The days when pharmaceutical representatives arrived with a simple printed paper aid is thankfully long gone. Morten Hjelmsoe explains how the latest technology is helping to develop the customer-client relationship like never before.
This is an important moment for pharmaceutical sales professionals. Right now technologies are being implemented that will shape how the technology sector relates to healthcare professionals for years to come. These technologies matter because, if they are applied correctly, the sector can free itself to communicate in new ways and rebuild the industry’s relationship with healthcare professionals.
It’s a sad fact that medical professionals often see little value in technological communications. Representatives now have only a few minutes or perhaps seconds to communicate and, in some countries, are prevented from seeing medical professionals altogether. Where contact is maintained, this is often driven more by sampling than the exchange of information. If current trends continue, then direct access to medical professionals may fade away altogether.
The problem is that the information that sales representatives are being asked to deliver simply cannot be relevant enough. Every medical professional has a certain level of knowledge on a topic and a particular set of needs and concerns. It’s hard, if not impossible, to respond through traditional ‘campaign’ communication.
For example, a certain doctor might be particularly concerned about the safety of a new brand. So until that is satisfactorily covered there’s little point in discussing its speed of action. Yet this may be precisely what the representative is asked to do as a new campaign kicks in.
The representative knows this but cannot react to the doctor’s needs. And, as we all know, when something isn’t relevant to the audience it won’t receive much attention. So no matter how skilled the sales representative is, the lack of relevance creates a barrier that is hard to overcome. The good news is that technology now makes it possible to eliminate these potential barriers by not establishing them in the first place.
Push to pull
The introduction of new technologies enables us to think differently about communication. While closed loop marketing is the terminology often used, I actually prefer to use the term ‘pull marketing’ or ‘pull communication’. It’s not a big deal but it more clearly demonstrates the difference from traditional ‘push’ forms of customer communication. Put bluntly, the difference is:
• A push communication is what I want you to know
• A pull communication is understanding what you need to know and then providing that
Traditionally, technology has concentrated on push communication. I like to think of this as acting like train drivers. There’s a destination in mind for healthcare professionals and so tracks are built to transport them there. Of course, this means that everyone has to travel together and at the same speed.
Pull communication requires that we act more like taxi drivers. Here the job is to react to people’s individual needs and work out the best route for them. Asking, “Where do you need to go?” is fundamentally different from asking, “Do you want to go here?” It is also more likely to get a positive response.
Through its sales force the pharmaceutical industry has a unique and precious contact with its customers. In fact, it’s hard to think of another industry that has these advantages. Yet technology has actually prevented pharma from making the most of this.
Pull communication wasn’t possible in a paper world. We simply couldn’t keep track of what each physician needed to know – or where they needed to go. There’s currently thousands of GPs, each needing slightly different pieces of information. It’s impossible! Unfortunately there would be one printed detail aid and that would have to work for everyone. And that’s the way it stayed until information technology advanced enough.
Look at it this way; each day, sales representatives go out loaded full of information. They deliver these messages but they return home empty. Or so it appears. In reality, sales representatives will have learned a great deal but this information couldn’t be transferred. The problem was that the technology in place lacked a way to collect insight and collate this in such a way that it became actionable information. Now everything’s changed.
We already have the technology that allows doctors to choose the information that they are interested in. During a discussion with a company representative for example, medical professionals can actively pull the information they want, which ensures they don’t talk past each other.
Technology can also help sales representatives gather this feedback. Intelligent communication systems, which fit naturally with normal workflows, record each medical professional’s particular interests as they interact with the systems.
Suddenly, sales professionals no longer appear to come home ‘empty’. Now it’s clear that they are active gatherers of information who refuel at each appointment to collect insights that drive future communication. And it continues this way – continually developing a better customer understanding that powers the provision of high value information.
While technology has the potential to reinvigorate relationship with healthcare professionals and key customers on its own it is not enough. New technology calls for a new strategy: pull communication. If we simply add technology, we’ll only get more efficient push communication – the one-way, mass messaging route that has sales reps replicating train drivers. And that will only accelerate problems.
If you recognise there is an underlying problem, in the fact that healthcare professionals feel over-exposed to non-relevant messages and increasingly close themselves off from the industry, then how can increasing the efficiency of communication change the situation? More contacts made more easily? It’s like trying to treat side-effects by increasing the dose. I fail to see how that can work.
So instead of just seeking greater efficiency, I would argue that we should take the opportunity that technology offers to fundamentally change what we’re doing.
When technology is allied to a pull strategy representatives are freed from acting as a mass communications channel and can become true communicators, providing personal service. If we embrace the opportunities of technology and raise our expectations of what it can provide, we can enter new era of personalised communication and service delivery.
This is what sales teams have been asking for. They know their customers best and can now create, not just local, but individual strategies. This means that they can get measured on their ability to educate and not simply deliver messages. Whether it is through face-to-face meetings, group workshops or online discussions, it’s the ability to meet needs and actually change behaviour that really counts.
This is a huge opportunity for the industry. In the hands of company representatives, pull marketing technology starts to create a virtuous circle: bringing customers real value, with representatives generating better relationships and gaining more meaningful access which allows them to deliver more value, and so on.
This can have a dramatic effect on the relationships between pharmaceutical sales and medical professionals. The more value that is brought to the table, the more valuable pharma reps become. If the technology is applied in the right way pharma can restore the traditional position as a treatment partner. Who knows, perhaps there will come a day when the value of what sales professionals can offer is so great that healthcare professionals actually pay for a visit from a company representative? It’s not impossible. What’s certain is that there are exciting times ahead. It’s time to turn the tables.
Morten Hjelmsoe is founder and CEO of Agnitio A/S – the provider of the leading pull marketing software platform for the pharmaceutical and medical device industries. Agnitio’s system is already implemented in more than 45 countries and 25 languages – and used by major pharmaceutical and medical device companies globally. www.agnitio.com.