Sales Force Automation's Latest Kick: Mobile and Touch-Display Applications

Pharmaceutical CommercePharmaceutical Commerce - May/June 2011

A pronounced fascination with Apple Computer's iPad is focusing sales-IT efforts on mobility and data access; meanwile, online e-detailing offerings win more acceptance

Pity the overworked software developers of sales-force automation (SFA) systems. Having worked long hours to adapt their systems to last year’s hot trend—putting sales presentations on smartphones—they have now been forced to go into overdrive to prepare for this year’s new tools: the iPad and similar touch displays.

Lost, somewhat, in the buzz over these new display and interactivity platforms is how the basic rep call on prescribers can be more effective in communicating the marketing message, and how, in an era of more tightly defined managed care plans, technology will change repping.

In 2010, the top 40 companies had 75,278 sales reps, down 24.3% over the past five years, according to market analytics provider SDI (Plymouth Meeting, PA). Interestingly, although those companies represent some 90% or more of the overall market, the total number of rep sales calls has remained relatively unchanged (see tables).

In fact, as the rep count dropped, individual access to physicians may have increased, said Melissa Leonhauser, SDI’s strategic marketing director, noting that “when field forces were at their highest, reps may have had to resort to dropping off samples, thereby lowering the physician visit counts.” Whether the wave of tablet PCs, iPhones and iPads — occurring during the same period as head count reductions—made company sales forces more productive, for a net positive effect on sales, is also open to speculation.

The productivity issues will eventually sort themselves out, but current data shows that companies’ expenditures on detailing, excluding samples, have remained at a steady $12 billion annually. Expenditures for other promotional elements also remained relatively constant at $20 billion.

Meanwhile, online or virtual “e-detailing” has been rising, up about 60% to $525 million, with successive increases over four years until last year.


The reasons for the sudden plateau are unclear in that other indicators reveal continuing popularity for e-detailing in both live (with a live rep) and virtual (recorded) “on demand” interaction formats. Montreal-based Aptilon, which e-details 40 brands for some dozen companies, said that its US sales saw significant increases last year.

New Jersey-based PDI Inc., an outsourcer of pharmaceutical sales and services, expanded its multi-channel offerings last year with the acquisition of Group DCA. Its services include interactive e-detailing content, its DIAGRAM software, and a database of healthcare providers that it labels as “predisposed” to digital communications.

Sampling has always been a mainstay of the rep visit, and e-detailing systems usually enable physicians to place an order thereby. As the number of “no-see” doctors has risen, and as healthcare organizations put in place rules about drug sampling, the number of access points for sampling is growing. Medical information providers like Epocrates, Inc. (San Mateo, CA) have made sampling a feature of their online services. PDMA compliance providers such as Physicians Interactive (Libertyville, IN), National Patient Services (Scottsdale, AZ), J. Knipper (Lakewood, NJ) and others offer compliant online tools for e-sampling. Pfizer recently engaged with Epocrates’ Contact Pharma to allow physicians to address scientific questions about products, or report on adverse events, directly to the Medical Information group at Pfizer.

“On-demand” e-detailing, which is interactive, can be done at a time convenient for the physician, even at home, and is particularly useful in remote regions of the country, notes Aptilon EVP Mark Gleason. Gleason also noted that interactive e-detailing can be bi-directional thereby closing the communication loop. Physicians have been enthusiastic adopters of digital communications technologies, but there is still a preference for face-to-face meetings with reps, according to the 2011 Digital Marketing survey from Knowledge Networks (Roseland, NJ), a market research firm. Its most recent (March) survey of a physicians panel found that 2/3 have smartphones, and over a quarter have touch displays like the iPad; yet 79% of primary care physicians, and 74% of specialists, prefer in-person rep interactions. “Mobile technology has indeed proven a boon to busy physicians, helping them keep up on the latest information and manage their practices,” says Jim Vielee, SVP in charge of the physician panel. “Our findings also reinforce the important role that sales rep visits still play in doctor interaction; the transition to digital is still just that, and ignoring either side of the equation is likely to backfire.”

The iPad storm

The Apple iPad has unquestionably caused a stir in pharma marketing circles, both as a communications platform for consumer- or physician-oriented apps and as a sales tool for reps. There have been reports of iPads being purchased by the caseload by pharma companies, and SFA vendors are rushing out iPad-compatible versions of their software. An internal note from Novartis CEO Joseph Jimenez (published on the Pharmalot blog on March 28) had Jimenez enthusing that “It’s clear that we need to move quickly to incorporate this kind of cutting-edge technology into the way we work,” and noting that the entire US vaccine sales team was in the process of rolling out an iPad implementation. He also calculated that each rep would save 250 hours in presentation time during the course of a year, leading to an “incredible 35,000 additional customer visits each year.” (One wonders, though, at a calculation that implies faster rep visits when everyone has complained for years that rep visits are limited by doctors to a couple minutes; some wags noted that Novartis had recently cut back its sales force—so maybe the remaining reps will have to run harder and talk faster.)

In any case, SFA vendors are hustling to meet their client demand for iPad apps. Just weeks after iPad’s launch in early 2010, Cegedim Relationship Management (Bedminster, NJ) introduced an iPad and iPhone version of its flagship SFA product, Mobile Intelligence (MI). Again this year, only weeks after iPad2 make its debut, the company launched its second generation MI “to leverage the new tablet’s benefits,” it said. Bristol-Myers Squibb is one of the latest companies to sign up for the new product.


Neeraj Singhal, Cegedim’s VP of product strategy & innovation, believes that in the future “most customers are going to deploy their solutions on iPads.” A key capability of MI for iPad is a process where all the data relevant to a specific physician is packaged and displayed to the rep on one screen, he notes.

