EMD Serono & Aktana: Bringing Intelligent Engagement to Every Channel

Before the pandemic, EMD Serono equipped its entire US salesforce with AI-powered recommendations to drive better HCP engagement. When COVID-19 hit, they were uniquely positioned to navigate the uncertainty of market change, transition to remote engagement and personalize the customer experience for overwhelmed HCPs.

The last few months have certainly tested the life sciences commercial process. While there’s still plenty of uncertainty about the future, one thing is for sure: the new omnichannel engagement model is more important than ever before.

Watch this webinar to hear Joel VanderMeulen, Senior Director, N&I Commercial Strategy and Operations at EMD Serono, and Derek Choy, Co-founder and President at Aktana, discuss:

  • Emerging biopharma market trends in the post-COVID world
  • How commercial teams can adapt to the “next normal”
  • The three key components for successful omnichannel engagement


Webinar Transcript: 


Just a few technical notes before we begin. The webcast is being streamed through your computer so there is no dial-in number. For the best audio quality, please make sure your volume is up. This webinar is being recorded and will be available on demand within 24 hours after the event. Time permitting, we will follow the presentations with a Q&A session. Please submit your questions using the Questions and Answers tab on the left side of your screen.

Let’s begin now. Derek, please go ahead.

Derek Choy:

Thanks very much, Michael. Hi everyone, as Michael said, my name is Derek, Co-Founder and President at Aktana and I’m glad to be here virtually today with Joel VanderMeulen from EMD Serono. Joel, thank you so much for joining us.

Joel VanderMeulen:

Thanks for having me, Derek. My name is Joel VanderMeulen. As Derek said, I am the Senior Director of Commercial Strategy and Operations, I support both our neurology and immunology franchise, as well as our oncology franchise right now.

Derek Choy:

Awesome, thanks, Joel. Today Joel and I are going to be sharing our perspective on bringing intelligent engagement to every commercial channel and in particular, why it’s so important today as we’re emerging from the market challenges associated with COVID-19. So we’re going to start by sharing some context on the problem we’re solving and the approach that we’re taking. Then Joel and I are going to discuss how we’ve been working together at EMD Serono to address some of the challenges posed by COVID-19 and what we’re seeing emerge as the next normal with a focus on omni-channel engagement. Finally we’re going to discuss some key components that we’ve learned that are really important when it comes to successfully engaging with our customers in this new omni-channel world.

Over the years, Aktana’s been fortunate that we’ve been working with top Life Science companies in every major region. We’re now supporting over 250 brands across the world. We’ve learned the hard way, actually, that when it comes to how you engage intelligently with customers in commercial Life Sciences, you can’t do something that’s impactful or sustainable unless you account for the many factors that we, as an industry, face. Whether those factors be things that are company factors; like our data or our systems, or our teams, or market factors; like the therapeutic areas that we’re in, or the regional specific regulations and constraints that we face.

All of these factors, they make up the context that we have to think about. Whether we’re suggesting a next best action for a field rep, or we’re synthesizing insights to help a rep pre call plan when they’re visiting their physician. Or whether we’re coordinating a physician’s journey across multiple digital and face-to-face channels. That’s why we believe that a specific form of intelligence is important here.

We think about that as Contextual Intelligence. It’s that ability to apply your knowledge and your skills in the real world, to adapt to different situations, and to learn from previous environments in order to make intelligent recommendations.

As we think about this and our experience, as we’ve done this over the years, there’s a couple of key ingredients that we’ve learned are really critical for making this successful. The first is Business Logic. So, we start by thinking about the knowledge of experts, like go to market strategies defined by your brand teams. Or the behaviors of your top performing sales reps, and how we use business rules to codify them within a system. That’s really important because when you’re thinking about an intelligent engagement system, you need to have a good starting point that’s valuable all the way from day one.

Also, this kind of business rule, Business Logic approach allows you to set constraints within which you can then have other elements, like machine learning and optimization, be able to operate. Machine learning is also really important. Machine learning means that we’re taking advantage of what can be learned from every interaction with each HCP and we’re working out things like the ideal message sequence we’re recommending, or the ideal time to recommend with a physician, or the ideal channel. And we’re using all the most up to date information. If this is used in the right way, what we’ve seen is this can remove some of the time and the overhead of capturing all the permutations of your strategy as discreet rule. But at the same time, it can also identify micro level insights that may have been difficult for experts to go in manually.

Optimization is another really key element here because it plays as the crucial role of being able to prioritize, theoretically, ideal outcomes against real world constraints. For example, things like a limited resources and time of a sales rep or of a marketing manager, but also the attention of the physician. By doing this in the right way, by using optimization to prioritize and synthesize, you can really increase adoption of recommendations but also keep things very practical and simple for the sales and marketing decision makers that are using the system. Furthermore, what it impacts most importantly, you can improve the relevance and the timeliness for physicians who have that limited attention.

Another element here you’ll see is what we call xAI, or Explainable AI. Why this is important is because decision makers need data and context if they’re going to act on recommendations. That really is critical for ensuring they adopt and also impact at the end of the day by your sales and your marketing users. In addition, it also provides transparency back into what’s working and what isn’t in the end. What that does is enable this feedback loop that allows your strategy to consistently improve. The last two elements you see here on the page are elements of human intelligence that tie the technology together. Really it’s the idea, and I’ve talked about this already, that team experience from your brands and your top sales reps, need to be captured in the business rule. That’s really critical. But at the same time, you’ve also got your team’s experience in terms of how to successfully govern a technology in some implementation like this, and how we integrate this into commercial processes at scale.

