Using Selling Simulator For New Drug Launch In The New Normal

The reverberation of unparalleled business disruptions in healthcare caused by Covid pandemic, extends across its value chain – from patients and families to clinicians and pharmaceutical companies. Consequently, even many diehards or staunchly tradition-bound pharma marketers were being prompted to reimagine their marketing model, to keep the business going.

Some of these areas include, customer preferred engagement channels, platforms and associated remote or virtual training inputs – necessary for effective execution of new strategic marketing models for the evolving new normal. A few of them are also moving in this direction – garnering requisite wherewithal.

“But it has also left some of them paralyzed by uncertainty. Should they invest now in transforming their commercial model or wait to see how things play out?” This palpable dilemma of many pharma marketers, was well captured in a recent McKinsey & Company article - ‘Reshaping pharma’s strategy in the next normal,’ published on December 15, 2020.

In a situation like this, one of the critical challenges is the successful launch of new pharma products amid changing customer behavior, product expectations and other associated uncertainties. ‘As pharmaceutical companies reshape their commercial models to prepare for the uncertainties ahead, personalization and digital enablement will be crucial to launch success in the new environment,’ underscored the above article.

As many of us will know, quality training and development inputs for the same, remain a vital prerequisite before the sales force hits the marketing battle ground. Isn’t that also a challenge in the prevailing market situation? Could digitalization of the company provide a solution to this critical sales force training issue for the same, in the new normal? This article will delve into this area.

Digitalization is a basic step – the challenge is much beyond that:

As I wrote in my article dated October 07, 2019, disruptive digital transformation in pharma sales and marketing is indeed a necessary basic step. It will also help to leapfrog in the field staff training and development process by imbibing leading-edge technologies, such as AI, for giant leaps to higher growth trajectories. But, ‘Digitalization’ isn’t a panacea, either.

This was also echoed in another recent article on ‘Pharmaceutical Marketing in The New Normal’, published in the Forbes magazine on August 11, 2021. It wrote, ‘even the best, most advanced digital tools won’t help if reps are not properly trained.’ This is due to multiple factors. Let me elaborate the point from a new product launch perspective.

New normal brings unprecedented changes – no footsteps to follow:

The extent and depth of personalization required in any effective customer engagement process for successful outcomes, has undergone a fundamental shift. Today, personalization of content, channels and platforms is a necessity and no longer an option. In the new normal one size doesn’t fit all. Consequently, sales force training process, particularly for a new drug launch, has also become personalized, with simulation of new expectations and requirements of each market becoming a key ingredient, more than ever before.

Simulated sales training still not too common in pharma:

That personalized and simulated sales force training is still not too common in the pharma industry, was also captured in the February 2020 ‘The Voice of the Sales Rep study’ of the sales research firm – SalesFuel. It reported, just 30% of sales reps in the pharma industry are now getting personalized sales training based on individual needs. This study was done in the United States, and the same percentage is expected to be much less in India.

In this context, the above Forbes article also noted that at an elementary level, reps should be proficient in video conferencing and virtual CME basics, such as, screen sharing, lighting, cameras, and the likes. There could also be occasions when they may need to teach even some of the physicians for whom, as well, this type of engagement is new. Thus, simulation training may possibly play a critical role to make the sales force future ready, always.

Besides, gaining deeper insights of customers, market dynamics, and tailoring the content of personalized engagement, accordingly, will be a critical part of personalized training through simulation, especially for new product launch in the new normal.  

Doctors availing product and treatment related online services: 

While navigating through acute disruption of life during Covid pandemic, several doctors have learnt to use digital channels and platforms to avail product or new therapy related information directly, instead of through sales reps. And that too, as they want, when they want and the way they want, gaining a discretionary choice. Several surveys, such as,  2020 Accenture research, also reported many doctors want either virtual or a mix of virtual and in-person meetings with pharmaceutical reps, even after the pandemic ends.

Available studies also give a sense that the future overall trend in pharma is unlikely to be a replication of pre-Covid time, prompting the players to reimagine their customer engagement format. For example, a contemporary ‘Real Time Covid-19 Barometer Survey of physicians,’ by Sermo, found that ‘67% believe pharmaceutical companies could improve communications with HCPs and could do more to help physicians make prescribing decisions.’

