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22 November 2021

Since 2010 we’ve championed new and innovative models to reach Healthcare Professionals (HCPs), pioneering in both multi and omni-channel engagement – and we’ve always had HCP preference at the core of our working practice. The NHS has always been in a state of constant evolution, but never more so than when in the grips of a pandemic. The HCP response to unprecedented worldwide disruption is a ray of light in a grey period in global history, and Health Professionals worldwide have embraced the Winston Churchill/Rahm Emmanuel mentality of ‘Never letting a good crisis go to waste’.

With insights from over a decade of considered HCP engagement, this blog (originally penned in 2019) revisits how the industry has evolved, and our obligation to support the phenomenal digital advances of HCPs since the start of the pandemic.

The future of the NHS

In the original article we hypothesised that within in 10 – 15 years, HCPs would not need to see sales professionals face-to-face. This was not to declare the end of pharmaceutical or healthcare selling, however, it was more of a wake-up call…. Little did we know at that point that a pandemic would catapult us through that hypothesis in a matter of weeks. We could foresee a stage that HCPs wouldn’t need to see reps face-to-face, but didn’t imagine the same approach for patients.

As we rationalise the impact of Covid, a 2020 Survey completed by the British Medical Association* suggested 88% of GPs wanted remote consultations to stay, and from a patient perspective, 79%* surveyed in a September 2020 study also wanted remote consultations in the future.

With the digital transformation narrative in social media, it would be impossible for organisations not to observe this environmental change, and as such this article assumes digital strategy is now on top of the organisational to do list. Whatever your opinion on the longevity of the digital response to Covid, it’s clear that how we operate as organisations, and the skills and processes we use to communicate, will need to radically change.

The future of the customer experience is transforming, and digital advances give us the power to streamline and improve the customer journey. Before Covid, the 4th industrial revolution represented a fundamental change in the way we live and work and signalled a new chapter for sales, marketing, medical and regulatory functions across the Health Care sector. Real time, and on demand is a reality, and it is clear we have potential to advance our relationships. AI and machine learning offer so much, but how can we consume this data, and harvest the insight in a synergistic fashion that benefits HCPs, patients and pharmaceutical organisations?

Non-human, on demand promotional and educational communication with Healthcare Professionals (HCPs) is an absolute must, but what actions will be critical to keep up with the B2B industries that are leading this revolution?

“82% of B2B enterprises will use AI to make better business decisions in the next three years.”

Pre-pandemic we may have had the luxury of integrating this into our annual strategic planning, but the immediate response of the NHS, has made this an issue that sits at the core of your organisation today.

What is interesting is that our customer base have had a digital department and digital strategy for a number of years. UK bodies like the MHRA, CQC, HRA & NICE are currently working together to ensure digital delivers for the HCPs they represent. So, are HCPs (our customer) ahead of most pharmaceutical and healthcare organisations? Does your organisation have a strategy to mirror this progress? It’s highly likely we should all be doing more to partner HCPs and patients in digital transformation.

The pace of technological change

The pace at which we’re facing change is incredible. According to a report from Dell Technologies, (Realizing 2030: A Divided Vision of the Future), 85% of jobs that will exist in 2030, haven’t even been invented yet.

Does your business have a strategy to keep pace with technology and digital advances? Do you plan to use all the channels available to interact with Healthcare Professionals? And, more importantly, will you capture the data to understand how HCPs want to communicate, or consider how to service those needs?

Trends show that across all B2B industries, the channels we use, and how we use them, has evolved over the last 10 years. Before the internet, we had face-to-face (mono-channel). This evolved into ‘multi-channel’, where customers were engaged across a variety of channels – albeit through a series of disconnected touch points. And now we live in a world of ‘omni-channel’, where channels no longer operate in silos, but create a single customer experience. Brands must leverage new technologies to build an omni-channel strategy.

Putting the customer first

The Star OUTiCO approach to working with HCPs was born out of frustration with change resistance and reliance on outdated methods. Since 2011, we have witnessed first-hand how face-to-face selling was becoming increasingly difficult. Whilst many companies advanced their brand strategy, they often overlooked the most important aspect of selling – putting the customer at the centre of all their actions.

Adapt and thrive

Not only do businesses need to adapt to new technology, they also need to adapt to customer preferences. We all have our own preferred way of buying products and services, so why are HCPs any different? Depending upon value proposition, brand characteristics, and the customer preference of interaction, access will vary. However, if you approach the customer with multiple channel options, and understand their preference, accessibility will increase.

Before the pandemic the reduction in sales activity was well documented, and understandably our ability to access HCPs has since reduced further at this critical time. However, whilst it’s a sad consequence of this dismal situation, it has created widespread HCP usage of technology and an unprecedented opportunity for us to build upon the industries relationship with HCPs. That said, we still routinely hear colleagues and clients saying “I cannot wait to return to the old normal” or, ”I miss my customers”. And whilst we understand this, (because we are also sales professionals and miss the ‘human interaction’), we would like to challenge that thinking as we continue our evolution.

Will we have gained anything if we all flood back into surgeries wearing suits and carrying brief cases as soon as doors open again? Or worse, carrying a tablet instead of a case, armed with an electronic sales aid and considering yourself as ‘digital’. There’s never been a more crucial time to reimagine your sales approach.

Attitudes towards remote selling

Customer expectations and needs are constantly shifting, and over the last decade, as well as selling products on behalf of our clients, we have also balanced our time to ask HCPs what they want from their engagement with industry.

