customer relationship. These interruptions can be replaced by valued interactions.
To fill this role, the rep’s responsibilities and skills are likely to change. Reps will need the ability to take a more dynamic sales approach and make a commitment to gathering and sharing back insights from the field. They will need a deep understanding of provider needs and their patients’ journeys.
They’ll also need a change of mindset about their tools. Tools like generative AI, for example, can help turn large amounts of data, like qualitative market research data, into knowledge. Generative AI can also help produce messaging for very small microtargeted segments, even segments of one. Reps will need to regard this technology as a true partner in helping to build a customer experience. And they’ll need to build the habit of feeding back data they’ve gathered in the field for a more holistic view of what’s happening. It’s kind of like trusting a GPS system on a long drive where many users are providing traffic updates. Even if you think you know the way, the user community can provide “on the ground” information about the route that could help you avoid a slowdown or prepare for a detour that’s ahead. Similarly, the information you contribute will benefit others.
The other ingredient is a team approach. The reps who will do best in this model are those who are comfortable as team players, collaborating across their organizations to understand customer needs and find solutions. The reps who excel will have to trust that the team will provide the appropriate insights for compliant sharing. They will have to be willing to feed back data, trust the technologies their team uses and take suggestions.
The advent of AI and other advanced tools offers the perfect opportunity to transform the role of the field rep to enable true personalization at scale. This is a pivotal moment for pharma sales. Reps have customer access and customer knowledge that they can share across their organizations. Companies can use this information make their operations better. But both organizations and individual reps will need to adapt or be left behind.
To get started, we see two critical first moves:
- Begin addressing the cultural mindset that underpins today’s model, where headquarters tells the field what to do but doesn’t ask for customer data or input beyond the bare minimum of call activity and sample recording. This will require change management both in the home office and in the field.
- Identify the types of customer data that field members have (or could gather) that would bring value to an ongoing system of analytics, insights and feedback. Then develop low-burden methods to collect that information from the field.
In the future, as pharma personalizes customer experiences, it needs a model that is designed to listen, learn and then adapt how it engages with the customer. By unbundling the sales rep and freeing them to act where and when the customer needs them most, pharma will enable reps to make new and valuable impact. The future of pharma’s customer relationships depend on this change.