FirstWord spoke to Patrick P. Den Boer, president and CEO of QPharma, about the evolving role of the pharmaceutical sales rep and how innovative customer relationship management systems (CRMs) can help meet the needs of a new breed of healthcare professionals (HCPs) who are increasingly tech savvy and are seeking education rather than relationships.
The evolving role of the sales rep
The pharma salesforce has been challenged by diminishing access to HCPs, greater stakeholder engagement expectations, lack of trust in information provided by the industry, and the rise in digital communication. This isn't to say the role of the sales rep is dying or has become less important, rather it is simply evolving, and will continue to do so as personalised medicines – such as gene therapies and more complex biologics – come to the forefront of quality healthcare. No longer are sales reps needed to merely introduce and promote a product, rather they are now required to "understand the personal vision for that drug," says Den Boer.
In this respect, HCPs want to see the relationships with sales reps shifting from one where they are the focus to one where the focus is on the patient, says Den Boer. "The education of HCPs is really what I see as the purpose of a pharma rep. To go in and have a relationship, you're expecting them to buy something because of the relationship. Over the years, we've stopped allowing that. Interactions between HCPs and reps need to be directly related to patient care." Ultimately, reps need to change the way they communicate with the end users of their products and provide a different type of education, "an education that empowers end users by making them more aware and knowledgeable of every aspect of a particular drug."
With greater focus on communication and education instead of selling products, it might be assumed that the provision of drug samples will reduce. This is not the case, according to Den Boer, and samples continue to play a key role in empowering end users. "Samples have two purposes," says Den Boer. "Firstly, they allow doctors to see if a patient can tolerate a drug, whether there are any side effects. Secondly, they are intended to promote the sale of the drug." Samples also tend to lead to "better compliance and persistence," he says. Indeed, in one study, patients who received a 30-day generic medication sample had a higher probability of filling a first prescription within 90 days (72.2% with sample vs. 37.6% without sample); 180 days (79.1% vs. 43.3%); and 365 days (85.5% vs. 48.6%).
Harnessing technology to facilitate the role of the sales rep
With the evolution of the sales rep, new technologies have become vital for helping sales reps do their jobs effectively and efficiently, and to personalise their services accordingly. Indeed, 36.5 percent of physicians now use a 'no-see/no-access' model (where the policy is that physicians don't see reps). So, how can reps communicate with them and help them to address their patients' needs? For Den Boer, "cabinets [comprising prescription drug stocks] that are in the HCP's offices work really well for no-access physicians. The samples are there. It's provided by a logistics company like us, so HCPs don’t have to talk to the sales rep because they already understand the drug. They can always call for further information; most pharma companies have medical science liaisons (MSLs) that HCPs can call if they need further resources."
Beyond navigating the no-access model, another important consideration, according to Den Boer, is "how effective pharma are at implementing new technologies that can support sales reps in trying to gain, engage with and develop interactions with a new generation of HCPs who are increasingly going online?" In a survey exploring the perceptions of healthcare sales reps, 50 percent of respondents did not have access to HCP engagement technologies, globally.
Companies that have embraced modern technology to help streamline interactions between sales reps and HCPs include Merck & Co., GlaxoSmithKline and Sunovion. Such companies have HCP portals and provide inbound call centres staffed by MSLs. For example, Merck Connect enables HCPs to login online to access information on Merck's products, information on certain diseases, live webcasts, procurement services (i.e. request product samples, order vaccines) and professional support.
Using data to guide sales rep strategy
With increasing use of technology comes more data that sales reps, with the help of third party experts, can utilise to better gauge the needs of HCPs. "There is a very strong case for using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning within pharma," says Den Boer. "You can understand what the tactics are to speak to an HCP based on their patterns and habits. If you don't know what their habits are, because you don’t have the data on their habits, you're not going to be able to correlate that to a tactic for the rep. You need to understand what conferences they've been to, their learnings, and websites they've logged into to better understand their needs and how to effectively communicate with them."
The bottom line is that "sales reps need to know everything about the HCP," explains Den Boer. "Historically, they would know what their address was and their hours of work, and that was all they needed to show up and have the conversation. With less access to HCPs, reps now need to understand more about what drives that HCP. For example, if a health system has changed a formulary, that's something the rep needs to know."
Customer relationship management solutions for sales reps
In keeping up with this new engagement environment, integrated CRM solutions are fundamental to streamlining communication with HCPs. According to Den Boer, "integrated CRM technology, like QPharma’s newly launched Ti ForceTM application, has the potential to monitor a whole variety of variables and allow sales reps to become more refined in their approach to HCPs, whether it's meetings, emails, contacts, or detailing - it can help them become more effective because such solutions pool lots of information to help personalise services."
Integrated CRMs can help sales reps face the many challenges created by their evolving role, including gaining access to HCPs and utilising data more effectively. They enable reps to more effectively communicate and engage with HCPs, to drive better healthcare. Such systems have the potential to be particularly useful in terms of the growing educational element of the rep role. "For example, if a sales rep tries to order samples, an effective CRM system could identify if they hadn't been trained yet on the product and automatically set a flag to prevent them ordering the samples until they complete the required training," shares Den Boer.
"An effective integrated CRM solution will contain all the information that pharma is going to need to continuously monitor what's going on," adds Den Boer. "What new data comes out, what new therapies come out, where they fit in their formularies. It will be constantly looking at changes in the offices of HCPs." This is the era of real-time big data, which sales reps need to increase their visibility and penetration, so new technologies are becoming necessities. "Every time the sales rep logs into their application, it's today's data," says Den Boer. "Not from six months ago, not last week's or last month's, not yesterday's. It's today's data. It's that continuous monitoring that has to happen."
A need for adaptability within the industry
The role of the sales rep isn't dying or any less important; but the pharma salesforce is simply evolving with the changing needs and expectations of HCPs. The question is: Does pharma recognise the value of new technology in helping them adapt to these changes? Those who do are likely to thrive, while those who continue to use outdated salesforce models will be sent to the back of the queue.
Patrick P. Den Boer is president and CEO of QPharma, a provider of integrated digital platforms for Pharma. Click here to learn about QPharma's newly launched CRM solution, Ti ForceTM, the first CRM built specifically for the QPharma Titanium platform (a suite of SaaS-based compliance, analytics and training applications).
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