S02 E01

Pharma Reps and the New Virtual Landscape


Lisa Mullett

General Manager


In the first episode of our second season, Peter Brenders, Founder & President of Kontollo Health, talks with Lisa Mullett, General Manager of Sunovian, about motivating teams and adapting to a virtual landscape.



Welcome to the second season of NPC podcasts from the National Pharmaceutical Congress. Thank you for downloading this season's first episode. This program is all about discussing and considering the purpose process and people of the pharma industry during the Age of Covid. We're continuing the health care conversation by answering questions sent by listeners like you.


This program is proudly presented in cooperation with Impres, Impres best in class commercial solutions offer top line and bottom line growth, with maximum sales force, flexibility, speed and efficiency. Learn more about their next generation commercial model at www.impres.com.


On today's podcast, our guest is Lisa Mullett, General Manager of Sunovion. Your host for today's podcast is Peter Brenders of Kontollo Health coming to you from the historic city of Fredericton.


But first, here's Mitch Shannon of Chronicle Companies.




Thanks, Liona.


It's good to be back in the NPC studio again, how was your break?




Thanks for asking. We just kept a low profile for a few days, spent some time listening to the Alan Parsons Project CD: I Robot. It always helps me unwind.




Yeah, I love that record. Well, let's get the fall season started.


During the break, we received some questions about the pharma business and what kind of challenges a second wave of Covid may present in Q4.


We're happy to take your questions anytime leave a message on our comment line at 647-875-9011.


Pharma and the life sciences are all about teamwork. But for six months now teams have been working remotely and headquarters have been quiet at best.


Our guest this week, Lisa Mullett has been in the same position many of us have been trying to keep teams motivated and functioning while the big picture is unclear.


Here's Lisa in conversation with Peter.




Welcome to season two the NPC podcast. I'm Peter Brenders, your host.


In our first season, we had the opportunity to hear from leaders in Canadian healthcare on their views of the early impact of Covid-19 on the purpose, process, and people in pharma. These COVID times continue to affect our health care systems, the introduction of new therapies and the way we work. During the season, we look to continue the dialogue exploring the changes of pharma and gaining some insight on continuing innovation.


Joining me today is Lisa Mullett, General Manager of Sunovion.


Welcome, Lisa.




Thank you. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk today.




Lisa, how is your business evolved over the last six months?




Well, that's an incredible question. In fact, we talk about it all the time.


If I reflect back on the early few weeks in March and contemplated the thought of closing our offices for two weeks and then fast forward to today. I think every aspect of our businesses changed how we relate with each other how we work with each other from an office based environment with our global colleagues, removing the need for travel, face to face interactions as a day to day way to do business. And moving things to a virtual reality has just been something we've had to evolve with.


And for the most part, you were a face to face kind of company where people will sitting in the offices and conducting their businesses or representatives were visiting hospitals and their customers and their offices every day. And you know, within the very short period of time, we have had to reshape connectivity and had to reshape how we reach out to our customers and add value and also manage the way in the volume of information communication.


So, from my perspective, this has been an incredible learning journey, and one that is absolutely not going to stop. I think it is going to be our new reality. We are a learning organization through this trying to adapt and change and get ourselves to wherever this place is going to take us. And there's going to be many iterations along the way.




So, it's interesting you say the new reality that we're living with through these changes. And you talked about how moving from face to face to sort of a different approach.


So, if there are so few interactions that are no longer on that face to face basis, how do we maintain that personal connection, and the relationships we have with our customers with the doctors?




You know, I think with the concept we had in our in our minds of face to face has changed. So, prior to March, the amount of engagement we did as an organization with our customers, using virtual platforms was very, very small and probably I would say, minimal at best for some of the customers. And now how we've been able to morph that is with the platforms Microsoft Teams, Zoom, other WebEx connectivity platforms, our ability to engage in a face to face interaction has just changed.


So, in some ways we're face to facing it just not live and in person, we've changed that presence. And so the comfort level of people coming to speed with 'how do you engage in a live virtual interaction?' has been a learning experience.


And how do you maintain the relationships? I think is a really great question. And I think it really resides with the word maintain. If we have existing relationships where there's been a value gained between the two parties, it's easier to maintain that relationship as long as we're not trumping on their time, and we continue to provide value. And if you look at our health care practitioners, and their needs, they have completely changed in this time. One of the things that's important though, is that we're both professionals. So, our healthcare practitioners that we're calling on, and our sales representatives and the people in our organization, really, we're professionals. And our job is to find a way to meet the needs of the customer and find way to add value. And the way we do that is truly by listening, having an interaction that they leave that conversation with, that gives them something that either helps their patient, helps them understand a concept of medication, a disease, or provide some connectivity to them, either through education, through dialoguing and engaging at this level at a virtual reality situation where you can bring people together.


So, we've just really had to maintain relationships by leveraging the platforms, but being respectful of the needs that they have, and not being intrusive, but being value added. And so, I think that's really how we're maintaining it is adding the value.




