For aggressive business expansion or to attain greater market access, creating a large sales force has been the thumb rule in the pharma industry, since long. To meet the challenge of changing market dynamics, going for a thorough re-engineering of even a rattling sales and marketing machine, is still considered a risky proposition.
Many studies have captured the common reasons of such hesitations. For example, the McKinsey article titled, ‘Cutting sales costs, not revenues,’ finds that field force being a major growth engine for sales, since long, the thought of overhauling it fills senior executives with dread. Thus, to keep sales flowing, companies will make piecemeal ongoing repairs as long as they can – ‘no matter how patched up or spluttering that engine may be.’
Nevertheless, some compelling business reasons have now prompted several pharma players to accept the ground reality – fast-evolving over the last one and half decades. Many of them have realized that in today’s changing market dynamics, a leaner and smarter sales force (or field force or medical rep, or MR) will fetch the desired results than ‘flabby’ and larger ones.
In this article, I shall not discuss the obvious reasons of downsizing, such as to record profit under trying circumstances, or when per rep productivity keeps declining consistently, or during a change in the promoted product-mix, or a decision to reduce focus on volume intensive-low margin generic brands. But, what I shall discuss is, the reasons for an urgent need of creating a hybrid sales and marketing model, during this changing paradigm.
It begins with accepting a change in the business environment:
If the objective of sales force size reduction remains limited to cost-cutting for short-term improvement of the bottom-line, it could be grossly counterproductive, possibly with many unforeseen consequences. Field staff will continue to remain one of the key growth drivers in pharma and biotech business, but not the sole mechanism to increase brand prescriptions. Finding a well-integrated alternative model would begin with acceptance of a significant change in pharma business environment.
Undoubtedly, a perceptible change is noticeable today in pharma stakeholders’ mindset. This change is being further fueled by rapid increases in their usage of various digital platforms and networks. For example, many patients are trying to be reasonably informed of even various disease treatment options and the cost of each, much before they visit a doctor’s clinic or a hospital. The nature and quality of their interaction with health care providers, including doctors, are also changing. Patient-experience during a treatment process, and the value offerings that come with a pharma brand, will have increasing relevance to business performance – more than even before. Anything going against the patient-interest will possibly be shared with all, mostly in social media, which has a potential to precipitate serious consequences.
As this trend keeps going north, pharma market dynamics would change, commensurately, making pharma’s key business success factors significantly different with medical reps no longer being the sole prescription generators. A new hybrid – digitally empowered sales and marketing model is, therefore, the need of the hour. In this new ball game, as a growth driver, the role and size of the field staff will be quite different, where the senior management warrants a new vision for pharma business.
The situation warrants a new vision for pharma business:
In this changing situation, to generate more prescriptions from doctors by deploying a large field force, could prove akin to swimming against a strong tide. Whereas for achieving business success at this time, pharma players would require creating a well-oiled augmented value delivery system for enhanced customer experience, primarily for patients during their entire treatment process.
While creating this sleek and effective system, it would be necessary to cut unproductive or less productive flab in the frontline, with great precision. However, this process must be dovetailed with implementation of other communication and customer engagement platforms, mostly digital, to achieve the set objectives.
The new strategy being augmented value delivery to customers, the process would entail, besides innovative and modern tools, a different genre of field staff members, possessing some critical skill-sets. The goal of need-based field force downsizing complemented by new synchronous measures for operational synergy, must not only be clear to senior management, but also be explained to all concerned.
What would ‘augmented value delivery’ to customers lead to?
Another McKinsey article titled, ‘The few, the proud, the super-productive - how a smart field force can better drive sales,’ articulated: ‘Indeed, our perspective on the past five years is that leaders that used field reductions to actually rethink the commercial model – rather than taking a “blunt instrument” approach to cuts – are reaping rewards.’
As the current pharma sales and marketing models are undergoing a metamorphosis, globally – this transition phase throws several tough challenges – from defining new roles and capabilities for field staff to creative use of various interactive communication platforms. As the McKinsey article underscores: ‘new capabilities need to be added even as we continue to use the tried and true current model, albeit with less success. It further adds: ‘The inconvenient truth: we will have to sweat the current model and build the capabilities for the future in parallel. Those hoping for a ‘flip the switch’ transition, are likely to be disappointed.” With his, I reckon, will emerge a robust ‘augmented value delivery system’ for the business leading to:
- Higher profitable sales through satisfied customers
- Increase in sales per employee ratio
- Containing/reducing sales and marketing spend as a percentage of total revenue.
Several initiatives to translate this concept into reality is now palpable, globally. A few examples may suffice to drive home this point.
Downsizing field force complemented by new measures for synergy pays:
Here also there are several research studies to bring home this point. One such is the paper titled, ‘Big pharma proves that oncology pays as workforces shrink,’ published in ’Vantage’ of Evaluate on July 23, 2018. The researchers touched upon this area while discussing the workforce productivity for Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS). It found that a substantial shrinking of its workforce, alongside some other important measures, has given BMS a big boost in sales, with a dramatic impact on its overall performance. As the study indicated, even investors will find this fact hard to ignore. Let me hasten to add that ‘downsizing workforce’ mainly involved sales and R&D staff in this analysis.
