• Pharmaceutical & Health Care Industry

Is the Corona crisis putting the sales force on the sidelines?

By Dominic Pfau

Success in sales has so far been based primarily on personal contacts and the exchange of information within a widely ramified network. But in the sales departments of companies in the pharmaceutical and health care industry, a question has been arising since March: How can the sales force suddenly work without face to face contact? Of course, sales staff can also work temporarily from their home office. However, many sales employees in the healthcare industry are also currently on short-time work. Those companies that had already converted their sales force to the shortened attention span of their stakeholders before the Corona crisis are currently in a better position. One interesting approach is to support pharmaceutical sales representatives, for example, through Medical Science Liaison Managers (MSL). The MSL is a specialist in scientific issues relating to the development and marketing of new drugs. Through its consulting activities, it builds trust with decision-makers and thus promotes the exchange between doctors and pharmaceutical companies. This helps doctors to keep an eye on current developments, including new treatment options. Training courses and lectures, which very often take place via online modules and are therefore organised by the MSL from the home office, provide information on new preparations and methods in specialist areas such as oncology, immunology or haematology. Occasionally, doctors and experts are visited on site. This way, the MSLs work in a different way than the traditional sales staff, who used to hurry from customer to customer four days a week and only worked one day from the office.

As in other industries, the corona crisis is also acting as an accelerator of change processes in pharmaceutical sales, which were pending anyway due to digitalisation. This also includes taking a critical look at the entire sales process and examining where digital solutions make sense. The goal of digitised processes should be to better reach doctors and reduce sales costs. Because the time and attention span of many people has become shorter in the face of the digital flood of information, it is essential for the success of Medical Science Liaison Managers to inform doctors briefly and concisely about an active pharmaceutical ingredient or the portfolio of them in an area of indication. Only those who are able to offer the physicians in private practice real added value in a short time, even without a visit, will make themselves heard in the long term. This can be achieved cost-effectively with online formats such as expert dialogues, virtual congresses or webinars.


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From discussions with my customers, I have learned that some of them have significantly increased their marketing activities to support sales. The reduction in personal contacts between sales staff and doctors must be absorbed elsewhere in order to retain them as customers for the pharmaceutical companies. By adapting marketing and sales activities to the changing information needs of doctors, they are able to improve the quality of contacts with doctors as well as reduce costs. In an international context, companies must take different regional and cultural characteristics into account. Personal discussions cannot be reduced to the same extent everywhere. For example, visits to customers in Asia are regarded as a sign of appreciation. Therefore, it makes sense to offer the customer several communication options such as video conferencing, webinars or expert dialogues and to prepare the information in the appropriate format for the respective communication channel. Different channels are not mutually exclusive:  For example, scientific congresses can be organised in such a way that they are open to virtual participants as well as those present.

Sales and marketing move closer together

The more personal visits can be reduced even after the end of the corona pandemic without affecting sales results, the greater the organisational and thus personnel adjustments in the pharmaceutical and health care companies will be. Of course, this also has an impact on the skills required of managers and employees.

  • Evaluate experiences during the crisis in order to realign
    The effects of the corona crisis on sales should be recorded and analysed in the course of appraisal interviews. Based on this, the market changes should be examined for possible starting points for the strategic reorientation of sales and the sensible use of digital offers. However, this can only succeed in coordination with doctors and the interaction between sales and marketing.
  • Organisational adjustments require personnel changes
    By reducing personal contacts with doctors, a smaller sales organisation will be able to perform the tasks in the future. Medical Science Liaison Managers and other experts are needed to meet the changing communication needs of doctors.
  • Ensuring contact with doctors through further training
    While the professional expertise of the employees remains the same, they need new skills in dealing with doctors. In principle, the existing pharmaceutical sales representatives can be trained and deployed accordingly, as they already have the necessary expertise. Instead of personal discussions, they must skilfully use new communication channels to maintain the quality of contacts with doctors.
  • Individual case review
    Treat each customer individually: What is the customer's need / why does he need customer visits. Is he looking for professional exchange, information about special indications and news or simply a conversation with a person who is not a patient? The sales department should actively decide which procedure is appropriate for which customer. Management, in turn, can promote internal dialogue and provide key figures or a system that simplifies decisions.
  • External Recruitment
    When recruiting new employees, for example in marketing, it is worth taking a look at the sector(s) in which a candidate has gained experience. Candidates with experience in industries that are more advanced in digital sales support can provide valuable input.

Consistent orientation towards the customer

The corona crisis should be used to put the current distribution model to the test. Contact with doctors is and will remain of strategic importance for pharmaceutical and health care companies in their business. How much of this face-to-face is required by the field sales force and what proportion can take place in the digital space in the future is primarily decided by the customer. Companies that offer physicians real added value not only through their products but also through digital information offerings are likely to end up ahead of the competition. Even after the Corona crisis is over, sales will not be left derailed. But some of it will be on new, digital tracks. Companies that use a hybrid model of personal presence and offers in virtual space with highly qualified personnel will create a broad interface with doctors. And that is by far the best basis for future success.

If you would like to know more about this topic or would like to make personal contact, please contact Dominic Pfau:

Dominic Pfau  |  Partner & Director (Team Leader)
Mobile: +49 172 67 26 093  |  Office: +49 40 85 17 16 15