This article is the 12th in a series produced by the Pharmaceutical Marketing Society’s Digital Interest Group to address some of the industry’s most pressing challenges in the digital space. The articles have been designed and written to inform and share best practice, but most importantly to generate discussion and collaboration. #PMSocDIG  

The Pharma Field Team HCP Engagement Model of the Future

In the world of pharmaceutical sales, there’s an exciting topic that has captivated our attention. Coincidentally, Mehrnaz has just finished writing a book that delves deep into this very subject. Titled “The Omni Advantage: Accelerating Behavioural Change with Omnichannel in Pharma Sales Engagement”, it explores ground-breaking strategies that can revolutionise how we engage with healthcare professionals (HCPs). Considering this, we thought as part of the Digital Interest Group at the PM Society, we should share a chapter with you.

After all, why rewrite something Mehrnaz spent countless hours perfecting when no one has had the chance to read it yet?

However, before we proceed to copy and paste the chapter, let’s introduce a fresh perspective that arose from our recent experience attending the eye-opening Pharmageddon conference in Barcelona. The event compelled us to challenge conventional thinking and consider the changing landscape we all face. The sessions provided ample food for thought.

In response, we introduce a new food for thought related acronym – EAT.

‘E’ stands for Experimentation. As an industry we need to try new things. We are in a new era of HCP engagement and nobody has all, if any, of the answers. As an industry we need to be more experimental, and as pharmaceutical companies, we need to let our field teams experiment. They need permission to try, fail, learn and try again.

‘A’ stands for Autonomy. Field professionals are the “engine room of growth”. They know their customers better than anyone. They have data on them that we haven’t captured anywhere else. Let’s not set them KPIs. Remember, what gets measured, get delivered. Even if they are the wrong KPIs. Field professionals are brilliant people. Let’s let them set their own KPIs, to achieve the best outcomes for their customers, themselves, the company, and ultimately patients.

The ‘T’ can stand for one of two things, depending on what hat we are wearing. With our Commercial hat on, ‘T’ stands for Training. The way we communicate with HCPs has evolved. Field teams need help with embracing digital tools and content. They need help to change behaviours and learn new habits.

But with our ‘being a human being’ hat on, the ‘T’ stands for Time. So much has happened over the last three years. And so much has changed. Everyone needs time to adapt. Everyone is under pressure for short-term results. But this is not a time for short-termism. If we take the time to get things right now, they can be right for a very long time. We need time to cultivate long-term, trusted relationships with HCPs.

The future for the industry is turning field teams ‘From Message Bearers to Trusted Advisors’ (the title of another chapter in Mehrnaz’s book).

Some believe the jump to becoming a trusted advisor for HCPs is a leap too far. Mehrnaz, however, argues that it is more than possible; we just need to take decisive steps in this direction and be bold and brave.

Stephen Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, says, ‘Seek to understand before you are understood.’ Do we do this in pharma? Perhaps not! More often, we rock up with our sales materials and dive in, irrespective of the HCP’s level of interest. We look for every opportunity to flash our three key marketing messages.

Typical pharma.

Our KPIs measure share of voice, coverage, and frequency. We don’t have KPIs to measure the quality of the relationships we build, or the value we bring to HCPs. This is a problem: to become trusted advisors, we need to provide sound advice that adds value in every touchpoint. If we do this consistently over time, we can become the HCPs’ trusted advisors.

Here is the chapter we wanted to share: ‘The Future Field Teams’.

Control C. Control V.

In this chapter, we will examine future pharma field teams’ habits, skills, and competencies—that is, the things they will have done and will continue to do so they can maximise on the Omni Advantage and be empowered to become the heroes in this transformation story.

I believe the field team’s role is now more important than ever, because going forward, we’re going to have fewer field teams and those who remain need to be highly skilled; to be trusted advisors for healthcare professionals and internally, for the marketing and leadership teams. Accordingly, we need to treat the field teams as adults and give them accountability—and with that accountability comes the responsibility to deliver and behave in a new way.

In marketing, we have the seven Ps, but here, I have produced the nine Cs to illustrate some of the essential skills and habits required for field teams to effectively connect with HCPs. The nine Cs are as follows.

 1. Connect

Field forces need to communicate confidently, both face-to-face and remotely, to a level where they can create real chemistry and emotion and tell a really good story that takes the healthcare professional on a journey. If this is done well, by the time they’ve finished the conversation, they will have not only conveyed key messages, but they will have created a memorable emotion and feeling in the healthcare professional. After this, the HCP should be motivated and compelled to take action.