The article further highlighted, during the period of 2007 to 20017, the management teams of some other pharma majors, as well, such as GlaxoSmithKline), AstraZeneca and Eli Lilly, either reduced their workforce significantly or kept flat. According to this study the changes in the workforce of these 4 companies are as follows:
However, even in the year 10, all the four companies - Bristol-Myers Squibb, GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca and Eli Lilly posted not just sales growth, bit all-round performance improvement, as may be seen by clicking on each.
Having deliberated on the impact of downsizing field force, let me now focus on powerful complementary measures for augmented value delivery to customers.
Today’s reality for pharma business in India can’t be wished away:
The EYstudy titled, ‘Reinventing pharma sales and marketing through digital in India,’ captures the current situation quite well. I am quoting below just a few of those:
- Today’s tech-savvy physicians are relying far less on reps and more on digital devices for healthcare information. Only 11 percent of healthcare professionals in India prefer in-person visits from a company representative, according to a 2016 study by Health Link Dimensions. Likewise, many patients arming themselves with medical knowledge available online, gradually relying less on only physicians’ decision-making. Thus, the rules of engagement need to be redefined.
- With a shift in focus toward more complex or specialty medicines, pharma companies continue to add new layers of MRs to increase geographic coverage. The increasing number of MRs and the number of brands under each of them have drastically reduced the time and quality of sales pitches – from being scientific to mere brand name reminders.
- Physicians’ place at the center of the pharma ecosystem as almost the sole-decision makers, is very likely to become a thing of the past with the emergence of a broad array of customers with a new mindset.
- New tech-based entrants providing information platforms, analytics, e-consultation services and access to medicine online are challenging pharma’s value creation story.
Enhancing customer experience needs a hybrid business model:
The new market dynamics, demands cutting-edge brand-value augmentation measures, enhancing customer-experience with some tangible benefits. These telltale signs can only be ignored at one’s own peril. Let me also illustrate this point with the findings from another research study.
According to 2015 Oncology Customer Experience Tracker of ZS, “Oncology companies can add USD 50 – USD 75 million in incremental sales for every USD 1 billion in current sales by delivering a better customer experience.”
This vindicates that creating a better customer experience should be the key goal of pharma’s augmented value delivery system – going much beyond the traditional communication of key product features and its clinical benefits. This new concept is fast emerging as the fulcrum – not just for creating a strong brand pull, but also enhancing the public image of the organization. And can be achieved with a right blend of:
- ‘Must do’ mindset of top management,
- Expertise in well-targeted – multi-channel content making,
- Expertise on data-science and analytics to churn out the right information from a large pool of data,
- Wherewithal for effectively using the right digital platforms, either directly to customers or through a leaner and digitally-skilled sales force having a ‘can do’ attitude, as the situation will demand.
Some companies are testing the water:
Conventional ways to improve Sales Force Effectiveness (SFE), especially with soft skills, besides, of course product knowledge, is not new to the pharma players. What they need to do is change the primary focus of increasing sales through delivering mostly the key intrinsic value of the brand, to increase profitable sales by delivering augmented brand value, leading to enhanced customer satisfaction.
This is a major shift from the traditional paradigm and would surely entail application of digital technology and data science. As I wrote before, many companies have started adopting this approach – mostly with one baby step at a time, right or wrong.
Observation and findings of an India specific study:
Noting that ‘Indian pharma’s journey to a digital world has just begun,’ the same EYstudy, as quoted above, reported the following findings, among a few others:
- Lack of a clear digital strategy/value proposition and change management are the two key barriers to embracing digital.
- Whatever was being done manually earlier is now being done digitally. But we are not adding additional value. On the other hand, companies globally are now cautiously moving toward being digital practitioners.
- Indian pharma majors will need to grow into integrated health care providers – offering both products and services, forging patient-centric partnerships and demonstrating value to a broad array of customer groups.
The good news is, some of the key observations of the study also include the following:
- Some are using digital technology to capture untapped and unstructured data, to make their sales and marketing decision making process more agile and robust.
- Powerful apps with dynamic, meaningful content and the right value proposition are gaining popularity.
- Several players, while staying within the realms of regulatory boundaries, are enabling patients to actively manage their care.
As we look around, many drug companies, especially in India, continue to remain focused on the age-old transactional sales and marketing models, delivering the intrinsic brand values, irrespective of the changing pharma market dynamics, especially disregarding what today’s customers in the knowledge economy look for. Traditional training and incentivizing a large, and often flabby, sales force on product and rupee value territory-sales against the target, are the general ways to achieve these. The focus on achieving the internal sales targets, regardless of the processes being contentious or not.
Modern time warrants a different conversation altogether – creation of a unique customer experience – with augmented value delivery systems. Achieving this goal would entail astute applications of modern technology, complementing the reach and impact of the right-sized field staff efforts, and leading to improvement in ‘sales per employee ratio.’
Thus, I reckon, higher sales or the need for an expanded market access, may not necessarily entail a larger field force, but a new breed of leaner and especially skilled MR to deliver the needs of the changing healthcare landscape.
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.