How CSOs can look to the future to forge successful relationships with pharma

For many years there was talk in pharma circles about enhancing operations through external alliances – essentially opening doors to the possibility of working with people outside the sacred walls of a company. Rumours of such partnerships have since become a stark reality and a positive element of pharma’s wider fabric. Contract sales organisations (CSOs) have arguably been the greatest visionaries when it comes to enhancing modern pharma practices, while also epitomising the principles of flexibility and progressive approaches.

Pharma chameleon

Like with all cultural shifts, pharma has had to discard the detritus of ‘how things were done in the past’ in order to evolve. For a while it became very fashionable to throw in the term ‘joint working’, as a way of demonstrating that a ‘free thinking’ pharma company was hanging out with new crowds; breaking bread with people beyond the inner circle. In truth, however, it has taken some time for the seed of external partnerships to fully germinate in the pharma garden, but in recent times the movement towards a collaborative mindset has truly blossomed – indeed, it has added a multidimensional zeal to the arrival of a pharmaceutical product.

Pharma’s desire to embrace new possibilities may very well have been a response to the societal, economic or political upheaval of the last decade, or a reaction to online pressure, willing it to be less secretive and more transparent. It could even have been the influence of the 2012 Olympic Games – an event which truly emulsified the potential of commercial partnerships, and appeared to oil the drawbridges across many sectors, including healthcare and the life sciences.

Whatever the combination of factors, the bold ambition of CSOs has undoubtedly raised the bar in the high jump towards invigorated pharma partnerships.

Time travellers

As crusaders for modernising pharma CHASE, IQVIA and Star Medical are among the most successful exponents, and have not only witnessed a revolution in how pharma combines with external talent, but have been the architects of it.

Graham Hawthorn, managing director at CHASE, believes there are certain factors which are essential when forming the bond between a CSO and pharma company. “Trust and communication are always the bedrock of any relationship,” he says. “To make this happen, there must be a commitment from both parties towards developing an understanding, employing a solutions-based approach and delivering results.”

According to Paul Simpson, head of contract sales and medical solutions UK at IQVIA, building the foundations of a relationship is essential to achieving a positive outcome. “When we know what is keeping our clients awake at night, we have a greater chance of designing and delivering innovative projects which produce results,” he says. “By engaging early and giving us a problem to solve, we can create a compelling solution.”

Ryan Wooller, Star’s head of business development, recommends that a company which is considering the use of a CSO should take the leap of faith. “Conversations cost nothing, and there is significant value to be gained in discussing strategies and market insight,” he suggests.

“Pharma companies should think carefully about the kind of experience they are looking for, and if they’re serious about outsourcing, give it a go.”

Digital watch

One of the most notable shifts in the CSO dynamic is the emergence of digital. In spite of the cutting-edge science involved in treatment development, pharma has spent considerable time ruminating about the rules of the digital game, before finally realising it was the only game in town. CSOs have led the way in unleashing the potential of digital in the context of pharma sales.
Star Medical leverages its digital assets in several ways. Wooller explains: “Digital support tools have been a real game-changer for us. We capture qualitative market insight and blend it with analytics to ensure the commercial models we design are fit for purpose. We also enable clients and our teams to make robust commercial decisions in real time, based on a number of data sources.”

“Healthcare professionals are spending less time interacting with pharma sales representatives, but they are increasingly using a multitude of different channels to source their information, and they want digital support from biopharma,” notes Simpson. “There is an increased client interest in hybrid teams with different digital skill sets, and we are using our data assets to identify the right people.”

After years of rapid change, Hawthorn crystallises the importance of meeting modern client expectations: “We always appreciate the complexity of our customers’ evolving marketplaces by providing solutions fuelled by the right calibre of people, and delivering the flexibility, agility and confidence needed to thrive across the modern pharma landscape.”

The right notesIn all walks of life the most successful people look outside their usual sphere of influences. The Beatles employed experimental producers to arrange their seminal albums; comedy double acts like Morecambe and Wise brought in the slickest writers to ensure viewers kept tuning in, while the British Olympic team has routinely utilised sports psychologists in the pursuit of excellence. Pharma is no different, and taking its operations to another dimension has required a similar alteration in outlook.

Simpson explains: “Traditional approaches to promoting pharmaceuticals are no longer working; the environment is more complex and more regulated than before, the NHS continues to change and healthcare professionals have different needs. In response, we have evolved our services using unrivalled access to data and the insights needed to shape innovative commercial solutions.”
“In an increasingly complex environment, it’s difficult for companies to excel at everything. Outsourcing brings greater commercial agility, enhances campaign execution and instantly provides access to new skills, technology and capabilities,” he adds.

CSOs can also offer stability and ingenuity in an unpredictable climate. “In the business world the only certainty is uncertainty, and having a flexible sales force allows companies to respond quickly to positive or negative events,” says Hawthorn. “In the case of start-ups, for example, by utilising the CSOs established infrastructure, they can concentrate on establishing a presence and getting their product to market.”

Wooller believes that CSOs also offer companies a way to stay ahead on the constantly accelerating pharma travelator. “For organisations that get outsourcing right, the crucial components are people and tech,” he observes. “Using CSOs to evaluate the impact and utility of different technologies within the sales and marketing mix represents a huge advantage, while linking up with a CSO instantly increases the amount of headspace on executing a brand strategy. This rapid access to talent is a powerful tool.”
“2018 has seen significant team builds within primary care, requiring CSOs to have the ability to meet increased resourcing demands to fuel the solutions we offer. This means having a recruitment capability big enough and skilled enough to make it happen,” concludes Hawthorn.

Finish lineOne of the universal truths about pharma and product development is that inspiration always comes from the people for whom a medicine is life-changing. ‘Patient centricity’, ‘focusing on the end user’, ‘customer engagement’ – call it what you want – when you strip it back, we’re all patients and, in the final analysis, CSOs get their greatest reward from seeing a product launched and making a difference.

“It’s really rewarding when we play a part in getting groundbreaking medicines into the hands of patients that need them,” says Simpson.

“Some of the products that we’ve helped support have been truly remarkable,” adds Hawthorn. “Products have many touch points on their journey to the patient and the role of the sales professional remains key. If they do a good job, more patients will benefit.”
For Wooller it is the thrill of seeing solutions to unfolding problems: “We’re currently working in the opioid addiction space and the pioneering product we’re assisting with will change the way addicts are managed while also creating re-investment opportunities – now that is impactful.”

It is perhaps these sentiments that prove CSOs and pharma companies are running the same race. It challenges the assumption that hiring outside expertise is somehow conceding ground. In reality, the modern era suggests that utilising a CSO actually endorses a company’s firm commitment to medicine optimisation, while also showing a refreshing willingness to embrace highly skilled professionals whose motivations are precisely the same as their own.

John Pinching is an experienced healthcare commentator who has written extensively about the pharma universe and the NHS