The case for aligning MSLs with sales reps is strong — if both sides play ball.
For all its cons, living in a time of rampant consumerism does have its pros. Customers now have more choice than ever, can largely choose how they want it, when they want it, and have (by and large) developed a keener sense of knowing when they are being sold to.
The upshot is that brands have had to become more sophisticated; upping their authenticity game to get customers to sign on the dotted line.
The same logic applies to HCPs interacting with pharma companies. HCPs favour MSLs over sales reps because their scientific know-how projects an air of authenticity that their commercially driven colleagues struggle to emulate.
Yet equally as important to customers is brand consistency — external stakeholders see pharmaceutical companies as one entity at the end of the day. Surely greater alignment between the two customer-facing roles smacks of common sense?
For Patrik Grandits, head of commercial operations oncology Europe at Daiichi Sanky, the question is a rhetorical one. Alignment is already underway, he says.
“Probably one of the biggest shifts we see right now is that the two parties are no longer separated but actually work hand in hand with the customer,” he says. “MSLs are becoming more actively involved with the sales team in order to help them better understand the science behind the products and the disease area with the effect that the sales teams’ ability to offer consultancy services increases.”
Grandits believes close collaboration of marketing and all customer-facing roles enables the development of stronger relationships with identified target customers, creating a win-win situation for all.
The onus is primarily on marketing teams to foster these interdepartmental collaborations, he adds.
“Real-time information sharing of true insights and cross-functional collaboration between all countries are the two main aspects that marketing must ensure in order to deliver a consistent and aligned customer experience.”
At the heart of operations lies the Daiichi Sankyo Account Engine Model. It serves as the basis for the company’s whole oncology business in Europe and, Grandits says, provides customers with real value.
The model is characterised by its uniform identification of customer needs and cross-functional collaboration of all teams, creating an integrated, transparent system in which learnings and strategies are shared between all countries.
Its implementation, explains Grandits, required an inversion of the traditional pharma value chain from pushing products to winning customers – or partners, as the company prefers to call them – by working together with them.
He says that by supporting the planning, sharing and execution of best practices as well as insight generation, the marketing team can best understand the breadths of insight and potential impact for their customers, which ultimately encourages a cross-functional dialogue.
“Thereby, the proactive identification of emerging new customer needs and their overlaps across countries are as important as their translation into tailor-made solutions and relevant initiatives.”
He says Daiichi Sankyo is also now hiring sales people who are “fundamentally scientific”, many of whom hold PhDs and have written scientific papers. This is, he says, because the level of new information in oncology is very high and customers want quality and relevant information delivered by a scientifically literate person.
“Equally important is to hire people with the right mindset and attitude that support our operating model. We need very entrepreneurial and forward-thinking people in all areas of the business who adapt easily to a rapidly changing environment,” says Grandits.
“Where other companies may have a ratio of five commercial leads to one MSL, we aim at having one representative operating alongside one MSL on an equal footing,” he adds.
He predicts the sales model will continue to transform and in the future selling will become a natural procedure when a customer is offered help with something they need to do.
“Drugs that are not adding the value that customers require will become obsolete,” he concludes.
Hubert Bland, country medical chair and medical head diabetes and cardiovascular at Sanofi, believes integrating the teams is not necessarily the marketing team’s role, but rather the responsibility of the sales reps and the MSLs themselves.
At Sanofi, he explains, team meetings are integrated, which enable the MSL, the account executive and outcome managers to work together at territory level to ensure that customers have the very best experience of the company.
“As marketing develops the campaigns, it is essential that both sales representatives and MSLs have a clear understanding, so any roll out activity should include both teams.
“The strategy, activities and key deliverables will be different to achieve the overall objective,” he says, “but the customer should always feel that Sanofi puts the patient at the centre of all we do.”
He thinks the key ingredient is clear communication of the overarching vision from the leaders to all customer-facing teams.
“It is essential that there is a common vision, which has been generated by the leadership team, that is shared and promoted throughout all functions,” he says.
“This should lead to a clear understanding of the roles and the responsibilities of the promotion versus the non-promotional teams throughout the business.”
The MSLs, considered to be therapy experts, also deliver clinical and disease training to all other departments as required and requested. They work closely with the training department to ensure alignment and explore gaps in learning.
Insights gathered by MSLs in the course of their daily activity, are now collated and presented back at leadership team meetings, often leading to readjustment of tactics and decision-making using real time data, says Bland.
Both Daiichi Sankyo and Sanofi have embraced the notion of collaboration in a bid to align the roles of MSL and sales rep in the most effective way.
But there are still those who are adamant that blurring the lines leaves the area too easily open to misinterpretation and raises many compliance issues.
There are others who believe it is short-sighted to invest heavily in an MSL workforce – because they are the ones who currently have most access – and a longer-term approach whereby the sales force model is adapted to the changing landscape should be adopted.
What is certain is that MSLs add value, they are trusted by clinicians and have enabled trust to be rebuilt. Could greater alignment with the sales force taint that relationship or is it naïve to think that by approaching KOLs from a purely clinical perspective, companies could be missing a valuable opportunity?