Building a force of virtual pharma sales reps

Pharma has always been built upon an army of sales reps, but COVID-19 has transformed the landscape and shifted the foundations.

Infection control measures, HCP workloads, and an increase in clinicians conducting remote consultations while working from home have made rep visits unviable during the pandemic.

According to data from Accenture, 64% of meetings between healthcare workers and pharma sales reps were held in person before March 2020. Three months later, 65% were virtual.

It may have been an enforced change, but it is one that seems as though it is here to stay. Of the 43% of HCPs who said they were restricting access to sites, 28% said they saw this change becoming permanent. A total of 44% said the restrictions would last “for the foreseeable future”.


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A US survey, by consultancy firm Bain & Company, found that 77% of doctors preferred in-person visits from pharma sales reps prior to COVID-19. Just 40% expressed the same preference going forward.

It seems healthcare workers have thrown off their long-held scepticism of the quality of digital interaction and information and provided pharmaceutical companies an opportunity to reinvent their offering, provide added value, and stand out from the crowd.


Whether virtual or in-person, the most valuable element of sales stays the same. The relationship between reps and HCPs is paramount and should not be overlooked in the shift to digital.

This was demonstrated in data published by Veeva, which showed that emails sent from reps to HCPs attracted a 37% open rate, compared to just 3% for those sent by headquarters.

The Accenture survey, however, revealed that while reps were communicating with HCPs more than ever during the pandemic, 57% of doctors thought they were “failing to understand the real impact of COVID-19 on them”.

Industry must be mindful to preserve the “soft” outcomes of face-to-face interactions. Without strong relationships, reps cannot respond to HCP need – and without responding to HCP need, reps can find it difficult to build relationships. Two-way communication and trust create feedback loops that need to be preserved.


Rather than a wholesale shift to digital, the future of rep/HCP relations is likely to be a hybrid one. After all, if 2020 taught us anything, it is that no one wants to live in a virtual world all the time.

Most healthcare workers say they expect future communication modes to be relevant to the purpose – or don’t plan a meeting when an email will do.

Of course, some interactions, such as product evaluation, support, and training, for example, will still benefit hugely from the in-person approach. Others, such as sharing data or sales aids, can be done online.

Getting the right message, at the right person, through the right channel, will require content that is targeted both to the recipient and to the mode of delivery. As such, companies could benefit from removing roadblocks to sharing such content, by thinking about simplified approval processes that take account of this new, multi-channel mode of working.

The mode of pharma sales might be changing, but the fundamentals – trusted relationships and giving HCPs what they need – remain the same.

By making better use of social media, including encrypted channels where appropriate, to build relationships and understand need, and by sharing informative, engaging content that responds to that need, companies can move the closed feedback loop of the in-person sales model online.

Get in touch with our team today to find out how PR and content marketing can enhance your business strategy. Email: [email protected]


Read more: Medical meetings are history – so what’s next for pharma communications?


The Henley Group is a B2B PR and comms agency, based in Henley-on-Thames, UK. We specialise in public relations, strategic consulting, corporate communications and content marketing for clients in the UK and overseas.  We advise, plan, produce and deliver engaging PR and content programmes for clients in a range of B2B sectors.