You're listening to the NPC podcast. I'm your host, Peter Brenders.


So, what feedback are you getting on the quality of those these interactions?




So, again, that's interesting and evolving. Some physicians, as we entered into this health care practitioners, I would say, as a whole, did not use these platforms. So, they were learning and their ability to navigate how to engage was really to evolve to the point of being able to have a quality interaction. You know, you sort of reflect back on it. How many times did you say, "Can you hear me? Can you see me? How does this sound? Your sound was off". You know, we went through the technological phase, I would say, to now, it's really everyday practice where physicians are seeing their patients online. They're learning how to have a very good diagnostic interview with their patients online. All of those skills were not there.


And so, I think we've worked really had to evolve and bring that relationship along the pathway. And as we've learned, they've learned and so now it's just become the new normal of how we engage. And so, again, it goes back to the value.




Do you find though that your reps might now have more undivided attention with their customers then they wouldn't have traditionally had in their five minute live call?




Yeah, and part of me preparing to have this conversation today really took me to ask my team what their thoughts were on these questions. And that's what they're saying is they're actually having very solid connected time with people when they're connecting. So instead of five minute interaction that may have people in and out and a phone ringing. They're now getting maybe a narrower point of time with them, but their engagement level is really meeting the needs of that physician and what they want from the person.


So, the feedback the team has had is they have engaged new customers, different customers, people who maybe could not have engaged or didn't want to engage in their office environment, they're now more interested to engage in a virtual platform, which is interesting. People who were difficult to find, because they were working in multiple offices now are more able to be engaged, especially if we're providing them with value. Learning programs, interacting with key opinion leaders that they're interested to hear from. So, I do think the way that we're engaging, but how we can connect up with people is in a better position in many ways than others.


Now, having said that, there are physicians who absolutely have not embraced this virtual technology. They are not comfortable with it. It's not the way that they would like to practice medicine. And so probably it's a very stressful time for them. They don't really see themselves working in this way. And so we may not be having interactions with that customer group. But I think we're doing a really good job picking up with people who want to evolve their technology skills and their digital interactions.


I think in time everybody's skills will evolve. And there really is a need for the pharmaceutical representative in the pharmaceutical industry to help provide physicians with value and education. And so we'll have to look for ways to engage that group that's just not digitally engageable. But that's going to come with time. And hopefully, as this crisis starts to slow, people will come back to a bit of a change in a normalcy that we can manage through.




Well, let's talk about that for a minute then in terms of the world, today's current reality, but more to the point in terms of what the future isn't as it's going to change.


So, what's your plan? What's your planning? What's your anticipation in terms of when it's going to change? Are reps going to be going back into the office anytime soon?




Well, I wish I could have a plan. As I said, my plan was to go out for two weeks and come back in the world would have been as it was. So, I think our plan is that there is no plan. And that we have to find a way that's going to work for the customer, and for our representatives, and for our business and just be flexible.


You know, we do have some representatives that are engaging in face to face calls. Some people are very comfortable with that, and it works terrifically well, but there are people, physicians, and even our representatives who may for their personal situation, just not feel comfortable to be in that environment. And so, really, for us, it's not about forcing an interaction face to face, but it's really ensuring that the representatives are representing the geography, representing the business and finding a way to marry that with the needs of the customers and their own personal needs to do it the way that's right for them.


People are fearful. Second waves may come. We don't know what the future is gonna hold. But we still have to find a way to manage your business.




So, any tips on cool new strategies or digital engagement tools that you guys have put in place that seem to be making a difference in bringing value to your customers?




You know, I don't know whether there's cool new tips, there absolutely are some pretty amazing technologies out there. I've participated using the Miro technology, which is an opportunity to use virtual whiteboarding. I think the zoom technology allows people to go into breakout rooms, and you can have people all with a common interest or a common subject, go into breakout rooms, brainstorm, come back. Those things I think are being underutilized at this point. Microsoft Teams has some engagement opportunities as well. There's polling opportunities, interactivity elements that are going to make it more interesting.


So, the flatness of some of the conversations works for some people, but after a while, you can only do it for so long before it becomes routine. And not particularly engaging. So I do think we're going to have to learn to evolve the skills, make it more interactive, not expect you're going to hold an hour of people's attention in a learning program, find ways to really meet and customize it to how that person or that group of people want to be engaged with.




So, there must be learning then for your team as well. So, can you speak to a little bit about what your training programs look like? How are you keeping either in house staff or the field staff current or on the cutting edge of these new tools or ideas?




Yeah, well, we're working on it. I will tell you again, we're learning how to teach as fast as we're learning ourselves in some ways, and that's not always the best place to be in. Probably we needed to push that in advance of this crisis happening.


I will say these tools were available, but we just didn't use them very often. So now we have to ensure that the representatives are comfortable to use it. And as I was describing the early phases of "can you hear me now?", the representatives are far beyond that. So, they've had to be really great learners themselves, they've had to explore these tools themselves. And I think now they're at a point of wanting to find better ways to have that engagement. So if you're a representative who's used to standing in the hallway, having conversations with physicians at a hospital, and now your role is to find ways to engage in a non face to face way, and you're not particularly comfortable with technology, that's going to be a great learning opportunity for you and it could be hard, and you may not be the best virtual detailer.


