Sumeet Chandna on Building Pharma Sales of the Future

In Conversation with Sumeet Chandna, Head of Digital Transformation at Cipla India. Sumeet is a Commercial and Strategy Leader with over 18 years of experience driving growth and change in international, multi-business corporations.  In this chat with Anant Sood, Sumeet explores the world of Behavior Science and the future of pharma sales. Find out how organizations like Cipla have kept their teams engaged and motivated and are delving into how behavior science can help improve the future of work for their teams.

Challenges in Pharma

Anant: You’ve seen sales transformation and productivity both as an advisor and as an operator. Over the last decade, what are some of the challenges that reps have faced and what are some challenges that have changed now?

Sumeet:  Honestly, the pharma industry has been a laggard in adopting digital transformation and we’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible in this industry.

Looking at the commercial operating model of Pharma, in the branded generic context, a brand has a limited ability to differentiate itself. The problem has only been exacerbated with time because of more brand launches, more local players etc. The premise of promoting a product depended on the relationship a rep enjoyed with his doctor. Anecdotally there was a time when doctors would write more for companies whose rep’s name was more top of the mind!

Pre-COVID, a rep could barely get 60 seconds of the doctor’s time in private, standing with five competitors who are selling the same sort of therapies, trying to differentiate his brand. The industry had been struggling with marginal utilization of resources, assets, and digital was a far cry.

Then comes COVID, lockdowns, doctors are not reachable and now the only way is digital. Many companies had a knee-jerk response, giving all the tools to the rep to connect with his doctor digitally. And simultaneously moved from relationship-based marketing to more content-based marketing by building a content engine.

So, from being rep-led to content-led, from being implicit-relationship based to explicit content-based, that’s the journey which the pharma industry is just moving to.

Changing role of a medical rep

A: In that case, do you see the role of the rep diminishing or increasing as we go along?

S:  Now that the Reps are digitally enabled, there is a lot of scope to improve his productivity. And we’ve seen that happen. However, the larger bet is to use the time of the rep in building real meaningful relationships, which goes beyond scientific content sharing.

Leveraging digital will help boost the productivity of reps. The question of whether it would diminish the importance of a rep is a little far-fetched. In India, the market is still on a growth curve. The opportunity size in terms of the number of patients a doctor can actually meet has a further scope to increase. When the practice of doctors multiplies using digital, the value of the rep will stay.

For the innovative brand, the role of content multiplies 5x; doctors are hungry to know more about studies for the latest drugs and sciences that are emerging. However, the channel of delivery may be different – a doctor may be interested to hear more from an MSL (Medical Liaison Officer). Digital tools such as remote calling are strengthening those conversations more effectively.

Redefining Productivity

A: Given lack of physical access to doctors, has the notion of what makes a productive Rep changed for leaderships?

S: We’ve been trying to make our reps digitally literate. Those reps who have used their tools much more naturally have started scoring more on virtual engagement with doctors. Some reps have been able to use digital tools to sense the doctor’s needs better, sense patient footfall in the clinic and are using their listening skills more. I think those reps are leading the way in terms of being able to engage with the doctors.

We’re seeing past relationships become a precursor for doctors to engage digitally a lot more, with the company, not just the rep.

However, I think COVID became a leveler; everyone was in need of each other. Reps who were available to the doctors for causes beyond business were able to build a rapport. In turn, it ended up helping them in their lead indicators. Later on, the reps could have a much better conversation, as they were available to the doctor at the time.

A: As a consequence, are the metrics of how you’re measuring your Reps changing now?

S: They are. Metrics are a lot more loaded digitally. But we’re not yet sure if they are the right metrics. The lead-lag correlation was not very scientific to begin with. In the digital world it is better, because there’s less influence of a person’s personality (less bias). But we’re still in the process of discovery and experimenting.

Using Behavior Science to Boost Productivity

 A: Are there any technologies that you are experimenting with right now?

S: The fundamental shift that we brought in was nudging the field force. We’re working with worxogo and we’ve had a great experience. It was the need of the hour.

Coincidentally, we had done a pilot pre-Covid. When COVID hit, we found that it was the right time to take it to all the teams.

The ability to remotely nudge a rep based on what motivates him is very empowering.

It takes away a lot of challenges that we earlier faced in terms of the biases of a manager or the availability of a manager to review a rep or go through all the metrics.

This whole platform helped to provide real-time personalized coaching to the reps. I think it’s a fundamental change on the capability side the organization is going through and worxogo has a hand to play in it. So, thank you for that!

A: Is there a move in organizations to start using the behavior data that they collect?

S: Behavior data for us right now is only internal. Learning about how well a field manager uses our behavior nudge tool to send kudos to reps, how often he tells his team to catch up on the metrics that they are being nudged on – tells us a lot about the behavior of the managers. It’s been interesting to learn about different managerial styles. We’ve used that information to start curating our training programs. It’s also helped us understand who are the right managers for Cipla in the future. Those have been interesting internal case studies.