You can also really benefit from expertise. From experts like our Aktana team who have a lot of the best practices and the processes that have been developed by launching and scaling AI across the amount of brands and therapeutic areas and countries that we have. That type of experience we’ve found can be helpful to ensure that as you launch something like this, it’s successful, and it’s in terms of the launch, but also in terms of its ongoing evolution and its scale.

So when these all come together, when we are thinking about this in the right way, what we’ve learned is that you can actually take this approach and combine all the ingredients in the right way, this is what we think about as Contextual Intelligence.

So this approach that I just described, I wanted to take some time describing that because I think it’s helpful in thinking about that approach in the work that we’ve been doing. With our work with Joel and his team at EMD Serono in last few months, this is the exact approach we’ve been taking as we’ve been helping navigate some of the challenges posed by COVID-19. What we’d like to do next is Joel and I going to spend some time sharing some of how we’ve seen companies respond to COVID-19, but also what we’ve seen start to emerge as the next normal.

So I’m going to start by sharing the first trend that we’ve all seen, which is this swing towards digital and remote engagement. It’s something that we’ve seen for obvious reasons. Drawing upon Aktana’s global experience, we’ve worked with our customer teams like Joel’s team to adjust Business Logic and stopped face-to-face suggestions in favor of other channels. Like using approved email and remote meetings, phone calls and even messaging based interactions. With all of our customers, we’ve seen that we’ve had to be really agile, because in some markets and for some customers, this was something we did all at once. But for others, we were able to add rules and constraints like reducing face-to-face suggestions, and then introducing suggestions for other channels at different times, because the locations were different and require different strategy. Maybe therapeutic areas or specialties were affected differently. Even facilities were affected differently based on where they were or what was going on with COVID-19 in those situations.

As we look into the new normal and where we’re heading, we see that as face-to-face access returns, this engagement is finally going to evolve to this truly mixed model of leveraging face-to-face and digital engagement. So Joel, perhaps you can share some of your perspective on what you’ve seen here at EMD Serono.

Joel VanderMeulen:

Yeah, thanks, Derek. It’s kind of funny. For years, the industry has been talking and maybe in some ways, even joking about the future of digital omni-channel , things like that. And then, all of a sudden, sometime around mid to end of March 2020, the future just kind of showed up, and it surprised us all kind of caught us all off guard. I’m sure each company was in different stages of their digital execution. Relatively speaking, I can’t really say where we are compared to everybody else, but what I saw is a very quick transition. Maybe it was our great internal IT or marketing teams, they did an incredible job of pulling through new virtual presentations, rep triggered emails, digitizing all of our assets really, in record time.

So potentially, we were ready to some degree, but we were able to turn it on and flip that switch pretty quickly. All these new channels that we’ve enabled in many cases have been really, I would say, well received by our customers. What I’m not sure of is if it’s safe to assume that every doctor will want to continue to engage heavily digital in the future, I guess we just don’t know yet, right? It’s what you termed as next normal. I think it’s fair to say that at companies like EMD Serono and our customers, in some way everybody’s been impacted from a technical digital standpoint. We’ll all have to really adapt to some new ways and new preferences of our customers. But states open and close, this little ping pong effect. We get back to the field and maybe we go back digital, then we’ll have to see how long this lasts just to see how much this omni-channel is going to continue to stick and to what degree.

Derek Choy:

Yeah, that’s a really good point, Joel. I think, to your point on how different physicians may want to engage differently in the future, it may even need to be very agile, to be able to bounce backwards and forwards. It’s really important to be able to then personalize each physician, but then also to be able to set up different modes of operating and plan out what those different modes of operating might be. Also to be able to in an agile way, turn those on as the different phases require. To some extent that’s part of the work we’ve been doing with our customers and with you as we start to think about how can we do that, and as you mentioned, sometimes that this is by state or sometimes by therapeutic area as well.

I think it really highlights and underscores the importance of personalization. Because at times like this, in some ways you could say, and we’ve seen in the past, that there’s been a huge trend towards personalization in our industry for a while, but especially now because of these different ways that physicians and different offices have been affected, it becomes even more critical. I know this has been a particular priority for you at EMD Serono, Joel. Is there anything you want to share with us about the importance of personalization and how you’ve been addressing it?

Joel VanderMeulen:

Yeah, I’ve been part of marketing teams in the past and the word personalization can be thrown around. But really, I think this was an example of where we saw that it wasn’t just marketing lingo, it’s really important. Instead of just putting together digital assets or things just to sell our product, we really wanted to focus on the humanistic side of what we were doing. And our customers are going through a lot, they still are, right? They were going through a lot in mid March, April, May and still are because people are still adjusting to some sort of a new normal.

So, it’s important to make sure that it’s not just all about selling, but it’s about thinking of our customers, what they’re going through, where they’re at right now. So I think, as you’ve said previously in discussions, it’s now more important than ever to be more personal when using non personal channels.

Derek Choy:

Yeah, and we’ve seen many of our customers really take this same approach. Because when you are engaging with physicians digitally and remotely, it’s inherently a less personal channel. So you have to do more to cut through the noise, and actually be more personal. We believe as a result of this, we’re going to see an increased expectation for personalization from physicians in the future. With more channels hitting physicians and the additional complexity and distraction, which is inevitable as they’re navigating the new normal and as things change and bounce backwards and forwards, that bar for being more relevant and timely is raised higher than ever before.