However, you can learn and I'm so proud of my team in particular. I'm amazed. They actually have done incredible, best practice sharing and learnings and sharings with each other trying to evolve their skills, and at the same time need to as an organization or providing them with the tools. We're helping them with some training or continue to help with training.


And so again, it's a journey. It's an evolution. Yeah, maybe it is a revolution, it may be the way that we are going to go what forward in the future and, and the virtual technology is just going to have to continue to improve over time. But for now, I think it's absolutely trying to step through it and pace through it and learn to provide the way that customers are going to have value. And that's really at the end of it. I keep saying that. But we are in a relationship here where we have to help our representatives provide value to the customers, and in turn, the customers need to be perceiving us to give them value, or else it's not going to work.




You're listening to the NPC podcast. Our guest today is Lisa Mullett. General Manager of Sunovion.


You mentioned earlier on that you were getting some feedback from the team in terms of what they're seeing out in the field and what's working and what's not. Do you get a sense for the feeling of your team, are they looking forward to things going back to the way they were? Or continuing on to way they are today? And perhaps more of it? What's the big wish that's out there?




You know, I think people as they were hired to be sales representatives, the role that they are used to is a face to face way of engaging, and we're humans, and they're excellent relationship people and they love that relationship. And quite honestly, our customers love it. They're humans too. And the value of a human connection sharing common discussion points in common interests, is really a part of what makes a representative thrive in an environment. And many of the folks on the team would like for us to go back to the way it was, but they all realized that it's going to be a bit of everything. It's going to be a bit of virtual and a bit of live as this evolves.


They would love to have the opportunity to go back to the way it was where they could stop in and have conversations face to face with their customers, and probably would look forward to that. But I think now, especially because everybody is managing so many pieces, their personal and professional lives are so intertwined. And many of our representatives have family obligations, they have issues that they need to handle at home, and two: our customers are in the same boat. Many of our customers are looking after children or elderly parents or other situations that aren't putting people in this nine to five world.


So, I think people are enjoying the fact that you can connect with customers during any period of the day and that may extend into the evening. It may be earlier in the morning, and that actually is giving people flexibility to actually balance themselves. They would love the opportunity to find more fluidity in how they're connecting with customers. I would say it's probably more sporadic because they're managing so many schedules and so many things. But I think everybody is reconciled that there is going to be a change in the way we conduct business, a change in the way our relationships are developed and the way that we engage in our interactions.


And so, while nobody knows what it'll be, I think they're looking forward to some sort of a combination. But no doubt face to face would probably be the way they'd like to go in more ways than not.




Anything else? Words of wisdom from Lisa?




I think the biggest thing is we all have to be patient and nobody has ever worked through a pandemic. And this change in how we're engaging with customers is unnavigated territory. And so, you know, we all have to be patient, we have to be patient with our representatives. Our representatives have to be patient with us and the leadership and the management team, because we're trying to solve for some problems that we didn't know existed. And then we equally have to be patient and try and help everybody come to some sort of new reality, and not be too hard on ourselves, just expect that we're going to pace ourselves through this.


We as an industry add tremendous value. And I think the value that we've earned has come over a long period of relationships in this industry. And, you know, we're here to add better quality relationships, better quality health and better quality care for people. And that's a needed relationship between the pharmaceutical industry and health care practitioners and patients. And that still exists and we're just needing to find a way to get there.




You have been listening to Lisa Mullett, General Manager of Sunovion.




Thanks to Lisa and to Peter.


I was struck by Lisa's comment about Sunovion: we are learning organization trying to adapt and change and get to wherever this is going to take us. That attitude is consistent with the views of other pharma leaders expressed in the first season of the NPC podcast.

You can catch up with each episode from our first season through Google podcasts, Apple iTunes, Stitcher, everywhere fine podcasts are distributed.


We've also got something new for you: the NPC Healthbiz Weekly e-newsletter. It offers industry news and comments from the folks whose opinions shape events in pharma. Sign up for a free subscription at Chronicle.healthcare.


This year's virtual National Pharma Congress will be a series of weekly 90 minute webinars featuring the very best minds and the most vital subjects. It starts Wednesday, October 21.


You podcast listeners get 20% off the registration fee when you use code POD20. So, sign up now at pharmacongress.info.

Keep sending your questions and comments by email to health@chronicle.org. Or remember you can call our comment line. Leave your name, a callback number and the question you'd like to ask. The best questions will get used in future NPC podcasts. Call 647-875-9011.


The NPC podcast was presented in cooperation with Impres, Canada's next generation commercial partner. Learn more at www.impres.com.


This is Mitch Shannon of Chronicle companies. Jeremy Visser is our producer, the announcer was Leona Droidingham.


Have a great week and stay safe. We'll see you again next Wednesday.