Selling Pharmaceutical Products in a Difficult Environment


The COVID-19 crisis is creating an extraordinary strain on society. This is caused by the infection in itself, as well as the fear of infection, and the physical, emotional, and financial implications of physical distancing. In Nigeria, healthcare professionals (HCPs) are facing unprecedented challenges and the health system in general faces unprecedented financial issues.

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Pharm. Tunde Oyeniran

Across medical specialties and therapeutic areas, the treatment of patients has fundamentally changed. HCPs are rapidly adjusting how they deliver care (such as through increased use of telemedicine). As a result, the support they need from pharma companies, payers, and other stakeholders is also changing. The realistic view is that the effects of COVID-19 are not disappearing soon

Beyond that, however, pharma corporate leaders and industry leaders have to deal with the fact that the COVID-19 crisis will have knock-on effects for the broader pharma environment. This will happen in the following ways:

The underlying economic crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic will have a significant ripple effect on state and national budgets. Urgent and costly measures to shore up businesses and support individuals will force governments to contain outlays in every category, including healthcare.

The incremental innovation required for premium-priced drugs will continue to rise, as will pricing pressure on commodity products such as generics and biosimilars. Unfortunately, patients cannot absorb all of the increase in cost, thus squeezing profit, especially for the generic-drug marketers.

Pharma companies will delay some product launches, and those that go ahead may fall short of expectations. Leadership teams may face disrupted supply chains, delayed clinical trials and lack of access to physicians and other medical forums.

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More significantly, pharma executives will need to adjust go-to-market strategies for previously planned product launches.

The COVID-19 crisis has been a massive shock to the healthcare system in each of these areas — utilisation, adoption of new behaviours, and pharma engagement. A range of changes can be seen across specialties and geography. This variation is critical for pharma leaders in crafting effective strategies for crisis recovery.

For marketing and demand-generation teams, our initial observations and conclusions are:

Fewer patients seeing physicians and fewer prescriptions for most disease areas. Sales will struggle as a consequence of this.

Rising use of telemedicine, online CMEs and other remote tools does not offset the loss of in-person interactions. It only compliments it and improves reach.

The decline in pharma-healthcare professionals interaction is significant and will not return to normal levels anytime soon.

There is a need to revamp how to engage with healthcare practitioners and patients.

It is absolutely necessary to re-imagine what the commercial mix should be to accommodate new needs and preferences.

The above points are general, but the following are direct, practical recommendations that can be used immediately:

Manage your outstanding. Cash is the blood of any business, far more important than profitability for the short-term survival of the enterprise. It will be important that your sales force brings back money as quickly as possible. Sales managers and CEOs will need to enforce and encourage them to do this by putting up necessary policies, incentives, strategies, etc.

Demand-generation should never cease. Whatever happens, you cannot take a pause from the actions and activities to generate demand. You only need to ensure the field force does the needful in this regard. Ramp up motivation, sanctions, incentives and the necessary supervision to get this going. However this does not mean that you should take risks with the workers’  health, especially with respect to COVID-19

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Relationship building and marketing all the way. In times like this, strong relationship built over time with customers and HCPs comes handy to overcome the challenges of selling in a tough economic environment. If your team/company hasn’t built strong relationships yet, now is the time to focus on strengthening relationships and growing your market share. This can be taken a notch higher by institutionalising it and providing direct support for this effort.

Do more with technology and social media. In these days of social-distancing and other COVID-19 preventive protocols, leveraging technology to keep going while keeping safe has become imperative. Perhaps the only positive outcome of the pandemic has been greater acceptance of online interactions, meetings and trainings, with more personal investment in hardware, knowledge base and change of attitude than ever. All of these made it easier to use technology to reach, meet and interact with HCPs, customers and field staff. What is more, it is more flexible and cheaper than face-to-face meeting in most situations. Pharma company must maximize this opportunity by taking as much as possible their meetings, reporting,  CMEs, customer interactions, etc. to the cyberspace

Retailers’ influence is growing, and you need to latch on. Community pharmacists erect relatively little or no barrier against medical sales representatives and are therefore more available for them. Concomitantly, patients feel more secure from the risk of COVID-10 infection in pharmacies, and are taking their health challenges to them. I believe this trend will continue and most likely remain permanent. Traditionally, they represent the final leg of the route-to-the-market. They are therefore important to improve access to your drugs and shelf-presence. Pharmaceutical marketing companies need to shepherd their reps in this direction, in addition to developing long term relationship with them

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Succeed through follow-up and persistence. Successful companies know that follow-up and persistence win new business. When your clients/prospects are cash-strapped and stressed in their own ways, they may not respond to your calls and emails immediately. Remember, they have other priorities on their mind—don’t take it personally. Prioritise sustaining your connection with clients and prospects, trusting in the eventual gains. The biggest failings of companies are poor follow-up, no follow up, and giving up. As we all know, the work does not end with the sale.

People are assets, but that is only if they are disciplined, well- supervised and productive. In all of this, sales leaders know that people are central to success. So, do your best to take care of your people and be open about challenges and expectations. Take into considerations their challenges in the current environment. But it is important to provide adequate supervision and maintain discipline to keep productivity at the highest level possible.


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