A Field Force for the Future

Updated: Feb 11


Words by Jade Williams

The field of pharmaceutical sales has been jolted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and what was once a face-to-face role became mostly face-to-screen. What can sales reps do to ensure they are working just as well as before, but also improving on former models?


When Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale created Back to the Future Part II in 1989, they imagined the years to come would be fantastical – streets filled with flying cars, hoverboards and shoes that automatically lace themselves. While Nike did pursue the latter idea and release their iconic MAG trainer in 2015, complete with an electroluminescent outsole and futuristic LED lights, the reality is yet to measure up to the future that the film envisioned.


The pandemic disrupted most efforts to enhance business processes, forcefully seating most teams behind screens for almost two years. Adopting this digital approach has allowed business to continue to an extent, but has also starved sales reps across the pharmaceutical industry of the face-to-face interaction that can be crucial to success. Now the world is gradually reopening, senior stakeholders must consider the evolving role of sales and plan how to build a field force for the future.


Bridging the gap between virtual and face-to-face capabilities in sales has been difficult. Despite more and more COVID-19 restrictions continue to be lifted, reps remain unable to freely travel to HCPs’ places of work and develop relationships, forced instead to rely on their digital gift of the gab. As such, reps must become masters of digital, developing strategies for virtual engagement models that could be here to stay. Philip McCrea, Managing Director Europe, Red Nucleus, discusses his belief in ‘the three Ms’: mindset, measurement and mastery. Speaking at ‘Reuters Events: Pharma 2021’, he explains that sales reps must have “not just the ability to facilitate a good one-to-one virtual interaction [with HCPs], but a much broader set of capabilities”. Reps need to develop the skills to master their own technologies, and also be on hand to resolve any issues that their customers may have with these new platforms. This will enable them to build better and more efficient relationships.


Although the pandemic has created innumerable challenges for the field of pharma sales, it has also created opportunities. Technological capabilities have been accelerated by the pandemic, and reps no longer need to spend time travelling – sometimes for hours at a time – to connect with HCPs. To the convenience of both sides, reps are now able to be reached on-demand, allowing multiple customers to reach out with any issues or insights at any one time. The time saved has allowed field teams more opportunity to focus on personalising their approaches, giving them more control over their relationships. Also speaking at the Reuters event, Alexey Cherchago, Head of Sales Excellence Europe, Sandoz, notes the importance of personalisation. “If reps do not have enough autonomy, [they] cannot achieve an appropriate degree of personalisation. Ideal customer engagement should combine common guardrails with appropriate autonomy,” he says. Executing personalisation can be a hard task to master with increasing guidelines in the GDPR era, but it is essential if field teams are to build positive relationships with HCPs.


Companies are working to enhance touchpoints with customers by personalising all their virtual communications with HCPs. While pre-pandemic sales teams were incredibly rep-centric, they must now adopt a multichannel approach to become more customer-centric. Another speaker at the Reuters event, Esra Caliskan, Digital Initiatives Manager, Sanofi, states that teams must mimic the face-to-face rep experience to “capture doctors’ needs” so the customer feels valued in every experience. Pharma companies “need to differentiate from the competition” in a field of mass communication, she adds. This need for unique content led Sanofi to develop personalised video introductions for HCP communication. The videos feature an actor of the same gender of the rep knocking on an office door displaying the HCP’s name and title before the rep begins their presentation. Personalisation such as this can help teams stand out in their growing omnichannel niche, ensuring HCPs feel they are part of a two-way relationship rather than being recipients of a mass marketing email from a faceless corporation.


The role of the rep remains really important in this multichannel world

Looking to the future, sales teams must absorb learnings from the past 18 months, while also monitoring regional differences in mindset. Some countries are eager to return to face-to-face meetings, but others are more comfortable remaining active in the virtual space. Speaking alongside her fellow panellists at the Reuters event, Clare Bryant, Head of Sales Training EU+, LEO Pharma, concludes: “The role of the rep remains really important in this multichannel world, but there are some new and exciting skills they are going to need.” Enabling room for this hybrid mode of sales will therefore be imperative, and while these new skills might not be riding hoverboards, the field is certainly changing and the role of sales is enhancing. Who knows where the future will take it.