In this world, which I would say, context is more important than ever. That’s why if you think back to some of those ingredients, like the role of machine learning is important here. So we can learn from that history of interactions that we’ve had with physicians, and engage with them when and how they want. Also, it is so essential to be able to optimize for them, because you do want to make sure that what comes out in the physician experience at the end of the day is synthesized, simple and coordinated.

I think, as these new digital channels are being enabled, what we’re seeing is this really drives the need for new content. This has been a huge effort by a lot of our customers, and within your team too Joel, to be agile, really taking advantage of your team’s experience to quickly take pre-approved content and make it available for the right digital channels like approved email and digital engagement.

This emphasis on personalization has really led to an increase in content that needs to move beyond brand messaging and also focus on physician needs, as you said. So, Joel, I know you’ve had some great examples of this at EMD Serono for example, like the handling of medical information requests. Could you share a little bit about that?

Joel VanderMeulen:

Yeah. So I think this is really highlighted a need to create more general kind of less brand specific, if you will, content. Doctors only want to hear so much about; you can only have so many efficacy emails, you can only have so many safety emails, or pair related access emails. So, one of the things that we did was we created generic emails like how to make sure we can direct our customers to be able to fulfill their medical information requests. Generally, they’re in an office, they can grab a signature, obviously, that’s not the case anymore. So we had to very quickly pivot to say, “All right, how can we make sure that we’re still answering our customers questions and getting them the information they need in a very expedient way.”

So that’s one way, I think, with medical information requests that we’ve been able to find a way to get them what they need still. Sometimes just through a rep triggered email, maybe putting a link in the email, getting them to the place, instead of saying, “Oh, well call this number,” or, “Do this or I’ll send you something else that gets lost in your email” but first, emailing ”sending it right now and here’s a link to get your answer.”

Derek Choy:

Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. With that type of content added to the mix, as well as this increase in converting content from other areas or other channels into digital content. I think we’re finally seeing that this increase in the amount of content is going to help break through what some of us just think it’s all about this content barrier that sort of existed for the effectiveness of digital channels in the past. One interesting thing related to that is that if you think about some of this new content, it’s going to be really important to tag that content in the right way proactively, so that you can know what that content is about. You’re not going to be using the old traditional tags that you’ve had, as we’re saying about whether it’s efficacy or safety, there may be more that that’s needed.

One of the interesting things that we’ve seen is, you can start leveraging more advanced analytical techniques here to understand the content itself, like using approaches like NLP. We’ll talk a little bit more about that later. But that becomes even more important. Then the other interesting thing here is although we have seen the speed of content development really increase in the last couple of months, we do expect us now to be in a faster pace on product development than we were in the past. It’s probably going to end up something more sustainable than we’ve seen in the last few months. I think that is something that we should all just be aware of and be planning around as well.

The last few months, have also really highlighted the importance of coordination and planning. I think that for a lot of companies, this became more challenging in the midst of COVID-19. As some of these new channels were enabled, they were prioritizing in some ways, speed over scalability. Also these new channels were new, and therefore, there’s a lot of, you could say, ambiguity and a bit of chaos around them. We did see that teams were forced to focus more on transparency, and allowing field and other people to understand what was going on versus active coordination. That did, as a result, have some impact on the physicians experience at a time when this could have been particularly helpful.

So as we move into this next phase, we’re seeing that more companies now are starting to plan out what those optimal customer journeys are both across channel, which is reflecting this increased digital and face-to-face mix, but also cross pin. One of the interesting things that we’re starting to see is this coordination with medical teams, as an example, becoming especially important, because they may be the first to gain access to medical offices. So finding that compliant way to coordinate with them as well, in that, has been very important. In the broader sense, I think this is probably an example of just this trend of allowing physicians to engage on demand when it makes sense to them through sample requests or requesting follow ups or other digital engagements. When you have this as a larger part of your engagement strategy, along with digital channels and other remote engagement, it’s going to become really more important than ever to have that good coordination as well as that timely follow up.

I think on a related point to this, we’re also seeing that there’s been an increase in the focus on patient journeys. This is even for brands or therapeutic areas where historically this has been less used. Because as we were talking about earlier, that needs to be personal, but also focus on the patient. There’s been disruption of the patient treatment plan, the increase in the usage of patient adherence tools, changes to dosage and administration – all that means that it’s really more important to help physicians with even more timely, specific and relevant content and follow up. If you do that, you want to do that in the right way, you really have to coordinate, you need to plan these journeys very carefully. I think that’s a very interesting kind of thing that we’ve seen happen, but also a trend in the industry that’s just really been accelerated by COVID-19.

So finally, all of these changes and all this complexities are making empowering the field even more important than ever before. So Joel, I know this is something you’ve seen for sure, what have you seen here that you can share with us?

Joel VanderMeulen:

Well, the world just keeps getting more and more complicated, right? So we have to find ways to empower our field teams. Give them the tools they need, and tools like Aktana has been really well received and are helping them not only through this COVID journey but obviously prior to this as well.

I think one of the things you mentioned more agile, POA communications, and more frequent updates in your slide. Who knows when the next time we’ll have live POAs, right? Personally I miss them but I think we’ll probably be digital for a while. Leaving a POA people are excited, but they learn a lot, right? So one of the things that we try to do, and are leveraging the Aktana platform to do so, is to find continuous sticky bits of information that we can take from the POA; what are some of those really important things that we need them to be thinking about in their day to day, maybe specific to specific customers. Really making sure that is directly sent to them right in their workflow.

