Pharma Business Events & COVID-19

Interview Transcript

Article | Pharma Business Events & COVID-19
20th April 2020 Atheneum Team

Expert Profile


Vice President of Business Development


Pharmaceutical Services Company


With more than 20 years of experience in senior business development and sourcing roles for the pharmaceutical industry, with major players. The expert has significant knowledge in business development across both direct and indirect category areas, with substantial expertise in driving robust and innovative sourcing and selling approaches across Europe and the US.

Section 1: The Status Quo

1.1. How would you describe sales and business development in pharma events before the outbreak of COVID-19?

There’s been a want to move to digitalization for many years. Personally though, what I’ve seen in the industry, that’s a want from, I wouldn’t say a sales rep point of view or people on the ground, because ultimately nothing really can replace a face to face interaction when who you’re trying to sell to is so imperatively important. Since the lockdown, trying to do new business has been very difficult.
I think a want to tick numbers and get more people seen, digitalization obviously does the job, and that’s better for senior management to be able to think that they’re clocking up numbers and presenting KPIs. Personally, I don’t know if that is a valid strategy because ultimately, ticking boxes and just going from one sale/interaction to another, is not the same.

Personally, I would rather spend more time with one client, knowing that I’m going to close the deal, rather than trying to tick as many boxes. It’s quite a short-term approach because sales are about relationships and you can’t build relationships via digital means. You can try over the phone, Zoom and Skype but how many people are comfortable sitting in front of a computer, looking at a camera with people across? For me, and I know from a number of, particularly in the industry in which I work, I know that personal interaction and relationship is key.

1.2. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, what were the emerging industry trends towards sales and business development approaches in pharma?

There were moves towards webinars and WebEx but I can’t help but feel that it’s a senior management fad, that is, “Right, we’re going to cut down on travel, we’re going to cut down on the amount of time that gets wasted between people going to see their people, to cut down travel expenses. Are we going to pull a load of money into having conference rooms and TCs, where everybody can see each other?”

Ultimately, I’ve been in the industry 20 plus years, and from one of the manufacturing sites that I started at, it was like, “Wow, this is the room where you have the video conference in it. Isn’t it great? And you can do it and you can see everybody.” That’s alright for internal meetings but do you want to be doing that with someone you’re trying to sell to?

I think senior management are trying to push this, and I believe that the foot soldiers are against it. I don’t know anybody that is involved in the closing of a deal who thinks it’s better to do this by either telecommunication or via a computer.

Section 2: Trial Period

2.1. Could you elaborate on how COVID-19 has disrupted sales and business development at pharma events?

Ultimately there’s very little you can do to counteract the effects of COVID-19 on sales and business development. You can try to engage people on phones and try to set up Zoom meetings, but believe me, that’s been a struggle. The reason being is that for the last, I’m going to say 10 years, there’s been this massive shift in pharma to reduce what’s known as working capital. So, the stock that they’ve kept. There’s been billions and billions of pounds pumped into these programs, almost just in time management.

Obviously, that’s not easy in pharmaceuticals. It takes months in the supply chain as your API needs to be made and be readily available. So, what’s happened, with this working capital program is that big pharma has been trying to take billions of dollars out of their inventory has all gone down the swanny over the last four to five weeks because they haven’t got enough product, and everybody is massively scrambling.

There has been a huge reliance on China and India for a lot of pharmaceuticals, and therefore, supply chain is in disarray because they don’t know whether they’re getting product. So really, the focus has been less on new business, it’s all been about more of the same and getting stocks up.

If you’re trying to talk to, whether it be a GP or a hospital or a company trying to sell your manufacturing capabilities, at the moment, everybody is presenting their shortage list. In the case of the UK it’s magnesium sulfate, Rocuronium and Vecuronium. To give an example, in France over the last five weeks, the demand for anesthesia products, anesthetic products has gone up 2000%.

So, what that means is if you’re selling anesthesia, either manufacturing capability or product, you’re laughing in one respect, because your job has been made easier because it’s just more of the same. If you’re not though, then it’s a challenge. If you’re trying to do something that’s not related to COVID and there isn’t an indication that can support the actual treatment of what’s going on in the hospitals, then you’re on a bit of a hiding to nothing to get people’s attention.

2.2. What measures are being taken to counteract the cancellation of pharma events and F2F interactions?

Externally for business development phone interactions have been dominating over other means such as Zoom etc. These are used more internally. At the moment business development is being restricted to trying to keep current business rather than expanding and therefore ensuring the upkeeping of current clients is the most important.