The profile includes prior contacts by them or their peers with the physician, previous reactions, and the questions asked. Reps have access to how the doctors view their products including the scripts written. This allows a rep to pre-plan an interaction including presentation of a study previously requested and a message prepared by the brand team on PowerPoint or video.

It is unclear how much of this could be done with older software on laptops and tablet PCs. Vendors seem to have confidence, however, that the iPad will flash on immediately, work properly and not interfere with sales presentations.

With Cegedim’s MI for iPad, when samples are dispensed, a physician’s signature release is in the software, and the signature is encrypted, says Singhal. MI for iPad also makes it possible for the physician to sign a request for off-label product information for forwarding to the firm’s medical science liaison (MSL) for response.

Veeva Systems (Pleasanton, CA), which has won significant new business by exploiting its software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform, is making a strategic decision to capitalize on the iPad. Its iRep platform, announced in January, includes both customer relationship management (CRM) and closed-loop marketing capabilities. The combined product is said to be the only combined system pre-validated for PDMA and CFR Part 11 compliance.

Veeva has partnered with InTouch Solutions, the Overland Park, KS, digital agency for pharma, to develop content for iRep, using HTML5 code. Veeva says that an especially eye-catching capability of iRep will be to use Apple Computer’s FaceTime software to enable live video, so that more than one company representative could be interacting with a physician during a call.


Matt Wallach, chief strategy officer, has seen companies buy their reps a $500 desktop for home and a $500 iPad for the field “and they rarely break,” he says, versus a $2,500 tablet PC that breaks every six months due to wear and tear from carrying it around all day long. He adds that field teams will no longer waste a physician’s time in booting up a tablet PC to capture a signature or show an interactive presentation.

Veeva built its pharma-specific CRM system on the platform from and licenses it as a hosted (SaaS) service. The company has recently announced a new initiative to deliver closed loop marketing capabilities on the iPad, which includes both content management and distribution, as well as the security necessary for auditable data collection during sales calls.

A recent report by IDC Health Insights ranked the top three software vendors in life science sales and marketing in 2010 as follows: Oracle $115.9 million in revenues; Cegedim $60.1 million; and SAP $42.5 million. The report noted that Veeva Systems is the “fastest-growing vendor,” and that it doubled its customer base last year.

Other pharma SFA vendors include StayInFront (Fairfield, NJ); Synergistix (Sunrise, FL); and Update CRM (US HQ in Princeton, NJ).


Through its acquisition of Group DCA, PDI, Inc. added e-detailing to its multi-channel offerings of live sales teams, tele-detailing services and peer interactive medical education programs. To PDI, an ideal multi-channel campaign would include: a live rep with the digital component, the phone component, and the peer-to-peer medical webcasts or dinner meetings with key opinion leaders.


“Our work is about engaging physicians, comments Ron Scalici, chief innovation officer at PDI’s Group DCA. “It’s not only what the content looks like on these new devices (touch tablets), it’s how they are used. I see that as a growing need in the marketplace.” Leveraging the intelligence of the SFA is more than just software for the rep: “It’s getting the physician more engaged in the relationship with the SFA software.”

“The customer is changing,” says Peter Harbin, a senior principal at IMS Health (Stamford, CT), noting that more of the decision-making on prescription choices comes out of the formularies and pharmacy and therapeutics committees of managed care organizations. The new focus, rather than CRM or SFA, is “sales and marketing enablement,” a strategy to address all decision makers in prescribing, wherever and whenever information needs to be conveyed. Another aspect of this enablement is to analyze results and performance of the various online, in-person and other communications; a third is to efficiently manage administrative functions such as activity tracking, inventory monitoring and sample ordering; and a fourth is to provide robust reporting functionality.

In this context, the device or software platform with which reps make sales calls becomes a secondary consideration; the main drivers are effective communication to prescribers (or prescribing influencers) and reporting and analytics from the process. These are the very aspects of SFA that pharma customers have complained about in the past, finding that the SFA tools were limited in their performance. It could be, though, that the iPad “revolution” will make a difference.

“We encounter software that is not as advanced as our expectations,” and “in many cases, we would like to be able to plug and play mobile and other solutions into existing platforms,” comments Carol Montgomery, VP of GSK’s CIT Sales & Marketing Strategy. “Currently, that is not easy to do.” PC


Like the iPad, which packages a lot of existing capabilities into a new interface, cloud computing is promoted as a new unifying theme for on-demand data and computing access. Veeva Systems has announced Veeva Vault, said to be the first on-demand content management system dedicated exclusively to life sciences applications. Veeva Vault is intended for storing “controlled documents”—information that is regulated in some manner, and for which rigorous security and data logging are desirable. The initial application will be for marketing and promotional materials (playing to Veeva’s strength in SFA); other applications will include clinical R&D, drug master files and medical information. Jennifer Goldsmith, VP at Veeva, says that the purpose-built IT infrastructure (rather than an adaptation of onsite database management systems) and low to non-existent maintenance costs as a SaaS application are among the features that will slash 30-50% from traditional database management costs.

“We have become a strategic Web partner of Veeva,” says Steve Gransden, VP of technical marketing at J. Knipper and Co. (Lakewood, NJ), a marketing services company for pharma. “That means that we have invested in developing standardized and pre-validated data interfaces between Veeva’s cloud-based data and our enterprise systems. In essence, we have the I/O processes already in place and ready to go to supply services like sample accountability. This can significantly reduce a customer’s implementation and operational costs. It is a true value-add.”

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