Omnichannel engagement in medtech: The time is now

| Article

In healthcare systems around the world, the adoption of digital and analytical tools and methods has accelerated in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Telemedicine has proliferated, and digital collaboration and analytics have been deployed at scale to improve patient outcomes and enhance productivity as healthcare delivery shifts to outpatient and home care. At the same time, companies in the medtech sector have accelerated their digital transformations and added more roles and channels—including self-service portals, webinars, and social-media content—to support remote interactions with both healthcare professionals (HCPs) and nonclinical stakeholders, such as payers, hospital leaders, and procurement professionals.

As a result, the medtech industry is shifting from a model that revolves around sales reps to an omnichannel world in which HCPs are able to access information as and when they need it. Although reps remain the main point of contact, companies are augmenting this relationships with new resources and tools and coordinating them across channels to address stakeholders’ needs. This shift is designed to enable stakeholders to make better and faster decisions for the benefit of patients and health systems alike (see sidebar, “Understanding healthcare professionals’ engagement preferences”).

For medtech companies, a properly planned omnichannel model holds the promise of improving not only HCP engagement but also overall quality of care, patient outcomes, revenues, productivity, employee satisfaction, and talent attraction and retention. To capture this promise, leaders will need to reflect on two key questions explored in this article: What will the expectations of HCPs and nonclinical stakeholders look like in the next normal? How can medtech companies consider shifting their go-to-market models to address them?

Early steps in omnichannel

To adapt to changing preferences among HCPs and nonclinical stakeholders, medtech companies are using a broader set of channels, including the following:

  • Digital marketing. Eighty percent of medtech companies shifted some of their marketing expenditures (more than 20 percent, in most cases) to digital channels in 2020.1
  • Inside sales. Sixty-four percent of medtech companies are launching or growing their “inside sales” capabilities.
  • Portals and e-commerce. Two-thirds of medtech companies expect online channels to account for more than 20 percent of their revenue by 2025.
  • Hybrid sales-rep interactions. Most medtech companies are equipping their reps with virtual-communication tools and digital content and training them in remote selling.

However, medtech companies have yet to reinvent the way they engage with stakeholders to provide a seamless experience across digital, remote, and in-person channels; in fact, 77 percent report experiencing channel conflict. Stakeholders are asking for better coordination across channels, more digital content that is relevant and tailored to their needs, and the ability to access information on demand. Meeting these expectations will require medtech companies to undertake a radical rethink of the people, processes, and technologies that make up their go-to-market models. Omnichannel engagement is not about making tweaks to existing models. It’s about shifting to a new model in which agile teams bring design thinking, digital engagement, and analytics to help sales reps deliver the right message at the right time through the right channel to the right stakeholder.

A few early movers are showing what can be achieved in this way. A global provider of in vitro diagnostics redesigned its service delivery across channels by using ethnographic research to uncover unmet needs; building new digital tools, such as online troubleshooting; and improving collaboration among its call centers, field technicians, and sales reps. A leading medtech-diagnostic company used a mix of digital and remote channels, including inside sales and self-serve portals, to reach a new outpatient segment with tailored information and support. And a supplier of hospital consumables unlocked new growth by rolling out an omnichannel-engagement model that helps procurement leads optimize product ordering against the clinical-activity mix, increasing both user satisfaction and quality of care. All these companies built their omnichannel models using a clearly defined approach.

Building an omnichannel model in medtech

To create a seamless omnichannel experience, successful medtech players follow a process with six elements: define the vision, design the engagement model, set up cross-functional implementation teams, build an analytics engine, develop a scalable technology plan, and prepare the organization for change.

1. Set the vision

Any successful omnichannel transformation begins with leaders aligning on a vision of how to embrace a new way of working that’s focused on meeting the needs of HCPs, nonclinical stakeholders, and patients. This vision identifies which business units, countries, segments, and interactions are linked to creating measurable value for external stakeholders and the businesses.

One common bottleneck in omnichannel transformations is resource allocation, especially in companies with rigid, siloed, and sluggish processes for annual business planning and market-based budget allocations. Successful companies often create ring-fenced central budgets to kick-start their omnichannel investments, scaling them up as impact is delivered so that the programs are, in effect, self-funding. They institute regular—at least quarterly—resource-allocation processes that involve leaders across functions to shift funding and talent to the most promising omnichannel business cases, maximize returns on investment, and accelerate scale-up.