Changing roles of a Manager

A: Data apart, do you see the role of managers changing, now that it is getting some attention?

S: It is already changing, because they are all now working remotely. Managing a team remotely is different from managing a team physically. In the physical environment, a lot of show and tell is what the manager would end up doing. But today we have digital videos available at hand.

So, a manager has to evolve because all that he thought was his job now can be done digitally to some extent. He needs to engage the field in a very different way. One of the examples here would be how he reads data, or how he uses his time to support those reps who need it and reduce effort towards someone who it is self-driven and in right direction.

Managers have a lot of unlearning to do.

One of the big lessons which digital transformation is teaching us is how to build leaders around us. Because there are so many things that are getting automated. And once they are automated, you can allow somebody in your team to graduate himself, because he has access to a lot more than before, instead of spoon-feeding it to him.

I think there are role changes we are all going through.

A: Do you see managers becoming redundant, now that reps have more access to the information and self-learning?

S: No, I think everyone, even CEOs need coaches. The need gap in the industry is so huge, it will take a while for reaching a point where a doctor’s needs are met. So, the quality of manpower will have to improve, the kind of effort the field force puts in will have to change. But managers will stay. It’s not easy to keep the doctor community engaged.

The Subtle Art of Nudging

A: What are a couple of one or two pointers you’d like to give to other business leaders, who are on the fence of thinking whether behavior science is worth giving a shot or not?

S: One is to understand what they’re getting into because behavior science is a subtle art. It may not show results in a quick time. Get into it only if there is enough maturity in the ecosystem to absorb the change.

Secondly, there is no magic wand. It takes a great deal of effort to drive behavior change using any of the available tools. Eventually, it’s about change management. So, if you don’t have enough change agents, then it’s not the right time to get into it.

Define the use cases, don’t go in for the short-haul, have change agents to drive the transformation, and then embrace the change.

We were very happy to dispel some of our notions when we began this journey. We had underestimated the power of it. Only with time, we understood that the more we embraced it, the more we could make use of it for the longer term.

 A: Could you quote one example of a first-hand experience where your notions were proved or disproved?

S: For us a big question was whether my rep would be able to stand the ground in front of a doctor when he’s facing the hard questions. We never thought a tool like this could help us there. But when we started using the quizzes on the platform, we found a lot of good traction there. It gave us a lot of insights as to who are the people who could understand what is being taught to them. That was a great feedback to improve the quality of what the rep is learning. Small thing but we were surprised that it could be that powerful.

Future of Work

A: Do you see teams going back to the old way of working, once the Covid crisis ends, or has the sales process fundamentally shifted?

S: No, I don’t think it goes back to the old days. Maybe it goes back 60% or 40%, but it’ll never be the same again. There’s been habit-forming at every level. Customers are used to the digital channels; reps are comfortable with it. There are benefits of not spending energy on conveyance or unnecessarily sitting over a cup of tea to discuss something that can be done over a call.

So, I think the expectation in regards to giving physical facetime to each other would go up. The demand or the preparation required for that interaction will also go up, which is a good thing.

A: Highlight some of the significant disruptions you foresee in the future of work – over the next four or five years – tech and non-tech.

S:  Current times are showing us that we can be productive while working remotely. The traditional structures of teams are already breaking and evolving. In a full day at work, I am no longer constrained to spending 8-9 hours in the office. I have the flexibility to collaborate with more people when I am working remotely. I can form a lot more project-specific set of teams, which are very fungible. They come together for a purpose and disband quickly. I think we’ll see that culture a lot more and that fungibility has to be exploited a lot more.

There is a need for agility.

My guess is you’ll need to have quarterly goals and ensure that you can achieve those 8-10 projects in that quarter and then revisit your goals for the next quarter. The scope of what we’re doing is changing and a lot of times it’s the first time we’re doing something. If you don’t depend on others and collaborate effectively, you won’t be able to deliver.

So my sense is the life of a goal sheet will crash and the number of people that you work within a quarter will increase multifold. The tech is already enabling us. A lot more structure around that will evolve and that will help us to accomplish a lot more.


A: In that context, do you see the definition of resilience for individuals or teams changing?

S: I think we all have personally and professionally realized what all we can do when we are pushed to adopt new behaviors. In terms of resilience, these times have taught us to accept the new that’s happening around us.

These are times when we have to consciously work on adopting the new.

For a team leader – adopt all the new patterns that are emerging, keep executive powers to the minimum, build leaders in different spheres, learn from team members and respect differences. These are things that are the need of the hour.

For a resilient person or an organization, these are critical sets of behaviors that need to be imbibed a lot more. I think we should reflect on being able to live them, which is not easy because we are unlearning what experience has taught us. These are times when we have to consciously work on adopting the new.