The lockdown generated by the pandemic in most of the world has significantly altered the way we engage with customers. Deals that were previously closed in meetings in their offices, in ours or in international shows, now must be done through email and videoconference and we all know that it is not the same to have someone on the other side of the table, perhaps after a relaxing meal in a good restaurant with a good wine that do it from home, surrounded by their children and pets and us in the same situation from our living room. Many people working in the commercial arena have suffered a significant loss of effectiveness and pray for the vaccine, treatments, antigen tests or whatever allows us to travel again and return to a situation like the previous one before the losses become too big.
However, it can be expected that months may still go by in which business trips are still a rare event, and in addition, the “new reality” may not be like the one we have seen before. Many of the changes that have occurred may be irreversible, and COVID will not be the last disruptive event to come. Some companies have been able to identify in this time that perhaps their trips were unnecessarily frequent, long, and expensive, and that in the future it will be necessary to compete with others that have learned to do things differently. The winners will be able to offer better prices and services to their clients as they will have built a tighter and rational cost structure.
Bill Gates predicts a scenario with 50% less travel and 30% less office time. In this situation, is it possible to maintain the client's commitment without physically facing them or having less physical interaction? Have we learned to take advantage of the new solutions that digital systems provide?
Bill Gates predicts a scenario with 50% less travel and 30% less office time. In this situation, is it possible to maintain the client's commitment without physically facing them or having less physical interaction? Have we learned to take advantage of the new solutions that digital systems provide? As Gates pointed out, the ability to innovate in the digital world has multiplied during lockdown. Have we improved our ability to adopt these innovations as soon as they are available? Many of the answers would be "we're working on it" but with an eye on the supposed return to normal. We think that it is not the right way.
Emergpharma has, like all others, gone a sort of journey through the dessert, but we have to say that our company is currently experiencing a growth momentum as we cannot remember in our more than 10 years in the market. We have multiplied the number of clients and, what is more important, we have managed to multiply the number of projects in the already existing ones. We did not invent the wheel, we just used the period between march and may, were customer contacts disappeared and our emails received no reply, to rethink our business. These are some of the steps we took and the results we got and are still getting.
Identify the challenge and opportunity
We understood from the beginning that the situation was going to last at least a year (and probably more). This led us to a first decision: we could not wait for the rain to stop. We had to, quoting Taylor Swift, learn to dance in the rain.
I had just returned from chairing the second session of Pharma Synergy held in February in London when the first lockdown to air traffic was announced, affecting both Thailand, which is where we have our APAC offices, and Spain, where is our European one. I was bringing a portfolio of potential clients, but now those clients were not replying to our emails.
A part of our team was in the process of training. In such an unprecedented situation, it was necessary to understand what was happening before seeking solutions. It was Einstein who said that "If I had an hour to solve a problem, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the appropriate question, because once I knew the correct question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes." So, we decided to dedicate a whole month to understand how the new situation affected not us, but our clients. That was probably the slight detail that made the difference.
The new setting
Understanding that the situation affected both us and our clients, and that the problems we were having, adapted to their reality, they were going to have too, helped us to imagine how the new ways of interact would be in the new scenario and to create a protocol adjusted to each case because, as always, not everyone reacted in the same way.
It was clear that our clients could not travel, neither could we, they had a need to connect with their customers in other ways, like us, they would probably have to change the segmentation criteria to adapt them to the new reality because they would have to interact with any type of customer in different ways, just like us, and they would have to adapt their structure and way of working to the new available tools. That is, we were going to face the same thing, each from our own perspective.
We understood soon that the main change was about the way to go digital, particularly in the communication with our customers. However, instead of evaluating the existing options and selecting a system, we decided to become experts in all which could be eventually used by our clients. Our reasoning was, instead of convincing them that our choice was the best and why, it was much more convenient and effective to show them that we were as flexible as to be able to use and master any system that they would feel comfortable using. This decision helped us a lot to strengthen ties. When a customer took too long to share screen, our team was there to support them, regardless of being Skype, WebEx, Zoom, Teams, or WhatsApp. Be familiar with all of them allowed us also to look more spontaneous, even we could smile and joke about the outfit we wore, beyond what the camera was showing. We managed to start generating empathy from distance, a real challenge given the circumstances.
After some weeks having 7 or 8 videoconferences per day, we learned that they respond to different rules than those for the physical meetings and, if we were able to understand them, they could become powerful tools. Although may seem to be more impersonal at first, they are easy to organize and above all to schedule in advance and provide valuable information about the person in a more informal context, that is, when it is more authentic. The videoconferences also allow a greater frequency of communication and if it is well structured it greatly improves the monitoring of projects.
We found that by organizing protocols in advance, we were able to greatly reduce duration and increase efficiency. Something as simple as sending an agenda on the invitation made a difference.
We found unexpected advantages linked to the use of videoconferences with certain clients, such as those from Southeast Asia. As an online tool, we were able to incorporate the highly experienced and proactive European team on a much more frequent basis. In addition, we realized that, for some of these customers, a system in which the participant can hide or conceal their reactions and / or emotions turning off the camera can be very "friendly".
