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A call for a new operating model for Commercial Operations in Pharma

BASE life science
5 min readSep 20, 2020


Covid-19 has impacted us all and will keep affecting our lives for the foreseeable future. At BASE, we were lucky enough to be able to keep doing what we love to do, supporting our life science clients to reach their customers. The latest months were exciting in that regard as many companies tried to switch at lightning speed from a model relying on face-to-face interactions to an engagement model that relies on remote channels. As we have been working for a few months in a fundamentally changed environment, it seems to be the right time to assess the outcome and what the impact was on some of the key metrics of commercial organizations.

Compared to last year, a fair assessment would be that the world is different for commercial organizations in Pharma. From the record attendance in ASCO 2019 to a virtual conference in 2020, the way to reach HCPs has been shifted. As the second quarter of 2020 is closed, listed companies have published their quarterly earnings. It is interesting to compare the first quarter of 2020 with the second quarter as those numbers are the ultimate goals of commercial organization and a reality check.

A harsh reality is that while the activity of commercial teams was close to zero by being locked down at home, the sales of pharma companies have continued to grow. While not all companies are posting stellar results, most of them are seeing growth. Johnson & Johnson has the pharmaceutical pushing the rest of the division as per their quarterly presentation. More focused companies such as Gilead are publishing a robust financial performance. While companies such as Novartis or Roche acknowledge that there was a COVID 19 effect, it seems to rebound already in June, while the teams are still at home. The question remains, can we learn anything from that?

A new multichannel approach to reaching HCPs

Were companies able to adjust?

A first assumption could be that companies have been able to completely alter their engagement model in a matter of weeks to keep the connections with HCPs. Web conferencing companies have been known during that time to offer packages to encourage usage, and CRM adds-on follow the same path. Most vendors indeed provided some form of discounts to use their technology. However, there is a lack of empirical evidence. While BASE has helped clients enable technologies to reach out HCPs, it does not seem likely that entire organizations were able to move from one day to the next to a remote driven operating model. Consent data to reach out to the HCP could have been one of the showstoppers that tend to make this initial assumption wrong. Further, the number of technology changes to be able to run webinars as an example is too big to be achievable in a few weeks.

Do field force visits have an actual impact?

A second more disturbing explanation could be that field force visits have limited impact on the uptake of a product. Such a conclusion would be very awkward for the industry, given the importance of SG&A. In fact, as per some research from Statica, the SG&A varies from 20% to 50% of the revenues. Field force being the most expensive channel, it must cost companies a fair share of revenues to maintain such a channel. Having minimal return on it would be at least problematic. Let’s analyze what can reject this assumption.

Firstly, it is fair to say that the impact of the visits will be mostly seen at a later stage and not immediately. Given the nature of the life science business where field force is not actively selling but rather providing input to HCPs. This input can be extremely detailed when exchanging with an MSL or more about raising awareness on the various solutions the company has to offer when discussing with a KAM. Whatever the type of interaction, it cannot materialize in sales. HCPs may write a prescription based on those insights gathered during a visit, but the patient with the specific condition would need to show up.

Secondly, the field force is emphasizing awareness on new products, hence having the field force out of the field for a couple of months will not result in an immediate negative impact. Drug awareness could be viewed as a moving train, even if you pull the brakes, it will take a while to stop. Once it stops, however, it will require considerable efforts to get it moving again.

Lastly, there is a possibility that the commercial team have been able to maintain a level of connection that is deep enough to continue to nurture the current status quo. As a small bandage, the phone call performed may have been enough to keep the train running for a while.

So, what can we learn?

Probably the only valid insight is that the sales within a specific quarter are not linked to the activity performed during this respective quarter. Therefore, there will be implications for incentives and compensations policies as you should never measure the performance of any sales team members based on sales number from that specific quarter as this has limited impact. In other words, it would be a waste of valuable time and money.

Another learning is that it is required to diversify your investment and activity. Currently, a disproportionate amount of the sales and marketing budget is going towards the field force. Given this can stop from one day to the next, it could be wise to change the budget allocation to strengthen the resilience of the company. Assuming the visits are having a positive impact on sales, you may want to be a bit less dependent on them as it is impossible to predict when the Covid-19 situation normalizes.

From a sales and marketing perspective, this may call out for change in the operating model of companies to limit the number of sales representatives to increase focus on other channels and functions. Such change would significantly improve the allocation and potential reach, ensuring the right product is delivered to the right patient.

About BASE life science

BASE life science is a fast growing, fast paced consultancy focused on the life science industry. Established in 2007 and based in Copenhagen, Denmark, BASE targets a local as well as a global customer base.

Since inception, BASE life science focuses on helping Life Science companies create real business value from digital platforms and data within its area of expertise; Commercial Excellence, Clinical, Regulatory Affairs and Quality & Compliance. Since 2007, the company has been active globally from Denmark and employs more than 50 employees.

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About the author — Luca Morreale, Head of Operations, Switzerland

Highly motivated consultant focused on solving commercial & pricing challenges for Life Sciences companies through advisory, assessment or implementation services. Pragmatic & result driven with a strong ability to lead a team in a complex environment to achieve project goals. Ability to provide insights both at the strategy level as well as the operational level.



BASE life science

BASE life science is a fast growing, fast paced consultancy focused on the life science industry.