The future of the pharma field force

Is the field force as we know it obsolete? The impact of COVID-19 has affected how sales professionals engage with customers. What does the future of the pharma field force look like? Richard Gray and Stephen Dempster share their thoughts.

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On July 31 2020, NHS Chief Executive, Sir Simon Stevens, sent a letter1 with a clear message: embrace the positive impact that digital and remote technologies have had in maintaining critical public health services during a time of need, and ‘lock in beneficial changes’.

As we start to move forward into the next phase of the pandemic in Europe, and we see healthcare providers carefully reopen their doors and restore service delivery in primary, secondary and community services, two key questions are at the forefront for sales professionals: what does this mean for engagement strategies in the short term? And how will our model (and skillset) look going forward?

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1. The way we engage our customers has already changed

In the UK, the rise of remote interactions has significantly increased during the pandemic, eclipsing face-to-face activities as the primary engagement channel and with a four-fold increase compared with the same period last year.

Findings from a June UK Oncology survey by IQVIA also indicated that oncologists expect the increase in remote consultations will remain part of their practice, rising to 39% post COVID-19 as compared to 8% pre COVID-19, echoing the theme of locking in ‘beneficial changes’ that will be embedded into new ways of working in the NHS. It is worth noting that UK oncology specialists see remote consultations becoming part of their practice to a higher extent than other countries – data for the other main European EU5 countries shows that they expect 19% of consultations to be remote2.

Clearly the engagement landscape and more fundamentally our customers mindsets have changed – at first driven by necessity, but now driven by a new openness to innovation and progress.

Expecting the way in which we engage to completely return to the old ‘pre-COVID’ ways is unlikely. We must all now embrace the opportunity to adapt and to play our role in helping to re-shape the go-to-market models of the future. 

2. Our new commercial model – acceleration, not revolution

COVID-19 has been both a huge disruptor and accelerator of digital transformation, bringing change and innovation at an unprecedented rate. Whilst the shape of commercial models is experiencing a necessary paradigm shift, it is worth noting that this is a focused acceleration of existing building blocks that are already in the market. This is accelerating the growth in hybrid operating models utilising alternate channels.

We have already been deploying digital channels such as email and remote detailing to engage with our customers. Concepts such as omnichannel and virtual engagement are not new, but the reality is their level of acceptance and application in the overall mix has, to date, been low. 

The pandemic has rapidly changed this dynamic.

For example, UK data shows the number of sales professionals having access to and using remote detailing grew at an accelerated rate as lockdown took hold, with these capabilities enabling us to provide our HCPs with an important communication channel during their time of need.

Evidence from IQVIA ChannelDynamics data in the UK shows that customer experience of these technologies has been positive compared to the same time last year too, and it is clear that there is great value in continuing to engage with our customers through these channels moving forward.

As sales professionals and managers who have built their career in customer facing roles, our familiarity with new tools of engagement should provide us with hope and excitement. To build on this we need to be prepared to seize new opportunities and develop our skillsets to remain relevant in the new digital world of customer engagement.

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3. A skillsets shift is required to remain relevant

While technology and analytical capabilities are important underlying enablers for successful remote selling, it is still people who remain the most pivotal lynchpin to success. Therefore, it is essential that we possess a deeper understanding of the key attributes that are required to be a successful remote salesperson in this new environment. 

As commercial models move towards multi-dimensional hybrid customer teams, we can benefit from the enhanced opportunities this gives us to add value across multiple customer interaction points, orchestrating across evolving channel preferences to ultimately achieve more impact.

First line managers have always been a key contributor to the success of sales teams too and successfully managing remote teams will require the development of additional skillsets to complement established field management skills and techniques.

It is vital for managers to be able to leverage the right performance management tools and interventions to support and develop remote teams, with sales impact being driven by key remote engagement metrics such as calls delivered on platform, outbound call volumes / duration, digital consent rates and customer engagement scores alongside tailored incentive schemes. The ability to engage and support remote team members should be significantly enhanced too, with managers more able to provide short, high impact coaching and support sessions more frequently across the whole team.

The importance of investing in the development of people has never been more relevant. The traditional processes are no longer sufficient and future- focused talent development is now a strategic imperative in new commercial model design.

What’s next?

Although the term ‘field force’ as we’ve known it has become outdated, sales professionals will continue to represent the cornerstone of interactions with HCPs, whilst at the same time playing a pivotal role in supporting the expansion of digital channels. Ensuring we are leveraging technology and insights to successfully engage customers digitally will be critical, but we also need to get the right support and development processes to evolve our skills, so we can support healthcare professionals as they themselves continue to adapt.

Three Key Takeaways

1. Embrace the new environment

The engagement landscape is dynamically evolving and we are facing an inflection point where face-to face interactions may never return back to their former levels in the UK. To quote the Microsoft CEO: “We have seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months” and this has accelerated our comfort with using new technologies to interact past the point of no return.

2. Capabilities to survive or thrive

COVID-19 has accelerated the need for a different mix of capabilities and skills, requiring a fundamental mindset shift, training and development that is pitched at all levels of IT competence and an appetite to leverage (digital) technology and data driven insights to drive customer engagement. Sales professionals also need to be enabled with optimised content to serve the needs of HCPs in the new environment, with value propositions and positioning that resonate in the new post COVID-19 world.

3. Hybrid commercial models

The shape and focus of the field force role has changed. Dedicated face-to-face only teams are not the only solutions in today’s world and HCPs’ expectations have evolved. To be relevant to your customers’ needs you now need to be flexible, accessible and able to support them across multiple channels, enabling them to bring stability back into the care of their patients and to recover from the long-lasting impact that is the legacy of the pandemic.

Stephen Dempster is Head of Integrated Multi-Channel Engagement, UK, IQVIA. Richard Gray is Director, Technology Solutions UK & Ireland. All data was correct at time of going to press. Go to

Sources: 1 | 2

This article was originally published in Pharmafield.