One of the things that’s been really nice about this capability, is that we’ve really seen our field teams of all levels of business acumen really embrace it. We actually see about 60 to 70% of all the suggestions being acted on in a month, which is incredible. So what does that tell us? It tells us that people like it, that we’re providing the right insights at the right time. I think as we add more, just continuous incremental channels of data into the equation, it really does make connecting the dots even more important, but even more challenging for our field teams at the same time.

So we’re going to continue to leverage the Aktana capability in all kinds of ways to really streamline and simplify insights that we send to our field teams.

Derek Choy:

Thanks, Joel that’s really helpful. As you mentioned because of this, in some ways as COVID-19 is coming, and there’s now more channels in this next normal as there’s more channels that we’re going to have to manage and a greater need for personalization, it’s probably going to just increase the complexity, and also the need to help the field with intelligence by just helping them streamline what they’re doing and making their lives easier.

One of the things that we probably also should remember though, is that even while that’s important, there’s also another part here that’s equally important, which is the training of the field now. With the shift to digital enabled information exchange, physicians are going to be more informed and they’re going to expect those reps to add different values and to talk in different ways about what they’re consuming digitally. That may require different training not only on the content but also on the technology itself, and the analytical thinking and the collaboration.

Then we also are seeing that district managers will play potentially even more important role than before, as well, in terms of managing the morale and direction of their team. But also, even in the way they want to engage in terms of their desire for more data and analytic support, as they coach their reps. We think that may continue to increase. It becomes especially important as they’re becoming more comfortable now, working remotely and then therefore you have more opportunities to help them do that more effectively.

As we think through all of these trends that we’ve been discussing, ultimately, they really highlight that this new omni-channel commercial engagement model is more important now than it ever has been before. It’s really important because if we’re adding channels without the right coordination and optimization, we end up with as you can see here in this diagram, uncoordinated overlaps. Times when there’s relationship gaps, which actually are not intended, or potentially fatigue from over engagement with physicians, which is especially likely to happen when you have a digital channel. But also when you have multiple brands looking to engage with the same position through those channels and others.

So the goal then, as we think about omni-channel engagement, is to find the right channel, is to use each channel the right way and to make sure that we’re using it based on the physician context. So what that means is trying to make sure these handoffs between channels are seamless, and that the engagement when we have it is responsive, both to inbound requests and digital engagement, but also aligned with the strategy. Then also if you do have follow ups, they’re very timely, but also the very intentional.

So, as we think about that, and our experience, especially recently, what Joel and I would like to now do is share a couple of components that we’ve learned that are really important when it comes to successfully managing this transition from an uncoordinated to a coordinated omni-channel experience. So the first aspect here, first component is really all about understanding your customer. So it’s using analytics and machine learning to understand their preferences and their needs. But it’s not just about analytics and machine learning, because as we talked about earlier, it’s also about incorporating your own teams experience, whether it be the models that your own internal analytics teams have built, or the expertise from your brand and your reps that you can gather and you can codify as the Business Logic.

Then the next component, and then we’ve talked a bunch about this, is the need to optimize so that whatever we execute feels right. It’s appropriately prioritizing the context of the real world with the decision making that’s occurred. We need to make sure as we do this, that we are providing the right explainability, so that we get adoption, but also integrating into the workflows in the right way. Then finally, we want to talk a little bit about how you manage the program for success. So that is constantly improving, evolving and has the right support as you’re doing that.

So, if we start off diving into how we leverage analytics to understand physicians, Joel, I know that an analytic model is the foundation of the work that we’re doing together. Could you share a little bit of your experience here?

Joel VanderMeulen:

Yeah, you said it really well in the summary slot in the last slide, Derek, you used the word team. So I’m going to brag on my team a little bit because this is something that takes a village, right? This isn’t something that any therapeutic area business, however you call it in each company, you can just say I want to do this and kind of toss it in and turn the key on. I have really strong cross functional partners in IT, business effectiveness, data sciences and we’ve kind of taken a hybrid approach. We’ve really coupled, those internal resources with the partnership of Aktana and done something unique where we leverage both our internal machine learning models, as well as leveraging the analytical horsepower that we get from Aktana to really ensure that our teams are provided the most important insight at the right time.

I always like to say it’s important that it feels right and doesn’t feel creepy and we’ve really worked hard to make sure that the insights that we provide on a day to day basis, they feel right and they don’t feel creepy. It takes Aktana, it takes all of our resources at EMD, it takes all of us together to really make sure that that works.

Derek Choy:

Yeah, it’s a key point, and we’ll come back and talk a little bit more about that feeling right versus feeling creepy in a moment. I wanted to add a little bit to what you were saying around how we understand our customers and how different analytical approaches are needed. Sometimes, as we were saying, it’s about finding the best analytics you have in-house, and augmenting those in different ways. So some examples of other kind of analytics that we’ve seen, that we can help with as well, is things like, especially in this world, when you try and decide what the right promotional impact is by channel is really assigned to understand what the physicians channel affinity is.

So it could be understanding, what you’re trying to see what mix of channels is going to be right for which individual physician. One thing you can start to realize is that from an analytic standpoint, you actually might need to consider different factors than we historically might have considered because physicians have been affected differently and have experienced different success or different, I’d say, engagement with digital channels depending sometimes on how they were affected by COVID-19. So that’s an interesting new dimension that you may need to build into the mould that you are building. Then from a modeling approach, what that means is you may have to compare physicians now to more complex, changing PSS based on many data points that are rather than just the data points historically we’ve used.

