di , 17/05/2023

For anyone who has worked in life sciences for more than ten years, you will recognize that the ‘future of field forces’ has been a hot topic for some time. We seem to have gone through several phases of prediction, none of which have proven particularly reliable.

In the early 2010s, when hype about digital transformation of life sciences was at its peak, the ‘death’ of the sales rep was loudly proclaimed, with the potential for online channels to deliver an efficiency in engaging HCPs that a fully loaded rep spending time driving around could not match. But here we are, in 2023, and it hasn’t come to pass.

Then, the narrative moved onto the concept of the ‘orchestrator rep’, who would remain as the central controller of dialogue with the HCP, empowered by an array of digital channels and novel content formats, to help them put all the notes together into a beautiful brand symphony, rather like the conductor of an orchestra. Again, while we are seeing progress, we still have some way to go before this becomes a reality.

And here we are in 2023, and everyone is now talking about Artificial Intelligence and ChatGPT, in the context of how it could replace reps (and many other roles). Do I think it will? Well, as financial advisors would say, “past performance is not an indicator of future success”, but I think this prediction will also prove to be not entirely correct.

So, what is the future of the field force?

Well, as is often the case, the reality is a little bit more nuanced. I’ve said before that we need to move away from this notion of ‘digital versus person’, or ‘offline versus online’, because in reality we need both.

The last few years of Covid have, to me, clearly demonstrated two things. Firstly, digital has been vastly underutilized and the only barrier to its adoption if changing people’s behavior (which is a pretty big one, to be fair). Secondly, as human beings we crave actual interaction with people and even the best digital engagement cannot replace this (OK introverts, I hear you, but it’s generally true).

The future of the field force is therefore about enabling reps (and MSLs) to smartly use both face-to-face interactions and digital channels to take customers on a journey, knowing which piece of information is relevant to which customer at each specific moment. In effect, I do believe in the ‘orchestrator’ principle, but it’s just taken us a while to get there.

A few pieces are now finally dropping into place to enable this to happen:

  • CRM systems that are integrated across central teams (marketing, medical) and field forces, allowing coordinated data capture and visibility on activities.
  • Dynamic customer experience architecture, rather than static personas, which enables building of a more realistic customer journey that can adapt over time, as customers evolve their thinking.
  • Modular content approaches, which enable field forces with ‘bite size’ chunks of the brand story (and more nimble content approval processes to facilitate this).
  • Better training and incentives for field forces, aligned to this new paradigm and moving away from archaic measures like ‘call frequency.’

This is all helped by more digitally native individuals coming into both the field force and central marketing and medical roles, plus now also emerging into senior decision-making positions.

But there is another key aspect to where I see the future of field forces heading, which is better coordination across silos, especially marketing and medical.

I know that there are entirely valid reasons why, from a regulatory perspective, life science companies (and I’m focusing here more on the prescription pharmaceutical industry) have firewalls between the medical teams, who focus on ‘above brand’ science, and the commercial brand teams.

However, when you put yourself in the shoes of a customer (the HCP), it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have two disparate groups of people coming to you telling you different parts of what should be one big, cohesive story.

To adopt a truly customer-centric way of engaging, the industry needs to find a way to tackle these compliance issues and have a single in-field person coordinating their messaging for the customers (ideally across therapeutic areas and products, but in the short-term at least within each brand). This individual could then truly coordinate the needs of a customer on-demand, delivering to them the right above brand and product information, when they need it.

As an aside, I reference this more coordinated approach in an article I wrote pre-Covid, called ‘Building a new type of pharmaceutical company – a vision for pharma 2.0’.

It might sound like a challenge to achieve this, given the decades-old internal silos that have been built up around different functions, but some companies are exploring this very route. Initially, these experiments are focused on key accounts, where a central Key Account Manager is coordinating with other functions, but I think this model will expand.

Finally, what about the potential for the AI to disrupt the model?

I am a firm believer in the adage of ‘a good [insert role here] who uses AI is better than a good [insert role here] or AI alone’. OK, so my version isn’t the snappiest quote, but it does apply to so many roles inside life sciences and beyond.

The point is that AI has a very valid place in helping the field force move customers along a meaningful journey, including factoring into things like ‘next best action’ to suggest what should come next. But you still need, in my view, the intuition and emotional intelligence of the human being to interpret this.

To come back to the question in the headline – yes, I do think it’s time to repurpose the rep (or MSL) – and has been for a while, but we’re finally seeing the combination of technology, process adjustment, training and behavior change all come together to deliver this.