3 Big Challenges for Pharma Sales

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Pharmaceutical companies are having a bigger impact on the lives of Americans than ever before.

A Consumer Reports study of nearly 2,000 U.S adults last year found that more than half (55%) regularly take prescription medications, with the average adult taking four. The report also found that the total number of prescriptions filled annually by Americans (including children) increased by 85% from 1997 to 2016 - to put this into perspective, the total U.S. population increased by only 21% during that time. Though there are concerns about prescription drug abuse, most of the medication being prescribed is life-improving if not lifesaving.

It's a similar story around the world, making pharma one of the world's largest industries on the planet - the global pharmaceutical market is slated for 6.3% annual growth over the next four years to reach $1.12 trillion by 2022. As such, one might assume that new medicines are hitting the shelves and relieving patients of their ailments at record speeds. But this simply isn't the case. As regulatory agencies have imposed increasingly strict rules over product safety and efficacy over recent years, the journey to marketing approval has been significantly lengthened, with much-added expense piled on in the process.

The average cost of taking a scientific discovery all the way through to a drug on the shelf is $2.6 billion, and the whole process takes about 12 years. Combine this with the additional challenges posed by generic drug manufacturers, and it's no surprise that pharma product launches have become less frequent, more expensive, and more high-pressure than ever before - which is precisely why pharmaceutical companies must be fiercely committed to the success of each and every one of them.

From the testing phase through to production and the actual selling of the prescribing treatment, a medical product's journey is long, complex, and involves many, many professionals along the way. Right at the coalface is the sales force. As the main communication channel for pharma companies, sales forms the backbone of the business - and any company that wants to stay in business for long needs reps that can sell.

But the pharma sales force faces many challenges. While it used to be the case that doctors would independently decide what drugs to use, today, there are additional stakeholders to consider - and getting access to them isn't easy. This places huge new pressures on sales teams to engage with larger groups of influencers and to find new communication channels through which to do it.

Biggest Facing Pharma Sales Today

  1. Creating New Communication Channels to Overcome Regulatory Restraints

    Historically, pharma companies have relied primarily on face-to-face representative visits to promote their products and sell their drugs. But pharmaceutical promotion is subject to a growing number of regulatory constraints, laws, and industry codes, such as the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices, and the Physician Payment Sunshine Act, which calls for increased transparency of financial relationships between healthcare providers and pharmaceutical manufacturers.

    Consequently, pharmaceutical sales representatives are facing huge challenges accessing physicians and other prescribers as many hospitals, institutions, and practices update their policies to ensure compliance. A recent study from CMI/Compas found that half of physicians now restrict visits from reps in one way or another.

    The result is that pharma companies need to create new communication channels to ensure their products and messages are getting in front of prescribers - and non-personal promotion (NPP) campaigns are proving to be a solution.

    NPP allows pharma companies to connect with healthcare professionals through new tactics like email and other digital marketing channels that physicians and other buyers already trust and use regularly. NPP campaigns do not eliminate the need for pharma sales reps, but rather introduce a cost-effective method of promotion to augment their efforts at a time when physically getting through the door is becoming increasingly difficult.

    With NPP, reps accomplish engagement with prescribers by using relevant and valuable information made available digitally - meaning physicians can access it at a time convenient to them, and pharma companies need no longer solely rely on face-to-face meetings which may no longer be feasible to organize. As such, great content is the foundation of NPP success.

    "The key to executing non-personal promotion, especially when there is limited or no rep access, is understanding each physician's media consumption, demographics, and writing habits," says CMI/Compas VP, Insights and Analytics, Leanne Smith. "With that information, a specific strategy can be executed across a wide variety of targeted media channels to reach the appropriate audience."

  2. Compensating for the Loss of Product Differentiation

    Today, new drug launches face far greater competition than they did just a decade and a half ago. Following a launch, it now takes an average of just four years for a competing product to arrive on the market - down from eight years between 2000 and 2004. The result is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate a drug in the eyes of physicians - especially when relying solely on clinical trial data to make the case.

    Pharmaceutical companies need to go beyond clinical trial results to make their products stand out. In addition, as well as the clinical benefits, they need to become adept at communicating the nonclinical benefits when crafting promotional messaging to prescribing physicians and other decision makers.

    Take Bayer's and Johnson & Johnson's successful U.S. launch of the anticoagulant drug Xarelto, for example. Xarelto was, in fact, second to market with much ground to gain. But the company focused on simplicity to differentiate the product - it offered once-a-day dosing, whereas its first-to-market rival was twice-a-day. Thanks, largely, to the power of effective messaging that concentrated on highlighting this key benefit, Xarelto quickly became the market leader.

    Conducting post-launch studies is another way to achieve competitive differentiation. Regular studies can secure superior data quality over competing products and new entrants and are key to demonstrating the efficacy of a product and communicating its benefits more effectively. Celegene, for example, produced almost twice as many post-launch studies in Europe for its multiple myeloma drug Revlimid than its closest competitor, creating a steady flow of fresh evidence of success that kept it at the forefront of hematologists' minds.

  3. Utilizing Technology to Build Innovative Customer Engagement Models

    In order to regain long-term access and maintain relevance to physicians, pharma companies must develop and execute innovative customer engagement models to improve the sales process and optimize the customer experience.

    Recent research from Bain & Company - which surveyed 100 senior launch executives from the top 20 pharmaceutical companies - found that at least 40% of physicians attributed brand preference to customer experience factors beyond the product. For example, how well pharma companies support physicians by providing answers to medical questions, identifying patients, and connecting them with peers.

    For reps in the field, there is evidence to suggest that the use of tablets (i.e. iPads and other handheld devices) should be refined. Today, most pharma reps are of course already tablet-equipped - but doctor feedback suggests that the content being showed to them on the devices at meetings is stale.

    A recent study from DRG Digital's Manhattan Research finds physicians reporting that 51% of the time, reps show them information they have already seen through their own research or in previous meetings. This "stale detail" phenomenon is even more prominent among certain specialties - oncologists report that reps show them details they've already seen 68% of the time, and dermatologists 62%.

    (Image source: drgdigital.com)

    Tablets can improve detail experience, lengthen rep visits, and stimulate doctor interest in follow-ups - but getting the most out of them requires an understanding of where their value lies.

    Rather than being used as a glorified PDF-viewer to showcase the same sales aids accessible elsewhere, it is in animations and videos where tablets can really shine - particularly when used to compare product choices or for mode of action (MOA) explanations. Creating a memorable customer experience means wowing doctors, and where tablets are merely replacing printed materials or regurgitating stale information, their power is lost.

    Showing non-promotional resources on tablets is also an effective tactic. 63% of the 1,814 U.S physicians surveyed for the DRG study agreed that in-person meetings with reps are more valuable when resources not related to the product - such as patient education and support resources - are shown.

    Overall, 54% of doctors agreed that tablets make meetings more valuable, yet there has been a dip in tablet usage in recent times - 67% of physicians reported seeing reps with tablets in 2017, down from 74% in 2013. Pharma companies need to be investing in updating their digital sales resources to keep pace with the evolving behavior and information needs of today's physicians.

Final Thoughts

Pharmaceutical companies are facing many challenges in relation to their primary communication channel - the sales force. As access to healthcare professionals diminishes, focusing on NPP, developing new strategies for differentiation, and building superior customer experiences can be key to securing success and seeing meaningful returns on the considerable amount of time and money invested in developing new products prior to launch.

The challenges facing pharma sales are set to be hot topics at Future Pharma 2018, taking place this September at The Westin Copley Place, Boston, MA.

Download the Agenda today for more information and insights.