The social, demographic and economic context in which the pharmaceutical industry operates is changing dramatically, with huge implications for the industry as a whole. All these challenges have major ramifications for the way in which pharmaceutical companies market and sell the medicines they develop. With these challenges comes pressure to gain efficiencies in all facets of the business, but perhaps no aspect of pharma operations is under as much scrutiny as the sales and marketing function.

The discrepancy between the growth in sales force size and the decline in prescribing makes sales force effectiveness the top challenge for pharmaceutical sales managers. Closed-loop marketing (CLM) is transforming the pharmaceutical industry from a mass market  endeavor to one where individual physicians’ needs, attitudes, and beliefs are targeted. The CLM market is still small and evolving. Successful CLM pilots are those that embrace the full CLM potential with a limited group of  representatives, rather than using parts of the CLM approach with the full sales force.

The challenge

Today, pharma sales rep must be very well informed about the indications, contra-indications and interactions of their products. They must comply with the industry’s codes and guidelines and act according to government regulations. To support reps, pharma companies have moved towards sales force automation and customer relationship management tools. A number of wireless, electronic devices have been introduced, such as handhelds and laptops, but with limited success in the field. Since pharmaceutical sales calls can occur in unusual locations, sales representatives
were often unable to take advantage of formal presentations using notebook PCs and have typically had to rely on printed collateral.

The printed materials often lacked complete information and became outdated, making it difficult to have an informative dialog. Hence over the years many pharma companies have the decision to switch to tablet PCs and electronic promotional material.

Merck & Co. and AstraZeneca are among the companies that have widely deployed tablet PCs to the sales force. In the meantime, tablet PCs run applications that support the full pharmaceutical sales cycle, from accessing CRM-based contact information to getting an electronic signature for samples.

Will closed-loop marketing transform the pharma sales process?

What is CLM?

The term “closed-loop marketing” (CLM) has been around for decades. CLM refers to the feedback loop between the customer and the marketing message. Simply put, customer data and behavior is used to adjust marketing campaigns to direct and refine marketing strategy and tactics creating a constantly optimizing closed-loop system.

The pharmaceutical industry is actually behind many other industries like financial services or consumer goods in understanding the customer. CLM is about increasing the relevancy of marketing messages to lift conversion, grow revenue, and improve return on marketing investments (ROMI). In the consumer goods industry, they really know their customers’ profiles, demographics, needs, and buying  patterns. In the pharmaceutical industry, doctors used to be simply decile ten or decile five on prescription charts.

By combining data on physician demographics, attitudes and beliefs as well as prescribing behavior, CLM enables the pharmaceutical companies to apply marketing strategies to that specific type of physician. CLM is transforming the pharmaceutical industry from a mass
market endeavor to one where individual physicians’ needs, attitudes, and beliefs are targeted.

By using PC-based technology to capture every interaction with a physician during a detail, CLM promises to let marketing groups analyze physician preferences and the most effective sales tactics, then use this information to deliver personalized content that closely matches physicians’ interests– “closing the loop” and ultimately boosting prescriptions. Most of the products marketed as CLM began—and often are still primarily used—as e-detailing software that typically runs on tablet PCs. The software displays and manages visual aids such as presentations, reprints, and even animations. As it does so, it captures the interactions between reps and physicians by recording which items are viewed and for how long. To start closing the loop, the software transfers the data from the tablet to a back-end system for analysis. Through integration with the company’s customer relationship management system (CRM) and data sources such as records of prescribing behavior, the data captured during details can be correlated with other information to pick out trends. As a result, marketing groups can better understand what works for each physician or different groups of physicians, and adjust e-Detailing content accordingly.

Closing the loop strengthens & improve the relationships

Medical affairs professionals rely heavily, if not exclusively, on their ability to provide the most accurate, current, and unbiased information to their customers. With new sources of information appearing almost daily, most information is now available in real time. Customization of medical affairs information through a multichannel closed loop approach improves the chance that the customer will prefer this information to competing sources.