2. Embed design thinking

When identifying the needs of HCP and nonclinical stakeholders, many medtech companies rely on market-research surveys and other traditional techniques or draw on institutional knowledge and experience. However, such an approach can result in incremental thinking that fails to address new engagement opportunities. Design thinking—the use of techniques such as ethnographic research to understand stakeholders’ needs, coupled with creativity, empathy, and intuition, as well as rational inquiry—can help medtech companies break out of this trap. For instance, conducting deep ethnographic research with patients, clinicians, procurement professionals, and others can expose unmet needs and pain points and help inform which channels, messages, and experiences should be included in the design of new engagement models (exhibit). Such research can also yield insights into where analytics could be helpful and what new tools and forms of interaction may be needed.

An omnichannel-engagement journey in the medtech sector needs careful orchestration across multiple elements.

Design-led problem solving is not a one-off exercise. It is a continuous process of testing new engagement concepts with stakeholders, learning what works and what doesn’t, and refining iteration by iteration until the concepts are mature enough to be scaled across the organization.

3. Set up agile, cross-functional implementation squads

Developing and implementing an omnichannel-engagement model calls for close collaboration among different functions and capabilities and a rapid progression from ideas to prototypes that are quickly tested and refined with stakeholders. Successful companies set up cross-functional squads to deliver the building blocks of the new engagement journeys, with members drawn from sales, marketing, service, analytics, IT, and design groups. Any omnichannel transformation revolves around squads: they foster, test, and institutionalize innovation; build organizational capabilities; deliver targeted coaching; kick off change management; identify barriers to change; and help shape the scale-up of processes and key performance indicators.

For example, a medtech company that seeks to engage HCPs when they are researching and evaluating products could ask its product and digital-marketing specialists to set up a webinar series and develop supporting digital content personalized to each physician. At the same time, sales reps could follow up with any physicians who have specific questions and explore which physicians would find it helpful to see a demo. Meanwhile, an analytics team working in the background could track the impact of these activities on HCP satisfaction and business goals.

Squads typically operate through two-week, agile sprint cycles and use daily stand-up huddles to coordinate efforts across functions and create tight feedback loops on execution. Through these sprints, the squads identify what works and needs to be scaled up, on the one hand, and what gaps need to be filled—in capabilities, mindsets, operating models, incentives, processes, data, and technology—on the other.

4. Build an analytics engine to coordinate engagement across channels

Historically, the success of many medtech companies has been based in large part on the experience and knowledge of their frontline talent. But with the proliferation in channels and the increasing complexity of the medtech landscape, companies are seeing a need to augment sales reps’ pattern recognition with other techniques and tools. Advanced analytics can help medtech companies create a better experience for HCPs and other stakeholders while also improving the effectiveness and efficiency of their own operations.

The first step for many new adopters is to use simple descriptive analytics that draw on historical data to learn from past purchasing patterns. Much of the value in this approach comes from merging internal and external data sets—which is often a challenge for companies using traditional data-management structures and techniques. External data sets, such as records of health-insurance claims, are mapped against data collected from HCP interactions to yield valuable insights into a given physician’s needs and challenges. Even when historical-interaction data are lacking, analytics teams can use a physician’s service history to predict that individual’s needs and understand when they are likely to become acute.

In the most advanced applications, machine-learning algorithms use data on stakeholder characteristics, interaction history, and outcomes to simulate the content, channels, contact frequency, and sequencing that will create the best experience for a given stakeholder or healthcare institution. A “recommendation engine” can then be developed to suggest which step a sales rep or other professional can best take to engage a particular stakeholder at any point in time.

Successful analytics engines are cocreated through the close collaboration of data scientists, squads, and frontline staff, with support from translators who use their understanding of technology and the business to mediate among different roles. Teams use descriptive analytics to form hypotheses to test in the field, identify additional data that could be used to fine-tune the algorithms, and work out how to incorporate interaction data to improve outputs. Other success factors include adopting best practices in data engineering and creating reusable building blocks—models, features, data pipelines, and so on—that can be assembled and customized afresh for each new wave of analytics.

5. Develop a scalable technology landscape

Perhaps surprisingly, IT is seldom a barrier to embarking on an omnichannel transformation. Most medtech companies have the basic technology components already in place: enterprise-resource-planning (ERP) and customer-relationship-management (CRM) systems, along with master data sets. Often, what they need to get started are targeted interventions to improve integration across the building blocks.

However, as squads learn about the most effective workflows and interactions and prepare to scale them up, organizations will need fully integrated tech stacks designed to meet business needs and support critical capabilities. These can include channel capabilities (such as product catalogs for e-commerce and contract administration for self-service portals), engagement capabilities (such as personalization, consent management, and purchasing approval), and back-end capabilities (such as payment systems and e-signature enablement).