Hence, even with the much-reduced threat from Covid infection, as and when it will happen, the same trend is likely to change the scope and traditional toolkit for future new brand launch, as well. Hence, pharma companies would, need to change their sales training architecture, accordingly – like simulation training – always keeping one ear on the ground.

Proven edge of simulation training in healthcare during Covid-19:

There are several studies in this area in different parts of the world. To illustrate the point, let me quote a Canadian study, published by ResearchGate in December 2020. It made several important points, which I summarized, as below.

The study elucidates, healthcare resources were strained to previously unforeseeable limits because of COVID-19 pandemic, in most countries. The unprecedented nature of disruption in health systems prompted the emergence of rapid simulation training for critical just-in-time COVID-19 education. The aim was to improve preparedness for giving high quality care to rapidly increasing number of Covid infected patients, including caregivers, across all healthcare sectors.

The researchers found that simulation training was pivotal for healthcare provider learning, alongside new systems integration, development of new processes, workflows, checklists, protocols, and in the delivery of quality clinical care to all concerned.

To cope with the new reality, triggered by the Covid pandemic, as also demonstrated by several other studies, simulation training has the potential to deliver the best learning outcomes. Some may obviously would seek a little more clarity in understanding what exactly is a simulation training that I am referring to.

What exactly is simulation training?

It won’t be terribly difficult for pharma marketers to understand what exactly simulation training in pharma sales and marketing is. As the name suggests, simulation is a replication of what happens or may happen in a real-life situation. In this particular case, it involves the simulation of changing pharma customers and market behavior and expectations, in the new normal.

Thus, a simulation training process, say for a new brand launch, would create virtual market scenarios by replicating all recent changes in customer behavior/expectations and the market dynamics – of a specific territory. This is usually done with AI based computer software, designed to help sales force learning of a real-life situation, without being in the thick of it on the ground. In simulated training, the selected trainees interact with technology, rather than reading notes or listening through the lectures of persons having similar insights.

The selling simulators are cost-effective and provides better outcomes:

Besides being cost-effective, simulation training is also considered a 24-carat way of developing new skills, and also assessing how well the trainees are translating the new learnings into practice. No wonder why even the US National Library of Medicine, after evaluation and review of several research studies, has acknowledged that simulation training imparts learning ‘just like a real thing.’

How will it work on the new product launch?

In pharma sales and marketing area, the simulation of customers’ post-pandemic new needs and expectations, can be simulated by developing a ‘selling simulator’ for new product launch, in the new normal. These simulators will integrate AI-based software with game dynamics or gamification, creating a virtual field situation for sales reps to continuously learn and hone their new-product launch skills. The required contemporary skills may often be unique in nature, beyond the traditional pathways, even where there are no footsteps to follow.

Why simulation training for a new drug launch will add greater value?

This  query is also well deliberated in the McKinsey & Company article - ‘Reshaping pharma’s strategy in the next normal,’ published on December 15, 2020, with the Covid pandemic as the backdrop. It underscores, ‘it is clear that major shifts in the way that healthcare professionals (HCPs) interact with pharma companies will present a challenge for the traditional launch model, with its reliance on face-to-face meetings with physicians and its “one size fits all” approach to engagement.’

The study further points out that “the traditional pharma commercial model will likely struggle to adapt to a different world. When reps venture back into the field, they will need to address the plurality and access challenges of the new interaction landscape. To do that, they will need to consider a new approach to launches: one that is digital, local, and personalized.”

This changing need will call for a new genre of training, and I think, simulation training for pharma reps will prove to be more productive in this area.

Conclusion:

Many uncertainties in the pharma business continue, even after the second wave of Covid pandemic, with the Damocles sword of its third wave hanging over the head, including the Indian population. In the current volatile pharma business environment, as an article on the subject, published by the Pharmaceutical Executive on July 30, 2021, articulates – the challenges of remote work mean that training approaches must be adaptable and engaging.

Simulation training, with its power to engage learners, and developed for strategically minded, and data-literate sales teams, would become a key component of the future pharmaceutical sales training landscape. This is destined to happen regardless of whether delivered on site or in remote training formats. From this perspective, I reckon, with a well thought-out – AI-driven selling simulator, especially for new product launch, to start with, could be a potential game changer in yet mostly untried new normal.

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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