Relationships between medical affairs professionals and their targeted customers are clearly enhanced when customer preferences are considered and the information provided is tailored specifically to each customer. Closing the loop is synonymous with customer-centricity and, ultimately, with meeting the needs of the customer’s customer – the patient.

The insights that a multichannel closed loop approach can provide into KOLs are especially crucial. Pharma companies are currently taking a closer look at how they use KOLs, and discovering that matching KOL knowledge, interests, and experience to the needs of the company has never been more important. Especially in view of today’s heightened scrutiny of the way pharma engages KOLs as advisors, speakers, investigators, and consultants, it is vital to hire only those whose capabilities demonstrably meet the specific needs of the company. Closing the loop by collecting information from KOLs during ongoing scientific exchange will give the medical affairs team a clear picture of how and when to engage KOLs for an appropriate and positive impact on business needs.


Common pitfalls on the way to implementing closed-loop marketing

It would be nice to conclude that an evolving IT tool, CLM, is riding to the rescue of traditional pharma sales model. However, CLM is not a software – the software is only the enabler to perform that interactive marketing that is making CLM possible. One of the major pitfalls in CLM implementations is looking at each element individually rather than looking at the project as a whole, but the results so far have been mixed.

No one is rejecting CLM outright, but the sense among industry sources is that it will need to be applied more intelligently. In the past five years, increasing pharma interest and development activity has resulted in thousands of reps, being equipped with tablet PCs and generated many e-Detailing and CLM pilots. However, often these innovative deployments did not progress to the next level, going from pilot to production. Pharmaceutical companies seemed to be overwhelmed by the vast amount of data generated from edetails. Because the industry did not effectively analyze the data received from tablet PCs, it was not able to analyze the ROI delivered by the technology.

On the other hand, simply switching paper-based materials to e-details does not fundamentally change or enhance the relationship with the physician It is also important to remember that going from a “lifeless” paper detailer to a digital tablet pc-based multimedia detailer is a major leap for most pharma companies.

Suddenly they are communicating through a much more sophisticated media, embracing interactivity, animations and calculations – all in purpose of delivering a more individual and comprehensive presentation and thus creating value to the customer. Many companies consider the technology leap too great and decide to pilot by “transmitting” paper in their new digital media channel. Doing so, the only thing they will be able to track is the sales reps’ ability to apply the marketers decided “message strategy”. This can of course have great value in itself. However, to utilize the media for CLM and total different insight information about doctor’s behavior and motivational drivers – it needs to be used in a far more advanced way.

How to test run successful CLM pilot programs?

Successful CLM pilots are those that embrace the full CLM potential with a limited group of representatives, rather than using parts of the CLM approach with the full sales force. Recently, the situation has changed. Mainly because the industry itself acknowledges that it must change. Implementing effective CLM is far more challenging than simply equipping the sales force with tablet PCs.

Successful implementation involves at least seven key stakeholders:

  1. Sales,
  2. sales operations,
  3. marketing,
  4. market research and analysis,
  5. training,
  6. legal and regulatory,
  7. and information technology.

While the industry was doing very well with the traditional sales model, there was not much incentive to change. Today, the situation is very different, the industry’s image has suffered, sales forces are cut, and doctors refuse to see reps. There are many pressures, which are having a catalyzing affect to drive change.

How to ensure successful implementation of closed-loop marketing?


To realize the potential benefits of CLM pharmaceutical companies have to be up to the challenges of implementation. There is no doubt that the key success factor when introducing CLM is to remember the overall objective: providing additional value – not creating adding effort or inconvenience. When implementing CLM the first customer is the sales rep and it is crucial that he/she understands the aim of the initiative and the many benefits it can bring. To ensure success the following important elements should be in place:

Training the sales reps and giving value to them: Simulation-based training should be used to teach how the new approach can be used in different real life situations. The navigation should be trouble-free and simple to make it easy to present the right information; Improving customer experience: If physicians obtain more value in the encounter with the sales reps they will welcome the initiative. It should be easy to involve the doctors and make dynamic participants instead of inactive listeners of them.

