Adapting Customer Engagement Strategies to the COVID Landscape

The pandemic is forcing the pharmaceutical industry to change its go-to-market models.


The pharmaceutical industry has been under pressure for the past decade to change its go-to-market models. While the industry has attempted change, any change to its approach has been guarded. But the industry’s new challenge—marketing and selling in a COVID-19 environment—abruptly changes the customer interaction landscape, perhaps permanently. In office/in person sales promotion, the staple of pharmaceutical company activities, is simply not possible today with interactions reduced to the sporadic video or to telephone engagement.

These changes, and uncertainty about the future customer interaction environment, create a new imperative for pharmaceutical companies—to develop strategies to re-tool resources. Everything from training field personnel to navigate new tools more efficiently from remote environments, to changing both the offering and its customer platform (HCPs and patients) to create the highest level of value and impact will need renewed strategic attention.

Similarly, in this retooling process, pharmaceutical companies will need to strike a strategic balance between gaining new business and more effectively retaining existing business due to decreases in new business opportunities. But three key factors that will drive future success include:

  1. Understanding the logistical challenges to healthcare promotion during the pandemic.
  2. Identifying opportunities to leverage digital technology for field promotion.
  3. Modifying approaches as the HCP-Patient relationship evolves (increasing Telemedicine use).

Leading Teams in the “New Normal” Environment

Leading and motivating teams in this reactionary and unprecedented virtual environment is challenging. Success continues to be driven by the  principles of collaboration, connectivity, and accountability. As temporary arrangements become the new normal, and hiring, launches, training, sales meetings, and even office calls go virtual, the ability of leaders to adapt and guide teams becomes paramount. Ensuring that field resources possess the right skills and support is one key factor. Another key factor: proactively retooling existing resources to best meet current opportunities.

Compounding the issue, the need to quickly adjust targeting and call plans as the situation changes in different states—or even geographies within states—creates stress on headquarters to deliver insights, and on field-based personnel. Retooling teams and programs now focus on sustainability over the next 8-12 months—not on attaining pre-pandemic levels of in-office interactions. It’s also important to understand that future interactions with healthcare professionals may be fundamentally altered.

Focus Field-based Personnel Goals

This recalibration of field-based teams and tactics is likely to include assessment of the type of field-based personnel most likely to bridge the extended access gap. It’s important to:

  1. Consider looking at other roles that are not direct sales positions such as key account managers, reimbursement specialists, and contact center support teams.
  2. Examine opportunities to shift resources to these areas providing greater impact in a remote environment.
  3. Discuss taking longer term expectations into account—as well as those for the next 8-12 months—to create an agile and effective territory coverage structure ready for rolling activation once regional restrictions are lifted.

As individual state pandemic numbers fluctuate and restrictions are implemented, eased, and then re-implemented, manufacturers will need to create a flexible business model rather than implementing full re-organization.

While it may not be possible to attain pre-pandemic levels of access, savvy companies will focus efforts on preserving those relationships carefully nurtured through personalized attention and HCP office staff interactions over many years. Maintaining relationships can provide a competitive advantage in the short- to mid-term. It will also be key to creating momentum for brands when COVID-19 related access restrictions are eased.

Retooling Team Skills for Greater Success

Doctor visit dynamics are also changing as virtual calls replace in-office activities. This means a specific retooling of representative skills is an essential ingredient to creating success. Representatives need digital assets and digital platforms to be made available. They also need training to translate the skills that made them successful in face-to-face situations to achieve similar levels of success in a remote setting. Understanding how to modify communication style is a first step. Coupling this with a fluid use of digital assets will set top representatives apart.

Additionally, understanding how to maximize impact when interactions are less frequent requires even stronger pre-call planning to ensure that every second is maximized. Ultimately, companies most adept at training their representatives to pre-call plan and use digital assets will create an immediate benefit. Once office calls are again possible, this training will also foundationally develop more skilled representatives with more available options for selling in a post-COVID-19 environment.

As patient visits continue to decrease and fewer new therapy starts occur as a result, another retooling effort will need to rebalance the field-based teams’ focus. Heavy concentration on acquisition and spending should shift to putting more effort into business retention. To achieve this, representatives will need to consider the role the entire office staff plays in maintaining patients on therapy. Also, greater collaboration with other field team members should incorporate the holistic patient experience and connect office staff and patients with Field Reimbursement managers, financial assistance, nurse programs, and brand sponsored educational content.

Meeting Training & Technology Challenges

Delivering value-based healthcare messaging in a short, controlled, virtual detail setting, rather than through traditional in-person selling, is proving to be a challenge even for seasoned, technologically savvy professionals. Even the most positive analyst assessments of COVID-19 scenarios predict a multi-year disruption trend. This will result in permanent shifts in how HCPs and patients interact with pharmaceutical companies.

While technology now uncovers opportunities to leverage valuable intersecting points between drug benefit, patient support programs, and payer coverage, delivering the most value and impact requires training, skill, and focus. Manufacturers investing in training and developing agility skills across their field teams will see positive ROI on many fronts.

In the rush to make adjustments, however, pharmaceutical companies do risk taking actions and developing new materials that remain ineffective due to a field end user’s lack of adequate training in executing the tools. Companies need to incorporate the same training principles used for other types of training, such as inclusion of adult learning principles. This will ensure that field teams interacting directly with the customers are able to:

  • Have a positive impact
  • Overcome the awkwardness of virtual interactions
  • Effectively navigate virtual selling materials
  • Create added value by appropriately introducing services (e.g. reimbursement managers) to support the HCPs and their patients


At the time of this writing, the US death toll is expected to reach 295,000 by December 2020.1 The first vaccine candidates are progressing towards early to mid-2021 approval. Even the most optimistic analyst assessments of COVID-19 scenarios predict a multi-year disruption trend and permanent shifts in how HCPs and patients interact with pharmaceutical companies.

However, big and small wins will be achieved as progress materializes on many fronts. Despite grappling with the devastating emotional, social, and economic impacts of a global pandemic, the industry is focused on patient needs, employee care, and researching tests, vaccines, and treatments. The acceleration of development and effective use of digital tools—previously often seen as pilot opportunities—now thrusts the industry forward to implement new digital capabilities.