2.3. Which solutions are proving to be the most popular forms of interaction?

I think that the phone, for me is still the most important piece of equipment that I own. At least I don’t need to see somebody trying to do business development without it. For me, one of the biggest conferences that we have is in March and that got canned two weeks before it was supposed to happen. That was devastating for the industry in which I work in, for my sector of pharmaceuticals. It was devastating because I personally had 40 face to face meetings set up and I haven’t been able to replicate those 40 meetings, even since the 23rd of March.

New business development has been tough and unless as a company you’re supporting COVID, there’s a big struggle here. There are companies out there that are saying, “Right, okay. We think we’ve got this,” the treatments and the vaccines that are being developed.

2.4. Are certain geographies more adept at adopting digital solutions than others? Who are the leaders in this?

With my experience, Asia is definitely an area where it’s been more utilized. If you look at the US, predominantly lot of my business is in US and Europe, and it’s slightly easier in Europe, to travel to all the major regional hubs as they are located close to each other.

You can’t do that in Asia and a lot of interaction go on between India, China, and Australia. You’re forced into a position where you’ve got to find other opportunities to have an interaction. I think just geography in Asia has pushed that and made that I would say more palatable. The regional hubs in Asia are located further apart from each other. Whereas, Europe and North America, not so much. It’s still heavily dependent on seeing people face to face.

2.5. Are there certain HCPs that are more welcoming to multichannel digital approaches when interacting with pharma companies?

In my opinion, the therapeutic area doesn’t matter because there’s still a person at the end that’s going to buy. Certain types of products require more interaction for example dermatology, but I don’t believe it will change the approach of the HCP towards face to face interactions.

Section 3: Breaking the Mould

3.1. Will there be future changes in sales and business development post COVID-19, representing a change in the status quo?

It’s a really good question, and constantly being asked because there’s going to be flash presidents, regional managers and GMs that are going to be saying, “Well you managed to do this when COVID was around, why can’t you do it now?” They will be trying to cut down on their expense budgets. Then again, for the masses, in my opinion, it’s going to be a case of, “Are you kidding me? This is the worst time of my life, not being able to see people.”

So personally, I think there’s a lot of coiled springs in the industry at the moment, that are just waiting for that relaxation to be able to just go and see people. Now, the way in which they see people is definitely going to be different. Obviously, you might not be shaking hands for example, that’s going to be different. But personally, I think there’s going to be two schools of thought. There is one that’s going to want this to be able to continue, but I’m not sure even the senior management can hold us to that. As we come out of this pharmaceutical high at the moment, as you say, if you’re making or selling things that can be connected with COVID, it’s happy days, isn’t it?

There is the shorted lists that just sit around the countries of the world, based on the fact that everybody’s been reducing their inventory, and also there’s been huge pressure on pricing for the products, that seems to have been relaxed as well at the moment, because they just want product, and the difference between somebody getting treated and somebody not getting treated is sometimes pennies.

I think that there’s going to be a want to get back to the way that we were. There’s going to be resistance from senior management, but ultimately maybe it won’t go back to the same, but I think personally, if I look at the people I speak to every single day, they just want to get to see people. They want to go out and they want to see people, because it’s been debilitating.

3.2. Is there the potential for a greater ‘multichannel’ interaction approach post COVID-19?

I think clients and HCPs will definitely be maybe more respondent to digital interactions now but to be honest I still expect the face to face interaction role to be the dominant segment once we are out of this crisis

3.3. Will more primary interactions be undertaken via digital rather than F2F means?

I’m not sure that it doesn’t already happen that way, except that it’s a phone call. Cold calling isn’t good, we know that and it’s not a preferred way. So generally, it starts with emails and then you set up a time to catch them on the phone and if there’s something that’s of interest, then you set up the face to face meeting. This digitalization, is it going to change much? Personally, I can’t see that there’s going to be that much of a shift. I just might be too long in the tooth to think that there is going to be such a massive change, but this whole personal thing, people have tried to push that away. Companies like the companies that I’ve worked with are trying to get rid of it, but ultimately, I think they’ve been unsuccessful.

3.4. Which geographies are most likely to become greater adopters of these hybrid ‘multichannel’ approaches in the future?

It’s a tough question, and I would be guessing as to where I think the change is going to be. If anywhere, I think perhaps the US because again the distances mean that public transport isn’t an option for them and as flights are not operating fully, they might have become more accustomed to digitization methods.

3.5. What digital channels are likely to emerge as the biggest disrupters to F2F interactions and pharma events post COVID-19?

I don’t really see the major companies such as Zoom or Skype becoming large disruptors for external business development. I still think that conversations over the phone are the preferred method for external pharma events and meetings.