Indian Pharma To Stay Ahead of The Technology Curve

In the ever-changing business environment, many industrial sectors have now started leveraging different cutting-edge technological platforms to improve overall strategic and operational effectiveness, keeping a sharp focus on better stakeholder engagement for greater customer satisfaction.

These companies have accepted the inevitability of a paradigm shift in the algorithm of the traditional business process. It has dawned on them that it may not be possible to be in the pole position by tweaking the existing process with multiple incremental changes – a time is just right now to take a quantum leap in this direction. Placing the company ahead of the technology curve to acquire the critical X-factor in outperforming the competition is going to be the new mantra. This is likely to happen even in the sales and marketing domains, much sooner than one can possibly imagine, as the marketplace becomes increasingly tougher.

Moving closer to this direction, Artificial Intelligence (AI) based digital tools, I reckon, is likely to be one of the key game changers. The term AI was coined in 1956 by John McCarthy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and is usually defined as the science of making computers do things that require intelligence when done by humans. AI helps to ferret out critical answers to many real-life issues and gain a competitive edge in business management, by creating and then effectively analyzing a huge pool of real life data.

AI is the fulcrum of business operations for several leading companies of the world, such as, Apple, Amazon and Uber. It has already started replacing human intelligence in a number key business operations in various industries. As a widely-known Indian business leader recently said, anything that can go digital will go digital. This wave is unstoppable in this modern era.

In this article, I shall restrict the scope of discussion to the application of AI in pharma sales and marketing.

A recent illustration from India:

The application of AI via a digital tool, called Chatbot – the short form of ‘Chat Robot’, is one of the ways in this direction. It is a complex computer program that simulates human conversation, or chat, through auditory or textual methods. Various industries have now started developing the Chatbot dialog application systems for a specialized purpose of human communication, including a variety of customer interaction, information acquisition and providing a range of customized services to the target group.

To illustrate the above point, let me draw upon a recent example from the banking sector of India. On March 05, 2017, a leading bank in India announced the launch of an AI-driven Chatbot named Eva, coined from the words Electronic Virtual Assistant (EVA), to add more value to their services for greater customer satisfaction.

According to reports, Eva is India’s first AI driven banking Chatbot that can answer millions of customer queries on its own, across multiple channels, immediately. It assimilates knowledge from thousands of sources and provide answers in a simple to understand language format in under 0.4 seconds. This is a good example of taking a quantum leap in improving operational efficiency by delighting the new generation of customers. “Within the first few days of its launch, Eva has answered over 100,000 queries from thousands of customers from 17 countries across the globe” – the bank reportedly claimed.

To do routine services more efficiently with a customer-centric approach, this AI-based  Bank OnChat combines a disruptive technology platform for a human-like conversation, powered by AI, and the Bank’s deep domain expertise and long acquired insight of banking related customers. Earlier this year, for a similar customer-oriented initiative using AI and Robotics technologies, the same bank launched an interactive  humanoid called Intelligent Robotic Assistant or IRA.

Although, these are just illustrations in the Indian context, an important question that surfaces: if these can happen in the banking industry, why not in the pharma sector of India?

Resisting changes versus finding innovative means to overcome challenges:

Coming back to the pharma industry, we all are aware that this knowledge sector, over the last four and a half decades in India, has been navigating through umpteen challenges, none of which has been easy, by any measure.

Nevertheless, as compared to the past, I notice a palpable difference today. Significantly more number of shrill voices with fierce resistance to changes are now outnumbering the out of box mindset, desire and efforts to still thrive, by overcoming those critical challenges. Since the formative years of the Indian pharma industry, it has been successfully overcoming the challenges of change, which are unavoidable though.

Such kind of indomitable ‘animal spirit’ within many leaders of the Indian pharma industry, created today’s national pharma behemoths like, Sun Pharma, Lupin, Cadila, Dr. Reddy’s, Alkem and many others. They are thriving despite continuation of immensely challenging business environment and tough socioeconomic demand in the country. By the way, the second richest person in India is from the Indian pharma industry and grew from a scratch, during this very period.

Making creative changes help, moaning doesn’t:

While facing the newer sets of challenges today, many industry greenhorns, I reckon, need to spend more quality time to effectively overcome these turbulences – provided of course they possess the requisite mindset, knowledge and other wherewithal.

Acquiring new insight through modern technological platforms, such as AI, will pay a rich dividend. Better customer engagement and relationship management with new genres of AI tools, furnishing stimulating and modern web-based content with personalized access, would help achieve the desired strategic goals in the changing paradigm – but just moaning won’t, surely.

A few global pharma players are now fathoming the scope and depth of this area, most others are still not sure about its usefulness for customer engagement and interactions, and commensurate real-life data requirements for AI related analytics.

