Can AI bring you closer to the customer?
Recently, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel for the 2021 NEXT Normal digital pharma summit. The conference was a great opportunity to hear from a wealth of industry experts on digital transformation in life sciences, and our panel was no exception. One the Let the Data Tell the Story panel were Jérôme de Larosière, Head of Marketing Rare Disease at Ipsen US, and ODAIA’s VP of Commercial and Life Sciences, Orchid Jahanshahi.
The panelists covered a lot of ground, but here are the highlights and some great takeaways for anyone interested in the role of data and AI in pharma sales.
Digital Transformation Is about New Opportunities
Jérôme highlighted a number of areas, both medical and commercial, where technology can address unmet needs for pharma companies. In Ipsen’s focus on helping bring life-altering medicines to rare diseases, which has unique challenges, there is a need to educate physicians on how to identify patients to avoid misdiagnosis and mistreatment. New technological tools may also allow companies to better understand patient journeys outside of academic settings and support underdeveloped care pathways. “There are opportunities to leverage digital innovation to help address each of those three challenges. And we have only explored a fraction of them.”
“The Pandemic Has Been an Accelerator”
Both Orchid and Jérôme emphasized the impact of the pandemic on digital transformation, and the added digital platforms are now an established reality. As Jérôme’s points out, “The pandemic has been an accelerator. It has driven the adoption of new tools and new ways of working, both on commercial teams and on the HCP side.” Not only have HCPs shifted to using more virtual tools, noted Orchid, but surveys show that these changes will be permanent.
Pharma companies are also testing and rolling out innovative ideas faster than before. Jérôme gave the examples of building a fully remote go-to-market approach, and setting up a virtual “center of excellence” to link academic and community centres to accelerate information sharing - two initiatives that would have taken much longer to implement before the pandemic.
Paradoxically, the pandemic has also served to break down barriers of distance. As Orchid notes, with digital transformation, “Geographies matter less, so competition can get around fast too!” Importantly, however, the role of the sales rep has never been more paramount. Some customers are actually spending more time with pharma in digital forums, but they expect higher value from each interaction. The rep has become more than a gatekeeper…Their role is now to “orchestrate” all the ways to deliver what the HCP values the most in near-real time.
“We Want to Avoid Our Blind Spots”
With the growth of data analytics driven by AI and data mining, pharma can both reinforce old methods of analytics and enable entirely new ones. In the case of old methods that are being reinvented, Jérôme gave the example of market research surveys: “Real time data mining can help generate new insights as well as inform future qualitative research”, leading to a virtuous cycle of improved accuracy and insight.
Both panelists talked about the importance of speed. As Jérôme put it, with data mining, “Segmentation can be dynamic where market factors come into play, and sales and marketing teams can see in near-real-time the impact of rep behaviour on specific activities of the HCPs and adjust their tactics accordingly.”
One of the main advantages of AI is the ability to find insights that are obscure, or even counterintuitive, to human analysts. Jérôme emphasized the commercial value here: “We want to avoid our blind spots and find customers we didn’t know we had”. By insisting on the use of data to validate assumptions, there will be a shift from establishing trends—based on history and assumptions—to faster, more accurate, and predictive methods. In Orchid’s words: “Letting the data tell the story instead of the traditional top-down, rules-based approach [...] allows real-time adjustments to be made to old assumptions. Course-correction becomes more agile.”
Digital Needs to Be Part of the Entire Planning Process
Operationalizing digital transformation is going to mean incorporating it into every part of the business and every stage of decision-making. Jérôme stressed the importance of creating a dynamic planning process that incorporates data and digital technologies at its heart. Data shouldn’t just be used to develop tactics, but to inform brand planning through better insights generation and resource allocation from the beginning of the process. “Getting senior management buy-in is key”.
Field teams also need to be part of the transformation. As Orchid put it: “We want to energize the sales force”. Frontline personnel like sales reps need to see the value of the new digital methods they adopt. Simply implementing new platforms with a strict POA isn’t enough: they need to embrace the AI-powered technology as a “friend” that augments their intelligence, not replaces it.
“Content is King, But Context Is Queen”
One of the advantages of digital transformation may be increased HCP engagement. In Jérôme’s words: “HCPs are seeing the benefits of multilateral engagements because they can now choose what they want to consume, when they want and how they want to engage with us.”
HCPs can easily feel overwhelmed by the data available, so communication needs to be done in a way that is tailored to them and to their patients’ life needs—the age of email blasts is over. “It does raise the bar for the pharma industry, who need to deliver valuable content to the customer and enrich the experience as there is now less reliance on personal relations.”
Pick Your Battles
Finally, Jérôme noted the importance of scaling up innovations. This requires making decisions quickly and not over-extending the pilot phase. An iterative approach (versus a step-wise one) allows pharma to meet the opportunities created by AI/advanced analytics, and have the innovations come alive in addressing real business needs quickly in a competitive environment. “Being a mid-sized organization, we can’t go in every direction. We need to be very focused on a few digital and advanced analytics initiatives that are fully aligned with our strategic objectives and, once we have identified those ideas, look to deploy them quickly at scale across our markets and franchise.”
By Helen Kontozopoulos
Chief Tech Evangelist and Co-founder, ODAIA
Adjunct Professor, University of Toronto, Department of Computer Science