Read this article on Pharma Sales Training 2.0 for more insights

Keeping it simple: The first digital detailer should not be too sophisticated. Sales reps should be given the chance to familiarize themselves with the media. This can be achieved by turning current paper-based detailers into a multimedia presentation rather than creating entirely new presentations. This way your reps can recognize the content and focus on using the system to deliver additional value to the customer rather than loosing the tread with new content or messages.


  Initial contact Followup Prescription/sales Feedback


Sales reps attempt to walk in or make appointments with physicians instead of reaching through other channels, and are more of a nuisance than a resource

Redundant contact through other channels

Sales reps follow up through additional face-to-face meetings that are prone to scheduling conflicts


Information overload with overlapping material and dense irrelevant information

Physicians may not have the necessary information or capability to deliver highest standard of care to patients (e.g. formulary access, prior authorization)


Physicians become well versed in fewer products and stick to fewer products

Physicians give feedback to companies through sales reps who may or may not be willing or able to share feedback with headquarters, owing to conflict of interest from negative feedback directly linked to the channels utilized by sales reps
Present Gaps Focus still face-to-face, with no coordination with other channels Portals not developed, turnaround time for requests too long Physicians not as informed as they could be because of inefficiencies Few feedback channels in place for physicians to utilize
Ideal / Expected Interaction Physicians are provided with materials that are relevant and/or customized. Physicians are able to choose the channel through which they interact with the company. Further interest in specific products can be satisfied quickly through appropriate preferred channel (e.g.face-to-face meetings, virtual methods, or the internet with company sales reps or medical science liaison)


Physicians correctly diagnose patients and prescribe appropriate products after extensive education and making informed decisions Physicians give feedback to companies to provide better service and materials so that they can be more effective at their job and improve accuracy in prescriptions


Multiple channels that are most convenient for the physician


From the late 1990s on, the customer relationship management (CRM) philosophy tried to offer a solution to the industry’s new promotional need by promising that, if each customer were treated in a personalized way, with attention to his or her individual needs, the customer’s loyalty would in turn provide higher sales and margins. Several sales force systems, labeled CRM systems, have emerged with the goal of providing the sales force with an electronic tool to help manage the customer relationship.

However, even today there is still no indisputable evidence of the success of such sales applications. The technology put in place to serve the field force in their everyday activity has resulted in massive data-storage tools that are used to capture large amounts of information. The benefits of such systems are often appreciated by sales executives, but are not yet fully exploited in the field. Sales representatives tend to find that the productivity-increasing systems are too complex, with the necessary key information not readily available to them in the format they require, and that the time spent in entering or retrieving data is high compared with the value they can derive from it.

This is no surprise: doctors today are busier, more mobile, and more tech-savvy than previous generations. Instead of setting aside time for meeting sales representatives or reading journals, they are more likely to keep informed via their iPad in the comfort of home. The new generation of sales applications, instead, should be designed around the field users, moving from the data-driven to the activity based approach: the application should follow the natural train of thought of the sales representative, and deliver the most relevant information to him or her. In order for pharmaceutical companies to realize the promise of effective CRM, the  applications must be designed for higher acceptance and utilization by the sales force, lowering the ongoing costs for education, and for really enabling the company to work as a team towards shared goals.

The technological tools are available to win the challenges of the future, but for technology to be an enabler rather than a burden, the human factor must be included in the equation.

Dipesh Majumder

Dipesh Majumder

Chief Evangelist at Medismo PharmaSoft
I am a Marketing Technologist, a strategist & a visionary with over 8 years of experience in traditional & digital marketing. I have been responsible for the development & execution of sales force effectiveness strategies, tools, processes for global Pharma sales organizations. Lead key initiatives, critical projects & continuous improvement activities.

Chennai, India ·
Dipesh Majumder