Customer preference and expectation sits at the core of successful digital transformation, (and there is a raft of post-pandemic data across social media, should you want to confirm that HCPs are using digital more and expect it to continue). However, in July 2019, OUTiCO conducted a research across all levels of NHS, which we have chosen to share in an effort to understand what may return once individual preference for communication isn’t forced by Covid .

The survey questions were discussed with over 300 HCPs in both primary and secondary care settings, to gauge their attitudes towards alternative methods of engagement with sales representatives. The survey was created to demonstrate to our customer base that we are interested in their feedback and preferences with respect to future engagement with pharma companies.

What did HCPs tell us?

Looking at the results, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that HCPs were already further on the digital journey than the industry itself – an industry that classes itself as innovative. So, who is the true innovator?

Q – How important is it for you to have a choice of digital channels when engaging with pharma/healthcare organisations?

Over 84% of HCPs agreed that it was quite, or extremely important to have a choice of channels

Q – What other channels would you consider using to access information?

Other findings included:

  • HCPs rated the benefits for remote meetings. Number one was ‘more flexible for my schedule’
  • 30% of HCPs said email was their preferred remote channel

Over 50% of HCPs reported the telephone was their preferred channel of communication. And, although the telephone may not be revolutionary, this is a clear indicator that the market has changed, and HCPs preferences have moved on.

According to a B2B Digital Experiences Report from EpiServer, 84% of B2B companies agree that increasing digital expectations of customers and partners is the top threat to their business. HCPs are people like us, who have daily digital interactions in all walks of life, be it banking, shopping or health & fitness. These interactions shape and change attitudes to digital, and that’s why we started to see an increase in HCPs open to remote selling before the pandemic.

The best channels to engage HCPs

Face-to-face communication still has its place for some customers, and as you would expect varies by stage of lifecycle or by brand/value propositions. This is all well and good, but what of the HCPs who require data at their preferred time, such as ‘on demand data’ (e.g. 3am in the morning!). Are you set up to deliver the data that they want at a time they need it? Medical professionals will require us to deliver information when they want, or need it, and that may typically be outside the normal working hours. How does your organisation currently manage that expectation? Some industries have clearly commenced services outside core hours and the typical working week, and this is something that would set companies apart.

There is no-doubt the typical working week has changed dramatically during the pandemic and companies will need to continue to assess how and when they conduct business. These are just some of the questions that you will need to ask yourselves to ensure your company offering is fit for a digital future.

The 2019 OUTiCO market research demonstrated that many HCPs gather their information from multiple sources, and this will only continue to evolve. However, despite the focus on digital change, there is some interesting data from Across Health that demonstrated a pre-pandemic reduction in marketing spend related to digital initiatives – perhaps an indication of the importance of digital pre pandemic. Surely this downward trend will not continue as we move forward?

The survey from Across Health also looked at the attitudes of internal personnel on digital transformation, with either 59% or 50% expressing dissatisfaction on the digital journey. With Millennials already making up the largest generational workforce, and Gen Z (the true digital natives) hot on their heels, there is no question that we need to take digital strategies seriously.

Digitally savvy generation

The pandemic has undoubtedly advanced individual capability to use digital tech, and we know from experience that a high proportion of HCPs are happy to receive brand information without dedicating time to face-to-face visits. We can also reflect on the fact that most other industries that sale consumer products, wouldn’t contemplate a face-to-face ‘cold call’ philosophy as their primary communication model. So why is the narrative pertaining to the ‘old normal’ gathering pace? Was it a good normal, or just the norm that has underpinned so many of our working lives? (We’ve always done it this way…).

Imagine an HCP who knows they need to interact with the industry but prefers the telephone or email. It was slightly arrogant before the pandemic to assume that they have the time and inclination to see us? Post the pandemic the same clinician may not be quite so tolerant of a representative’s visit – particularly if a previous remote engagement supplied the required information to successfully use your brand. It’s simply a more customer centric way of operating.

Moving forward

As an industry there is a long way to go on the digital journey, however, the pandemic has created a unique opportunity to move this to the top of your agenda and to forge better customer relationships. We don’t believe this is the end of the sales professional, but for us to deliver on our obligation to the HCPs, it is clear how we operate and interact with them needs to evolve to meet the needs of the digital age. Those who embrace the forced change of a pandemic will be the ones who improve both the quality and quantity of their HCP engagement.

At Star OUTiCO we believe Digital Transformation is a synergy of 4 interrelated components: People; Partnerships; Processes; Platforms. If the people who receive and deliver the brand information have fundamentally changed, shouldn’t your strategy change too?

If you’re choosing a partner to drive your transition, Star OUTiCO has the experience, competence, and flexibility to provide a bespoke digital consultancy and transformation that’s built around the needs of your business. To find out more get in touch today.

What We Do NEW

By Paul Black, Managing Director, 86 Degrees Ltd. On behalf of Star OUTiCO Ltd.

References:

1.GP Appointment Publication, Sept 2020

2.The impact of Covid-19 on the use of digital technology in the NHS, Nuffield Trust, Aug 2020

3.‘BMA Covid-19 tracker’, British Medical Association (2020)

4. Patient Experience of Remote Consultations during the COVID-19 Pandemic, Oxleas NHS Foundation Trusts

5. Across Health Multichannel Maturometer 2019

6. Dell technologies report: (Realizing 2030: A Divided Vision of the Future)