You have like a similar thing happening when it comes to content. With this increase in digital content that we talked about earlier, the analytics is more important now to understand what the positions areas of interest are, and how they may change even at the time. What we’re seeing is that when more content is now going beyond those traditional brand topics we’re talking about, tagging that content in the right way is so critical, so that you have good models. To help here, as I mentioned earlier that we’ve really seen great success when you can go into the content itself and use NLP or text analytic approaches to try and draw out some of those concepts and themes so you can make that process of tagging content on an ongoing basis as new content is developed, more sustainable.

I think as part of what we’ve been discussing around, engaging with physicians and trying to make sure it’s tailored to them. The other thing that we’ve seen models be used for is predicting the best time to follow up with physicians. Again, it goes back to this idea of how can we be responsive, but also how can we avoid over communication? How do you go over that bar, that now people are expecting around personalizations so you can keep things rolling for them, even in a time when they are potentially experiencing fatigue around some of these channels. So I think that’s a really important aspect as well.

So let’s keep going and touch back a little bit on what you were talking about, Joel, in terms of how critical it is to make sure that as we’re giving intelligence to both the field and physicians, it feels right and it doesn’t feel creepy. Could you expand a little bit more on why that’s so important?

Joel VanderMeulen:

Yeah, when we first rolled this out, I stood on stage and I told people about this cool new capability and how it would learn over time. I think there were a lot of eyes kind of lit up and ”oh this sounds really cool”, but probably, I’m sure, and rightly so, a lot of skepticism right? Fast forward six months later, I go to a POA, I get a phone call from one of our reps and they just are so excited to tell me about something that showed up, an insight just as the day that they were going to go see this customer just at the right time it gave them this little nugget. So that they’ve really changed from that skeptical side of machine learning because they’ve seen it help their decision making process, right?

It’s actually become actionable and it made it a little bit more interesting. They don’t have to go fish anymore for stuff. This whole process allows you to really move away and get away from that generic national insight that we’re used to just sending out, sometimes through email or Excel spreadsheets. Those national insights may or may not be relevant to many people. So giving them something that’s actionable, meaningful and relevant to their local geography, it’s really gotten them excited about this capability. That’s why I think we see such high engagement and utilization of the tool.

Derek Choy:

Yeah, I think those are some key insights, Joel around how you get that type of engagement. And I think back to the ways that we try to do that. As you said, part of it is making sure that the recommendations that we provide are tailored, personalized, dynamic with that bright strategy behind it. But there’s actually some other elements there too, because there’s another element around how you can use machine learning to predict things like the physicians preferred availability, or what they’re likely to engage is. And that’s really important, right? Because it’s coupled with that noise that we’ve been talking about. So that really plays a big role too in terms of how you get that engagement up.

At the same time, there’s also the other piece, which is how you’re prioritizing, if you’re thinking about the representative and this world where they’ve got potentially lots of different sources of intelligence that could be provided to them, how do you keep something both practical and really simple for them? So it results in something that they can consume, a limited set of actions that are very actionable, that they can then take and the results and actions which kind of respect the physicians time and attention.

One of the things, I know we’ve talked in the past, Joel is making sure that as we do this, making sure that this is part of their workflow and making sure that it’s integrated into the CRM. Can you share anything about that, and what you’ve learned around that?

Joel VanderMeulen:

Yeah, I can’t stress that enough, and I say it all the time, if you really plan to make your field teams go somewhere else to get the information, I just don’t think they’re going to do it. At least that’s been my experience. I can’t speak to every company, but there’s nothing better.

I mean, if you think about it, too, our marketers are always trying to do it right. Put it in EMR, you know, we want to get in front of our customers. So we try to get things in the EMR, we try to get it in the magazines. We’re always trying to market to them that way. It’s the same thing for our field teams, right? We have to find ways to integrate it into their workflow and then they’ll use it, they’ll see it and they’ll use it.

Derek Choy:

Yeah, absolutely. That point about the marketing teams is critical because on the other side, as you’re mentioning, even when it comes to the intelligence that you now provide to the marketing team, or the coordination that you’re trying to do across the different channels, that workload alignment is just as important there. You need to make sure that you’re integrating with the marketing platforms, and potentially marketing agencies, if you are using marketing agencies and any processes and workflows there. So you can make sure that you can get that information that you’re saying into the workflows that are being used, and you’re kind of ensuring that execution is, I would say, high fidelity.

Let’s kind of touch on this final point. I know that then we can go to the questions, because finally, you’ve got this program that we’ve talked about setting up and how important it is to get the right inputs into it, set it up the right way and be able to use the right approach. But you’ve also got to make sure that it’s been managed for ongoing success. That includes things like making sure that we’re tracking the performance of solution. We are learning from what’s working and what isn’t working, but then also we are proactively making changes and adapting.

Joel could you share a little bit about your approach to this, and maybe a little bit of how you track performance of your program?

Joel VanderMeulen:

Yeah, let me talk about the tracking of performance in a second, let me start with one of the areas where I think we place a lot of focus to really have ongoing success with this capability. Because nobody wants to throw money away, you don’t want to spend money on a capability or tool that no one’s going to use, right?