 2. Close

The future pharma rep needs to close with action. I have interviewed and observed many senior key account managers, and one of the biggest gaps I see in their roleplay is they don’t close properly—that is, they don’t define the next steps, such as when they’re going to meet next, what the customer is going to do as a result of this interaction, and how they’re going to move the project forward. Even if the customer says ‘yes’, the field professional needs to be really clear about what that ‘yes’ means in terms of next steps. Who else is going to be involved in their project? When are they going to do what they said they were going to do, and how is delivery going to be measured? If we agree on a true win-win agenda with HCPs, there’s no reason why they wouldn’t want to commit to taking action, right?

The underlying reason for field teams not closing is often lack of proper call planning and a lousy call opening: they don’t communicate a compelling reason for why that healthcare professional should listen to them, and without a compelling reason that addresses the healthcare professional’s pain point and connects with them on their agenda, the sales call turns into a tell sell. The HCP will switch off, and may end the call early.

This brings us to the third C, which is…

 3. Collect (Insights)

This is about asking open questions when interacting with healthcare professionals and really listening. I’ve spoken to many healthcare professionals who say that generally, pharma field teams don’t listen: they have their talking points, and they listen to the HCP just enough to find a gap to talk about their own talking points. They ask questions, but their responses are not connected to the information that has been conveyed by the healthcare professional.

Thus, we need to encourage the field team to listen and to seek to understand the healthcare professionals, rather than just focusing on conveying the key messages. Perhaps some of this is our own fault, since we give the field teams three key messages that we expect them to deliver to the healthcare professionals during their interactions. In every roleplay exercise or field visit, we measure the delivery of these key messages through specific KPIs, and this puts the field team under pressure to deliver on these KPIs. It’s like a bullshit bingo: they need to get these words across somewhere in the conversation, and that pressure leads to the field professionals not concentrating on the insights they should be collecting.

I think we need to take a step back, really listen, and measure call effectiveness by the quality of the insight that’s being collected, the quality of the responses to the questions, and the information that is being gathered by the field team about the healthcare professionals.

 4. (Be) Credible

The future field teams need to know their stuff—and by that, I mean clinical scientific data across sales and MSL teams.  When we recruit field professionals, they are educated to degree level with an interest in science or were previously healthcare professionals. Therefore, they’ve got the capability to understand clinical information and communicate it.  To be credible, we need to invest in ongoing clinical training to ensure the field professionals know their clinical scientific data inside out and can hold a conversation with a specialist at their level.

 5. Crunch (Data)

This is the ability to effectively analyse data, do bottom-up forecasting, determine exactly where the uplift will come from (that is, which accounts and which customers), segment the customers and accounts, and do effective targeting. If field professionals take accountability for targeting and sales, they’re going to be much more focused on picking the targets that are going to feasibly deliver the needed outcome. If, on the other hand, the organisation or marketing department selects these targets for the field professionals and sets arbitrary coverage and frequency goals, those goals will be achieved, but the outcomes will probably not be delivered.

We need to move away from measuring surrogate markers and treat field teams as adults. We need to give them accountability; to allow them to define what needs to happen to deliver those outcomes. Because at the end of the day, if they are achieving the coverage and frequency goals that have been given but they are not delivering the outcomes, they’re going to come back and say, ‘Well, you told me to see these people. I could have told you that was not going to deliver the outcome’. But if we allow them to choose the target, frequency, and forecast, the field team will be laser-focused on delivering these outcomes, and as they gain experience through trial-and-error, they’ll learn and become competent in targeting and bottom-up forecasting.

 6. Collaborate

 Collaborating means being a team player and internally aligning with colleagues to meet the healthcare professionals’ needs. This requires a mindset shift, from a ‘flying solo’, territorial headspace to a mindset that prioritises cooperation across the wider team and that views the medical and marketing departments and internal colleagues as allies. The field professionals need to proactively inform the other departments and mobilise internal functions to better meet the healthcare professionals’ needs.

7. (Be) Curious

Learning needs to be fluid, and to achieve this, field teams need to be curious and proactive, but not dependent on being spoon fed. This primarily means having a ‘can-do’ mindset. The right mindset is so fundamental in driving change that if the field professional has this, they will automatically approach problems differently: they will see them as challenges that they’re going to overcome rather than walls that are going to stop them in their tracks, and if they’re curious, they’re going to find different ways of solving these problems and different sources of information that they can piece together to come up with creative solutions.

