Pandemic Pushes Pharma Sales Into Virtual World. Will it Last?

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With the spread of the novel coronavirus across the globe, pharmaceutical companies have had to adjust operations to protect their employees. That protection has led to the reduction of staff who can work in laboratories at one time and has also vastly cut down on face-to-face interactions at conferences and between sales representatives and their clients.

As the coronavirus began to see a wider impact across the globe, dozens of conferences opted to either reschedule for a later date or hold the meetings on a virtual platform in order to prevent the spread of the disease. That decision has been underscored by the number of COVID-19 cases that can be traced to a management meeting at Biogen in February. More than 100 people who attended that meeting have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

In addition to the impact on conferences and large meetings, many companies have implemented restrictions on face-to-face meetings between sales reps and clients. For every Amarin, Amgen and Merck that announced their plans to halt sales interactions, dozens of other companies followed suit. While some sales reps are now unable to meet with their clients, it has created a new opportunity for some representatives to dive deeper into virtual sales meetings.

Valentina Gburcik, senior director of Cardiovascular and Metabolic Diseases, Gender Health and Digital at the analyst firm GlobalData, said virtual platforms are seeing a boost in activity from the pandemic.

“The shift from in-person to digital is seen in advertising, medical conferences and sales rep meetings with physicians. Virtual health tools are already there enabling companies to have broader engagement with patients and physicians throughout various phases of the patient journey. Sales forces from pharma companies are now using this technology, even more, to interact virtually with physicians - particularly during the COVID-19 outbreak,” Gburcik said in a statement.

Will this reliance on virtual platforms last beyond the pandemic? Gburcik speculates that it most certainly can. She said businesses and individuals have become more reliant on virtual tools over the past decade and that could increase due to the pandemic – even after vaccines and drugs have been developed to fight the disease. Pharma sales teams and physician clients could get used to the “new reality,” Gburcik said, which could increase the use of virtual meeting tools for that part of the industry.

However, Gburcik noted that in-person meetings have distinct advantages, due to being able to observe body language and facial expressions that “can better convey a message and create a deeper bond with a customer.” By not being able to meet in-person, Gburcik said that could lead to a “weaker influence” of sales reps and hinder sales.

“Nevertheless, the ever-increasing internet speed, with 5G on our doorstep, and evolving video conferencing software such as WebEx, Zoom and Skype for Business will somewhat alleviate these problems,” she said. “It remains to be seen whether the current extraordinary and testing circumstances will push humanity further into virtual space with little hope to go back to where we were before the pandemic struck.”

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