So my recommendation would be to engage some of the most influential people you have in your field. Oftentimes, when you build a new capability or tool, you engage those that like those tools the best, right? They’re going to like any technology, they’re going to like any new data. So what I asked for when we started to pilot this was, who are the most respected people on each team and then who are the people that really don’t like data, right? Who aren’t going to fish for data? Because, boy, if I can convince the most respected person on the team, that this is going to be really exciting, and they love it, they will get their team on board. And if I can convince the person that doesn’t like data, that you know what, you don’t have to comb through data, we’re going to give you a couple nuggets each time you go out into the field. If I convince them to use it, then we’ve really moved the bar.

So I think that’s a really important point when you think about trying to make this sustainable in the long term. When it comes to tracking, anytime you say you’re going to track somebody, they get nervous, right? So my suggestion is do not use KPIs as a stick. I’ve never seen that work before. If your engagement is low, of course with 60 to 70% engagement that doesn’t mean that every single team is 60 to 70%. There’s people that are 90 and there are people that are 20, right? So what we try to do is identify who those people are, and really seek to understand why they’re not using this? What about it are they finding it not useful? Or they just don’t know how to use it right?

There’s turnover in the field. So do we train the new rep appropriately? For lots of ways we can do it. And we’ve tried to take some different approaches, when we identify some of those outliers. We’ve had customer success managers from Aktana do ride alongs, we’ve sent some customer success managers out to area meetings to talk with them and to make sure they recognize the value in it and how they can use it. And boy, I tell you, I get a lot of people reaching out after those meetings saying, “Well, I didn’t really realize this is going to help me this much. Thank you for sending them along.”

So we try to engage them in different ways versus kind of putting out a dashboard where you look like you’re at the bottom and so now we’re going to call you out. You don’t build a lot of advocates that way.

Derek Choy:

Absolutely, yeah. And it’s really good point in terms of how you can use data, right? Because you can use data in the right way, combined with the right change management and approaches. And another aspect of that is how you use it to make sure you’re always learning from, like, what’s worked but also what hasn’t worked as you’re looking at it, and how you then use it, then to inform the strategy and being willing to make the changes that you need to see in an agile way.

I mean, I think that’s another part of what we can do here. Because at the field you maybe don’t use that data in that way as you mentioned, you use it as a carrot and you use other approaches. But then when it comes to managing the program overall, you can use that data to tee up questions that you want to investigate in terms of why is it that we’re seeing this part of strategy be effective and this part maybe not be adopted as much. Or maybe not be as effective and then using that combination of data with the going out and talking to some field reps and understanding what’s going on or even talking to physicians, that can be a really interesting way to make sure we are continuing to change and continuing to learn from the data.

In addition to that, though, I think the other aspect of this is interesting is managing for success means that you need to stay in lockstep with what’s happening in the market, because you can make changes based on what you’re learning works and doesn’t. But there’s a lot of external things, especially in this new world that will affect how you want your strategy to be executed, and what your strategy is. As new data, new content becomes available is what’s happening with physicians and the therapeutic areas, it’s what’s happening in the market with your competition or with other information coming out. I think as long as you’re continuing to get that in an agile way and iteratively into your strategy you can make sure that you live and breathe and be successful.

So the idea ultimately is, as you mentioned, Joel is set it up in the right way from the start, but then also leverage KPIs in the right way to encourage adoption, analyze that data, and then make sure you’re actually making changes based on it. I think that is a pretty key component to success.

So I think now, we’ve covered at a high level our perspective on intelligent engagement for this future omni-channel commercial model, and hopefully it was a helpful perspective for everyone. Joel, thank you so much for joining us today and sharing your experience here. I know that it was very insightful. I’m sure that everyone appreciated it.

Joel VanderMeulen:

Absolutely, thank you for having me Derek.

Derek Choy:


Joel VanderMeulen:

Thank you.

Derek Choy:

I mean, why don’t we actually open up for some questions now? I think then we can continue to kind of address some of the questions that I think we’ve seen some come in, around how to engage in this future omni-channel world.


Sure, thank you Derek, and let’s indeed move on to our Q&A. There’s still time to submit your questions using the Q&A tab on the left side of your screen. We have lots of great questions already and we will try to get to as many as possible.

Our first question here is have companies change their digital approaches to be more reflective of the F2F, that is not being done, or just doing more of what the digital company was doing before?

Derek Choy:

Yeah, why don’t I start and then Joel I’m sure you have something to add here. Because, we definitely have seen as we mentioned that companies were at different levels of digital readiness. I think, in the past, digital has always been something that everyone has aspired to, but depending on I would say; even company, country, therapeutic area, and just how important digital was to the mix some companies had more digital channels ready to go, and others had fewer.

So definitely, we’ve seen that companies have actually for the most part, accelerated added new channels. That they maybe didn’t have before or weren’t ready to scale before. That is very much because of the fact that face-to-face was not available. I think remote engagement is probably one of the biggest things that we’ve seen, and everyone has seen, because of the fact that you can still engage with physicians, but just kind of through those remote calls, and there’s different benefits that come along with those remote engagements in terms of the time that you have with physicians when you get them as well as how you can engage with them. That’s been one.

I think the other one that we’ve seen increase is kind of the messaging or phone call based engagement as well. Then I think the last one, which has always been there but really, we’ve seen accelerated a lot of the inbound channels, so all the on demand channels that I was describing earlier. Joel is there anything you’d add there from your experience?