As medtech companies start to build out their technology stacks, they may be able to capture quick wins by integrating new capabilities into existing systems and workflows—incorporating analytical insights and a recommendation engine into sales reps’ engagement dashboards, for example. Successful transformations are led by the business and enabled by IT, with both parties equally accountable for delivering an enhanced experience for external stakeholders and employees.

6. Gear up the organization for change

Once an organization is ready to make the transition from experimentation (with two or three squads) to transformation (with scores or hundreds of squads helping the bulk of the business to embrace the new omnichannel model), it will need to address talent, capability building, processes, and performance management.

Medtech companies seldom have all the talent they need for omnichannel operations and usually need to hire a range of new staff—such as remote, HCP-facing sales reps to build or augment inside-sales capabilities—over time. Similarly, most organizations need to scale up their digital-marketing talent in disciplines such as content creation and marketing analytics, as well as recruit for novel roles in areas such as ethnographic research and user-experience design.

In analytics, it may make sense to start by recruiting a few data engineers and data scientists and a translator to lead the group and liaise with commercial teams. Another new role to recruit for is that of omnichannel product owner, who is charged with orchestrating cross-functional collaboration in design, analytics, digital marketing, and so on, and delivering new digital experiences, internal sales-enablement tools, and other elements.

To build in-house capabilities, companies typically undertake organization-wide upskilling on a range of topics for each cohort, such as AI basics for executives and agile methods for squad members. Digital platforms are an effective way of delivering this training, which needs to be available to squad members from the outset.

Where processes are concerned, successful companies develop repeatable models and record them in an omnichannel playbook, along with a constantly updated set of options for codifying learning and scaling up. This playbook serves as a guide to setting up and running squads (for example, how to set up an agile cadence, how to conduct user-centric research, and how to iterate and test rapidly with external stakeholders) and engaging with the cross-functional teams that support the squads (for instance, advanced analytics and sales training). The expectation is for the squads and supporting teams to follow the playbook and improve it continually through a test-and-refine approach. The playbook then becomes a mechanism to build enterprise-wide omnichannel capabilities.

When tackling performance management, companies need to track not only the impact of omnichannel initiatives but also their progress toward scale-up. Leading indicators of impact include the number of stakeholder interactions by channel, the number of opportunities on which to follow up, and email click-through rates; lagging indicators include stakeholder satisfaction and business-outcome metrics. When monitoring progress toward scale-up, companies can use indicators such as the number of people trained in omnichannel topics, the number of new positions filled in key capability areas (such as design and analytics), and the share of the business conducted through omnichannel engagement.

How to begin

Although moving to an omnichannel go-to-market model requires a fundamental shift in capabilities and budget, the transformation can be self-funding with the right approach. Moreover, companies can achieve a lot fairly quickly, even with limited data and tools. The key is to start moving the needle by taking the right first steps.

A pragmatic way to begin is to define a vision and translate it into a two- to three-year road map of opportunities. Leaders then prioritize those opportunities in line with the value at stake and the company’s starting point in capabilities, technology readiness, and investment capacity. They set up a few squads in a carefully selected country and business unit, making sure the organization is able to digest and deliver the desired changes. They also link up data sets using simple descriptive analytics and business rules to guide the squads.

Successful pilots typically share three key attributes. First, the pilot has a committed commercial leader and sponsor who models an external orientation and an agile mindset, helps commit resources and remove barriers among functions, and ensures that teams work to a common rhythm. Second, it targets a country and business unit that offers an opportunity to drive business impact, coupled with broad buy-in for reinventing the engagement model through sprints. Third, to build momentum across the whole organization, teams specify a set of tangible outcomes that can be used as the basis for a compelling change story and, in time, as a yardstick for meaningful improvements in HCP satisfaction and business goals.

At the end of the first sprints, a company should have proved that the new model can move the needle on leading indicators, developed a “North Star” that gets the organization excited, learned about any obstacles that could hinder or block scale-up, and refined the road map with a clear view of where to go next.

How well—and how quickly—medtech companies embrace omnichannel engagement is likely to determine whether they join, or retain their place in, the ranks of industry leaders. They have only to look to other industries with more advanced omnichannel capabilities to see how these dynamics could play out. First movers have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to lead the omnichannel trend and, in so doing, to satisfy the considerable unmet needs of healthcare stakeholders.

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