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COVID-19: Q&A about how pharmaceutical and life sciences companies can shift to remote territory management

April 03, 2020

HRI spoke with PwC partner Jean-Marc Neimetz and director Geoffrey McCleary about how commercial teams can transition their sales forces to remote territory management tools amid the pandemic.

PwC Health Research Institute (HRI)

What changes are you seeing in terms of a decrease in office visits?

Geoffrey McCleary, PwC Director

The offices that we talked to were prioritizing acute, non-COVID-19 care for in-office visits, but phone triaging everyone first. They’re calling patients to cancel or reschedule most well visits or nonessential follow-up visits that were on the books. Some providers in high-incidence areas were being asked to restrict staff and hours. 

HRI: How are pharmaceutical and life sciences companies responding to these changes?

Geoffrey McCleary: Most have pulled their sales forces out of the field, but there seems to be uncertainty about how to effectively pivot to a remote field force. We’ve seen different responses ranging from “just keep them busy” to “convert to Veeva Engage” to “work your call plan over the phone.”

None are truly optimized, and reps are stuck on sales management conference calls or in online training all day, or are getting frustrated implementing unfamiliar technology that doesn’t necessarily provide the best engagement with the physician. 

Jean-Marc Neimetz, PwC Partner

There is also a concern from companies not to “force their ways” to detailing physicians already overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, unless they bring real value right now. The role of the medical science liaisons may be critical in the short term.

HRI: Is it working?

Geoffrey McCleary: It’s a transition period, so I don’t think “working” has been defined yet. So far, companies have been slow to adjust sales targets or effectively communicate a cohesive plan to their broader field force.

“Working” must be defined by new goals and expectations. When you have a field force that has numbers and sales targets they must deliver and a target group that has changed dramatically, you must reevaluate. Once new goals are set, you can more quickly define if it’s working.

Jean-Marc Neimetz: Remote detailing preexisted this crisis and had demonstrated its value for specific physician targets or health systems. The question here is, can it work in a systematic manner and what does “working” mean?

HRI: What aspects of the typical territory manager’s job can still be done but through the digital avenue?

Geoffrey McCleary: The model of what a rep does in the field is some combination of existing online food delivery, product delivery and online education.

The face-to-face relationship will still be critical, but the challenge now is to find that balance between digital content, remote rep involvement and virtual/automated service that will keep territories active and positioned to rebound after the stoppage.

Jean-Marc Neimetz: Digital channels have been in place for a while now across the industry but often have been deployed as an additional or incremental channel. Their effectiveness still needs to be better assessed in absence of a face-to-face interaction based on an established relationship. Pharma will need to increase its reliance on its advanced analytics groups.

“Working” must be defined by new goals and expectations. When you have a field force that has numbers and sales targets they must deliver and a target group that has changed dramatically, you must reevaluate. Once new goals are set, you can more quickly define if it’s working.

HRI: What can companies do to deploy these new tools?

Geoffrey McCleary: First, they need to redefine metrics and goals to align and respond to the current situation. This provides a clear view on field and sales impact over the next weeks/months and allows for transparent clear expectations setting for field reps. If any significant portion of primary care doctors are going to front-line urgent care activities, it must be reflected in the goals.

Jean-Marc Neimetz: Companies need to better understand physician preferences, commitment and comfort with virtual interactions.

A solid and insightful analytics platform is a requirement for pharmaceutical companies to evolve toward a remote territory model. It can give you a sense of whether the doctor is open to having conversations or doing certain things more virtually in terms of whether they’ve opened an email, for example.

Companies also need to look at the value delivered during these virtual interactions—the quality of the content, messaging and the ability to address specific physicians’ questions. All of these are needed to secure the physician’s long-term commitment to participate.

An option to consider for the future and for certain physician segments is a hybrid model where the sales representative still comes for on-site visits but with less frequency, complementing remote activities to maintain a more informal relationship with the physician.

HRI: How much of these changes will stick after the pandemic abates?

Jean-Marc Neimetz: We assume it will accelerate the trend that’s already happening, but we don’t know when the crisis is over if people will revert to old habits or act differently. The reality is that for the past 10 years, both access to physicians and the number of sales reps in the US have been steadily declining, so why would the trend stop?

Stickiness will require a deep belief within marketing and sales leadership that sales details can take place based on physicians’ time and channel preferences in lieu of a more traditional plan. Afterward, pharmaceutical companies should be reassessing through analytics physician behaviors and making decisions related to these changes.

Geoffrey McCleary: If done right, the majority of these changes can stick after the stoppage. Companies will learn how to deploy AI and virtual tools more effectively and how to better use a now-hybridized field force more effectively and efficiently. The real determinate will be the ability of any given pharma company to change an entrenched internal sales culture that would limit this transition. 


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Trine K. Tsouderos

Business Insights, Sectors Leader and Health Research Institute Leader, PwC US

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Crystal Yednak

Senior Manager, Health Research Institute, PwC US

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