Joel VanderMeulen:

Yeah, I think you hit them. I don’t know where everybody in the industry was, but we went from zero to 60 with virtual presentations overnight, right? I mean, there’s no question that the face-to-face aspect of our field teams is impactful. It’s incredible, right? So when you stop that, get it in his tracks, you try to recreate whatever you can to recreate that scenario, like virtual interactions. I think you’re right that it’s omni-channel, right? It’s all kinds; it’s telephone calls, it’s emails, it’s virtual. Every doctor is a little bit different on how they want to be engaged. I think really what’s too early to know is how impactful these are when you start to compare it, I guess relatively speaking, to face-to-face interactions.


Right. So thank you for that. And our next question is what has been the most successful channels since COVID and lockdown? And how do you measure that?

Derek Choy:

Yeah, I think actually it follows on very nicely from what Joel was just saying that it is very hard to know what is the most effective channel, especially since we’re still early into measuring that.

I’ll give you some ideas in terms of what we’ve seen and the approaches we take to measuring success when it comes to the channel, because it is very important. The only way you can understand as we were saying earlier, the physician’s channel preference and involve it is if you have some measures that you’re looking at. And I think the first thing that we always look at is like the engagement metric with the channel itself.

So for example, if you’re sending emails – it’s open rates and click through rates. If you’re trying to get physicians to engage remotely – are they actually, spending time remotely on these calls, what’s the length of those engagements that you’re having? What level of engagement is there during those meetings itself? Then when it comes to digital, or web type channels – it’s understanding how long they’re spending on those, how much content they’re consuming? For those types of engagement metrics one of the challenging things that you have to think about in some ways is when each of these channel interactions sometimes has its own measurement. You have to figure out how to decide what is opening an email, a quick end email, how does that compare to in terms of success, if you want to define success is that to a certain amount of time on a webinar channel or a certain amount of time engaging physically.

So you’re going to need to kind of come up with ways and models in terms of what we think about some ways as a HCP engagement index is what it’s called, to understand, how do you compare those because you’re going to have to compare them if you want to do cross channel comparison to understand what’s most effective.

Now, when you get past engagement itself you also have, at least in the US and even in other markets, to try to understand the ultimate goal here, which is making sure you’re getting the information to the physician, and gain the information that they need to be able to make the right decisions for their patients. One measure of that, of course, comes back to script pipe information. You can use that, if you use it the right way, to measure success as well.

Of course, depending on the market you’re in, they may need to be attribution models because sometimes the data doesn’t exist at the physician level, sometimes the data is at a brick level or a facility level, and you need to do some modeling to be able to understand impact. I mean, that’s some examples of things that we’ve seen drive how you decide what channels are successful. Joel I don’t know whether you want to add there?

Joel VanderMeulen:

Yeah, I do. So this is a tough one, right? Because they’re especially in a new environment, there are a lot of unknowns. I think right now, we’re all just kind of trying, we’re throwing everything out there trying everything we can. Usually when you say we want to measure this, the impact of channels, dial it up, dial it down, are we really going to stop doing some of these right now? I mean, emails are basically almost free or free, right? Phone calls don’t cost anything. So, I don’t know if you’re going to force somebody to start doing more virtual presentations, because you find that that’s more impactful. Because I think what we see or probably everybody sees, to some degree, is that it’s variable depending on where you’re at, in the country, where they’re at in the cycle of, or what stage of COVID they’re in. There’s so many dependencies.

I mean, what about if you have a rep that’s been around 15, 20 years and has all their doctors on speed dial versus somebody who’s new? There’s so many things that you just can’t control for in some of that modeling. So, you go, “Well, it doesn’t cost anything to send an email, why would we say, don’t do it, right?” I mean, unless you of course, want to put some guidelines in there, some guardrails, so they’re not sending 50 emails to a customer. But, I don’t know, people are always asking these types of questions, how impactful, how do you measure it? It’s really hard because there’s so many factors and what are you going to really change?


Okay. So our next question here is, what is the optimal nudge or suggestion frequency in your experience?

Joel VanderMeulen:

Derek, I’ll let you go first because you obviously have seen this across numerous companies, right?

Derek Choy:


Joel VanderMeulen:

So it’s funny. So what we did, I think we’re at a point where it’d say, two to three per product is what I mean. Two to three suggestions a day, per product. We always get people wanting more, right? So that tells us they want them, but what we’ve tried to make sure that we’re doing is we’re really prioritizing high impact suggestions. Because if you just start to water them down, because they want five or 10, or whatever, sometimes the most important ones get lost in the mix. So when you get one of these, because you might not always get one of them, right? That doesn’t mean you are guaranteed to get two or three per product per day. Because if there’s something that’s not meaningful, don’t stick it under their notes, right? Have something show up when it’s really meaningful so that way they want to act on it.

Derek Choy:

Yeah, I think that’s really great, Joel. I think that’s a really good insight. I think it’s pretty consistent I would say with a lot of our experience. We would say typically, we want to avoid doing daily suggestions, no more than five to seven. As you said, that’s when you’re managing multiple products often. So I think your guidance is a good example of it.

I think that one other thing to bear in mind is sometimes it depends too, depending on the workflow that you’re trying to integrate into, because, what we’ve seen is that if you’re trying to give these daily suggestions, then what we’re just mentioning is right, but sometimes some of the use cases here are about helping a field person plan across a week. In that case there, you need to change those number of suggestions you’re giving, if you’re giving them suggestions on a Sunday night to help them put together a couple of anchor appointments and routes, you change that frequency of suggestions for that purpose versus than if you’re then coming back after they’ve put together those plans, and then giving them recommendations on a daily basis to help identify newer things to consider on top of or sometimes instead of some of what they had put into their schedule. But I think that also matters.