Regarding our clients in the Middle East and North Africa, the issue required more complex work. In these countries, personal contact is key to building trust, and managing to sign an agreement remotely was one of the most difficult challenges for us. We had to reinvent our use of social media, particularly LinkedIn to get closer in a more “human” way. It is amazing what can be accomplished with small details, such as congratulating on a birthday or a new position. The real advantage of LinkedIn is that it allows you to turn the interlocutor into someone real, not just the employee of this or that company. Learning to use it in a coordinated way and taking advantage of all the options, such as groups, posts or articles, can become also a powerful tool to build trust.
We also realized that, in China, the powerful LinkedIn does not have the same following as in the West, and that for chats they use “WeChat” instead of WhatsApp. We had to ask for favors to access the latter, as it requires someone to recommend you, and that person must be in China. Asking a client to do us that favor may seem a bit strange, but in our case, it helped to strengthen a bond from which we continue to benefit, in addition to improving our dialogue with clients in this country.
Putting ourselves in the shoes of our clients allowed us to immediately gain fluency in virtual meetings. We realized that the schedule mattered a lot. Having clients in Asia, Europe and LATAM, there were times that we started at 9 in the morning and the last meeting was at 12 at night. To prevent our team from suffering too long hours that could have reduced productivity, we established a much more flexible work system. The secret was to get videoconferences with durations less than the hour always, and optimally 30 or 40 minutes. To avoid the feeling that there were things remaining, the last two minutes should be devoted to a summary (then someone would send a written half page afterward) and the scheduling, by Google calendar or any other tool, of the next videoconference. This system proved to be extremely effective for monitoring projects, and it also led us to see the need to introduce project management programs in the cloud.
When we decided to introduce Trello and Click-up into our work routine, we were not sure of the outcomes. A part of the company is made up of senior professionals who have been doing things in a more classical way. Changing the routine seemed like a difficult challenge, but it resulted to be much easier than expected. Management programs did not replace our weekly review meetings but complemented them by allowing access to information necessary at any time whatever might be the time zone. Needless to say, our younger staff adopted it immediately and within days knew how to get the most out of it.
Learning with our client
Once we were familiar with Project management tools, we consider the possibility of incorporating them into our daily work with clients. It seemed like a very risky bet. It is not the same to get a client updated through scheduled meetings, say every fifteen days or a month than to do it in a permanent format, in which your clients can monitor what you do and what your progress are at any time. We accepted the challenge, and the truth is that we could not imagine that it would become an important sales tool, both for new projects in existing clients and for attracting new ones.
As mentioned above, the strength of our otherwise inexperienced new team was its enthusiasm and familiarity with digital systems and social media. On the other hand, the senior part of the company accumulates extensive experience and a broad global network that could be used at a time when finding new leads was a problem for our clients. We managed to make our “juniors” expert users in digital technologies, and we also found ways to transform knowledge of seniors in operable systems (database, files of clients) capable of providing quick and effective responses.
I do not remember exactly when we started to become trainers for our clients. It was somewhat progressive, at times when we offered them the opportunity to work in Trello, we also gave them the possibility that one of our young project managers do a short training of 10-15 minutes which ended up being an hour. It generated an additional number of questions, that that in the end went far beyond the project, we even became “ad hoc consultants” , both on videoconferences, project management tools, and on the use of LinkedIn to generate and maintain leads.
Return to the local and virtual globalization
Another strategic decision that has fueled our growth has been to create long-term relationships with local partners who know their respective markets well. These collaborators are now an essential part of our business. We organize videoconferences biweekly with each of them to follow up on projects. They are short meetings, just 30 minutes, but highly effective. This is allowing us an extraordinary growth in strategic markets such as Mexico, Brazil, Russia, China, or Korea, as well as Thailand where we do not need a partner because we are present.
Finally, we signed a collaboration agreement with the organizers of Pharma Synergy, one of the most recognized annual events in the field of pharmaceutical business development in Europe. For the organizers, as for other companies that had managed to succeed in this difficult and competitive world, the new situation also forced them to reinvent themselves. Would they be able to generate similar outputs through digital events? Pharma Synergy events provides added value based primarily on the ability to generate bilateral meetings between companies attending. The challenge was to transfer something like that to the virtual world, for which it was necessary to select a platform and establish a model that would allow it to fulfill a similar function to that of its face-to-face meetings. The first test they carried out, with our collaboration, last July was a test that worked quite well. The online model has allowed them not only to generate incomes with a much lower level of costs, but also to extend their influence to other geographic areas that they did not reach before. For us it has been an important source of contacts and projects.
In summary, our case is just to be used as a benchmarking, although the needs and situations of each company are different. There are still many things to be fine tuned, and it remains to be seen if our model survives the return of traveling, but we are convinced that we will be able to adapt our way of achieving the commitment of our customers simply by having a single premise in mind: If we understand them, if we first learn how change affects them, we will be able not only to provide solutions in their relationship with us, but even to help them in this transformation. Is there a better way to maintain or increase engagement?