A predictable pattern of a series of unpredictable challenges and developments:

According to Eularis, integrating AI based analytics with a pharma product offerings can provide substantial benefits including, among others, the following:

  • Identification of both tangible and intangible enhanced value proposition
  • Enhanced competitor differentiation
  • Optimal resource allocation for maximum market share gain, revenue and profit
  • Ability to see which levers to pull to maximize growth
  • Customizing sales and marketing messaging for greater customer engagement
  • Automation of sales and marketing messages and channels.

In my view, while moving in this direction, AI based analytics are now far more reliable than any human analysis of the humongous volume of different kinds of data. Doing so is sometimes beyond the capacity of any conventional computers that a marketing professional generally uses for this purpose. The prime requirement, therefore, is not just huge volume of data per se, but good quality of a decent volume of data, that a state of the art analytics would be able to meaningfully deliver to meet specific requirements of pharma marketers for creating a cutting-edge marketing strategy.

This will be an absolute necessity in the complexity of an evolving new paradigm in the cyberspace. In a similar context, as I wrote even earlier, any such technology-driven changes would usually follow a predictable pattern of a series of unpredictable challenges and developments in the business environment, which has already commenced in the pharma industry.

The Market:

According to an April 2013 article, published by the McKinsey  Global Institute, applying big-data strategies to better inform decision making could generate up to US$100 billion in value annually only across the US health care system, by optimizing innovation, improving the efficiency of research and clinical trials, and building new tools for physicians, consumers, insurers, and regulators to meeting the promise of more individualized approaches.

Mandatory generic prescriptions won’t make pharma marketing less important:

Even if the much talked about mandatory prescription in generic names comes to fruition, the new paradigm won’t make pharma marketing less important. This would, however, be more about providing patient-centric, credible and tangible disease management or treatment solutions or both, rather than just selling a drug giving a trade name to it.

Thus, the need for interaction with physicians by the pharma players, besides some additional new target groups, would continue to remain important. Nonetheless, the message – mostly its form, substantive content, the targeting process and the usage of various tools for delivery of the same, would undergo substantive modifications. These changes would generally be prompted by fresh thinking, together with a fresh pair of eyes and mind, in the prevailing business environment, at any given point of time, well supported by data and tested with state of art analytics. The depth and gravity of environmental changes may also hasten the process of digital transformation of pharma sales and marketing, in various ways.

Those who are still trying harder to milk the traditional prescription demand generation process to the extent possible, despite its lesser and lesser yield, would need to introspect now, if they are able to. The time, and the prevailing pharma business environment probably demands jettisoning the conventional mindset faster, and search for the best-suited and most innovative modern tools to hit the bull’s eye. The young pharma professionals with a ‘can do’ spirit to effectively navigate through the strong headwind, are likely to emerge as early winners – provided of course their seniors and diehard ‘trainers’ don’t block their required elbow space.

‘Virtual Representatives’:

Deploying ‘Virtual Representatives (VR)’, well- supported by analytics for key target customers that QuintilesIMS is recommending, could be one among several other important examples in this area. VRs are appropriately equipped to take any doctor’s call online, for any product or related information, at any time the physicians find convenient – during or after their busy practicing hours.

The ‘push-pull’ balance between the doctors and the pharma players for such engagements can also be appropriately configured, and that too at a fraction of the current cost incurred to for similar purpose. This process and the technology used will be quite close to Chatbot, that has recently been introduced by an Indian bank, as illustrated above.

In conclusion:

Despite the rapidly changing business environment, pressing socioeconomic demands and a national dream for ‘Digital India’, the pharma industry hasn’t demonstrated any significant appetite for a change in the process of doing the business in the country. Individual players, by and large, have remained mostly consistent in strictly adhering to much tried processes and tools, though in their multiple permutations and combinations, especially in the domain of sales and marketing.

Other industries, like banking – also facing different types of tough challenges, are making efforts to stay ahead of the technology curve for operational excellence and greater consumer satisfaction. Fast scaling up of digital applications, such as Chatbots, Humanoids and the likes, vindicate this point.

Notwithstanding the availability of a large gamut of cutting-edge technological platforms, such as those based on AI, most players within the pharma industry continue to be rather slow in adopting these important and innovative resources. Could it be due to dearth of requisite talent, especially in pharma sales and marketing leadership within the industry? Well, many may argue so – some may also feel otherwise. Nevertheless, finding the right answer for a slow response of pharma in this domain still remains elusive.

That said, amid a gradually shifting paradigm, Indian pharma companies may wish to consider imbibing innovative technological interventions, such as, AI-based digital applications in sales and marketing. This has a great potential to successfully sail through many uncertainties, not just the latest one. It would also help changing the traditional ball game with a flexible, multitasking and contemporary one – right from conceptualizing – to charting out a customer-centric sales and marketing strategy – and then its immaculate execution, catapulting the company to a new and fascinating growth orbit altogether. Thus, staying ahead of the technology curve by the Indian pharma players, assumes critical importance for a long-term business sustainability, more than ever before.

By: Tapan J. Ray   

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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