And the last thing I’d say is this even differs, I would say by therapeutic area, because you’ve got differences when it comes to oncology, for example, versus if you’re dealing with primary care teams. So you really do have to think about all of that and the experience that you want your field to have and what their goals are, as you’re coming up with that idea, that optimal suggestion frequency.


Okay, to follow on that are quotas is being refined under the current conditions and how many customers are the reps interacting with now on a daily basis?

Joel VanderMeulen:

When I read the first part quotas I think what the question is asking is not necessarily the incentive compensation quotas but our call goals, people have had call goals in the past. We wanted to see Dr. Smith X amount of times per quarter, X amount of times per month. How are those being refined? So, I think they have to be, right?

Personally, I think they have to be. They have to be because we have to be, again that humanistic side I mentioned earlier, you could, you know, let’s say we just said, “Okay, well you have to make sure that you are having this many touches, right?” Because in omni-channels it touches an email, not 100% of emails aren’t opened and responded to and interacted with, right? So what we don’t want to happen is we don’t want our teams to send out 15 emails to make sure that they’re having the appropriate amount of touches that we want them to have.

This is where you have to trust your field and say that they’re going to make the best decision based on the needs of their customer. So we haven’t pushed that, we’ve of course, said it’s going to be harder so let’s make sure we’re focusing on the right people. Don’t just try sending something to everyone. Let’s be thoughtful, let’s be strategic about how we engage with the right people. And so that takes more planning. Derek, go ahead. Sorry.

Derek Choy:

No, no, no absolutely. I think that’s a great answer, Joel, I think it’s great. I know we’re just short on time, so maybe we can jump to the next question.


Sure. The next question is, have you seen an uptick in phone interactions and how does that matter knowing that showing content is the most compelling way to engage with healthcare providers?

Joel VanderMeulen:

So the first answer, have you seen an uptake in phone interactions? Oh, yes. Outbound and like Derek mentioned earlier, inbound, which is really interesting, right? Because our doctors are calling us which is great. That really tells you something. That tells you about the relationship they have, it tells you about how they probably came to expect that your rep is just going to be there every other Tuesday, and they get to hold off on their questions, but now they’re picking up the phone and making the phone call when they need something answered quickly or such.

So, yeah content is important, right? But people learn in different ways and I think again, goes back to last comment I made where we have to trust that our field teams know their customers better than we do at the mothership, at headquarters. So they’re engaging them through the most appropriate channels.

Derek Choy:

Yeah, I think the only thing I would add there is, I think, ideally, you would have content at the same time as a call, which is where these kind of remote meetings happen, but you do just have to be flexible. It’s harder to get an engaged meeting, or to get a remote meeting with content than a phone call. So I think it’s you recognizing that you have all these channels that you can leverage, but then being able to just know that you still get some value from an interaction. As Joel said, you’re flexible and you’re using it because that is something that’s just the reality.

Similar to like the difference between maybe a headquarter email versus a rep center email, you may get a different level of engagement that we’ve seen. You may find the same thing as you engage remotely as you start getting some remote engagement in there versus some phone calls.


All right, I think we have time for just one or two more quick questions. The first one here is, how are suggestions used to bring POA strategy and messaging to the field?

Joel VanderMeulen:

Aha, they want the secret sauce. I won’t give you the secret sauce. No, I’m just kidding. So think of it this way, right. You have these big POA meetings and the intent of the POA meetings is to really drive home the message and the strategy. Then everybody goes their separate ways for X amount of months, three months, six months, whatever it is. Just like anything, you hear it, and over time you start to forget, right? You start to forget the details immediately. Then over time, even the high level things you start to forget.

So what are those most important points that you drive home in a POA? Find those things. Think of it as just reminders, right? Like, these are reminders that when you see Dr. Smith think of this, or when you see Dr. Jones, remember, they’re this type of a doctor and you want to think of them a little bit differently. So it just allows us the ability in their workflow to keep putting those insights there that we spent all that time and effort at a POA to really try to drive home.

Derek Choy:

Yeah, it’s great, Joel. I think the opportunity to turn like that content, that strategy into bite sized pieces, right?, and use that. I think the other thing that we’ve also seen, and this is interesting, is sometimes what we’ve seen also in some other customers is you might do less in the online POA. Actually you might take some of that and roll it out in more iterative, kind of bite sized pieces.

Sometimes even dynamic based on what you can see the sales rep has engaged on or hasn’t engaged on yet. Because you can have like a closed loop mechanism. I think that might be the best, that’s another step that we see people starting to do. We’ve seen this in China actually a lot. Where instead of having a POA, they instead just drive the content that would have been to a POA into like a journey you would say, and then drop it in pieces, depending on what the rep has or hasn’t engaged with yet with a particular physician.

They’re really driving it down to that micro level. Something you can do as you’re more sophisticated with it and if it’s appropriate I guess for you to.


All right, everyone, we’ve reached the end of our hour now. We had a lot of great questions today. We could not get to all of them, but we will try our best to get back to everyone who submitted personally after this webinar. So thank you to our audience for attending this FiercePharma Webinar and submitting so many great questions. I’d like to thank our speakers for participating, and Aktana and EMD Serono for presenting today’s webinar.

This webinar has been recorded, you’ll be able to access the recording within 24 hours using the same audience link sent to you earlier. Thank you again for joining us and we look forward to seeing you at future events.