8. Competent (At Prioritisation)

This is a key skill gap. Many field professionals are good at planning and have had comprehensive training around business planning—they are able to do SWOT analyses, identify the key issues, and create detailed tactical plans – but they don’t necessarily have the ability, knowledge, or skills for prioritisation.

Being competent at prioritisation is undoubtedly more important than planning, because if you want to have x number of units in sales, you need to prioritise your accounts based on opportunity and your ability to compete in that market first. Once you identify the accounts that are collectively able to give you the growth you want, then you start planning for those.

In our experience here at Cheemia, we have found that we can grow brands exponentially by focusing on a small number of accounts. Across the UK, we gain our growth from twenty percent of accounts, and those accounts give exponential growth that led to increased sales and market share in a relatively short period of time.

My point? Less is more and brings focus, and prioritisation is the essential yeast of significant exponential growth.

9. Confident (In Tech)

This means being confident in using omnichannel tools and tech. Confidence comes with practice, so we need to create a culture that encourages field teams to ‘try, test, fail, learn, and try again’. Investing in the right training and giving them the step-by-step roadmap to mastering these tools will accelerate the adoption of these tools and, in turn, the field professionals’ confidence in using them.

Many pharma companies have developed new competency frameworks for digital transformation to facilitate this change, and most of these competencies are filled with buzzwords—which makes the whole process even more complicated. The competencies don’t come with a blueprint to explain what the field teams need to do to achieve them. It is like giving somebody a picture of a meal and asking them to recreate it without giving them the recipe or the ingredients. Companies need to break down the competencies into habits and behaviours, show the field teams how to get their heads around them, and provide examples of what that looks like and how to apply it every day at work.

To develop a new habit, many think you need motivation and willpower, but in my view, motivation and willpower will only take you so far. This is because building new habits is difficult if you don’t follow the basic principles of forming new habits: making the habit obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying.

To encourage your field teams to develop new habits and change their behaviours, you first need to demystify the process and give them a simple roadmap to adopting these new habits and skills. This will, in turn, make the habit obvious, easy, attractive, and satisfying.

In conclusion, the 9Cs can be summarised as follows:

Connect: Field teams should focus on effectively and confidently communicating with healthcare professionals, creating chemistry, emotion, and telling compelling stories to engage and motivate action.

Close: Field professionals need to be skilled at closing conversations by defining clear next steps, such as future meetings and actions, to move projects forward and drive progress.

Collect (Insights): Field teams should actively listen and ask open-ended questions to gather meaningful insights from healthcare professionals. The emphasis is on understanding their needs and connecting responses to their specific information.

(Be) Credible: Field professionals should possess in-depth knowledge of clinical scientific data to engage healthcare professionals confidently, building credibility and trust in their expertise.

Crunch (Data): Developing data analysis skills is crucial for effective targeting, bottom-up forecasting, and determining opportunities for growth. Prioritising targets and outcome-focused approaches is key.

Collaborate: Collaboration is essential, both internally and externally, to meet the needs of healthcare professionals. Field teams should align with colleagues and internal functions to provide comprehensive support.

(Be) Curious: Field teams should cultivate a proactive and curious mindset, continually seeking new information and solutions. They should be open to learning, adapting, and finding creative approaches to overcome challenges.

Competent (At Prioritisation): Field teams should prioritise effectively, focusing efforts on accounts and customers with the greatest potential for delivering desired outcomes and growth.

Confident (In Tech): Field professionals should develop confidence in using omnichannel tools and technology. They should embrace training opportunities, adopt digital tools, and become comfortable with technology to enhance their engagement with healthcare professionals.

These 9 Cs highlight the essential skills, habits, and competencies for field teams to effectively engage with healthcare professionals and maximise their impact in the changing pharmaceutical landscape.

Author: Mehrnaz Campbell, Founder & CEO of Cheemia & Cheemia ReSET

Editors:James Harper – Founder & Managing Director at 28bSamuel Pygall – Regional IT Lead Core Europe & Canada at MSD and Dave Pinnington – Founder at Markify

The PM Society is a not-for-profit organisation that believes excellent healthcare communications lead to better outcomes for patients.

We aim to:

• Support organisations and people in healthcare

• Recognise excellence and promote best practice

• Provide education and development

Visit us HERE to learn more about the society and the value of becoming a member.

The Digital Interest Group is made up of passionate pharma digital experts who volunteer their time to:

• Promote digital best practices across pharma marketing and the wider commercial organisation

• Explore and share an understanding of what digital strategies and tactics marketers in the life sciences sector can employ effectively to support their brand, business and customers.