“Selling Isn’t a Bad Word If It’s Done Right”

Victoria Williams, Vice President and Sales Director, discusses her role in the transformation of GSK to a Patient-Focused Selling Model.



After nearly 20 years with GSK, Williams has moved up the ranks to become the Sales Director for the company in France. In an interview ahead of her presentation at eyeforpharma Barcelona 2016, she shares insights into GSK's patient-focused sales approach, an approach that is used worldwide within the company. Her passion for her work, and her dedication to the inevitable change involved in modern sales techniques, are clear as she describes GSK's method of working and their patient-focused ethos.

GSK has left the era of the product-centered world of sales far behind, Victoria sees, “A world of change surrounding utilization of a patient-focused model.” Indeed, her Sales Managers (who train the medical representatives) now spend more than half their time in the field, observing and coaching frontline sales representatives. She explains, “Their goal is to uncover the needs of patients and doctors; therefore, we tailor the benefits of our medicines to match the needs of the patient.”

For Victoria, patient-focused sales is a much more positive approach compared to the traditional product-centered approach. She acknowledges that the transformation is slow-moving, but as employees are trained in the new style, they are finding that doctors are more willing to take the time to discuss products with them, and generally to provide feedback. When doctors feel that they are treated as part of the process, listened to, and can ask questions, they are more willing to purchase new medications because they know the advantages for their patients.

“This new approach has fundamentally altered our relationship with doctors,” says Victoria. “The ten minutes the doctors spend with the rep brings a huge amount of value.” Face-to face contact with doctors is vital, as they feel listened to and understood. Physicians used to feel more like a “receiver” who was being “talked at” by the drugs companies, explains Williams, rather than treated as a participant in discussions.

Training for a patient-focused approach

Victoria acknowledges that the sales approach for pharmaceuticals is changing drastically.

“We are in an era where there is a huge amount of change,” she says, referring to how her industry is better accommodating its customers. “At GSK, the culture within the company revolves around four areas: Transparency; Respect for People; Patient-Focus and Integrity.” It is a vital component of the GSK approach, therefore, that sales reps emanate this culture through the use of a patient-focus sales approach.

Our medical representatives around the world no longer have individual sales targets. Instead, they are assessed and rewarded primarily based on their technical skills, scientific knowledge, quality of service they deliver to HCPs and their business planning and execution.

Williams expresses considerable passion and commitment to the patient-focused approach. She says she has always spent a lot of time present in the field and encourages all the managers in her team at first and second line level to do the same. “They can’t just sit in the office,” she emphasizes. In order for the approach to work at the sales rep level, effective training, coaching and support led by GSK managers is essential. She concedes that this process takes a lot of time and effort; but says, “It is worth it if it is done right.”

Sales incentives

As part of embedding the patient-focused selling model into the organizational culture, medical representatives and first line sales managers at GSK no longer receive bonuses based on individual sales results (prescriptions). "Our medical representatives around the world no longer have individual sales targets. Instead, they are assessed and rewarded primarily based on their technical skills, scientific knowledge, quality of service they deliver to HCPs and their business planning and execution", explains Williams. This approach was introduced at the start of 2015, and is now the GSK standard globally.

The reps are also observed and rated on the quality of their communications with customers. They are being trained to be transparent and patient-centered. All in all, the goal is no longer the sales target, but the quality and value of the interactions with our customers in order to meet the needs of their patients. “This type of approach drives a different behavior with physicians,” Williams highlights. 

I understand that if the value is placed on the patient, not the sale, you are half way there.

To achieve these objectives, Sales Managers use the business plans, knowledge testing (summative assessments), and observations of their reps during visits in order to determine bonus pay. “Sixty percent of a Sales Manager's time is spent on field visits,” says Williams, explaining how the reps are incentivized. In addition, representatives partake regularly in role-playing during training to help them better understand and develop the patient-focused approach.

Cultural change

Williams believes that in order for a patient-centered sales approach to be successful, broad cultural change within the entire company needs to be developed and achieved, spanning from executives to administrative staff. That’s why GSK's Code of Conduct states, “Like all our activities, our objectives and actions are driven by our values of respect for people, patient-focused, transparency and integrity” (Andrew Witty, CEO, 2014). 

According to Williams, adapting to change takes time, is highly complex, and is critical if Sales Managers are going to “buy in” to the patient-centered sales approach. “I understand that if the value is placed on the patient, not the sale, you are half way there,” she says.

Value of patient-focus

For a true patient-centered approach to the pharmaceutical company to exist, transparency is necessary. “There can be no other factors than the value of the medicine,” she says. The focus is the patient, and that changes the nature of the interaction between GSK reps and physicians; both have to have the right mindset for buying or selling medicines.  The existence of an appropriate incentive program, structured in the way that it is, helps the sales reps to better value and believe in a patient-centered environment.

She also believes, of course, that having a good portfolio of medicines that are correctly priced is important. There are certain fundamentals to the pharmaceuticals industry that do not change!

Change in the pharmaceutical area

So, what about the value of a patient-centered environment for pharma itself? Williams explains that change is hard in a sales force organization and believes that “sales manager competency” must be high in order for cultural change to be effective and sustained. “You have to train and re-train your reps to follow the system and do it only that way.”

Nevertheless, she believes that change is both necessary and inevitable. Pharma has had to deal with a reputation for “making money off illness,” “being paid by the taxpayers,” and “only being in it for the money.” Adoption of a patient-focused approach has a central part to play in changing this reputation declares Williams, “I hope if we can change the way pharma interact with our customers as well as other changes in the industry that there will be fewer negative headlines in the future about pharma, and that the public will see that we are an industry that saves peoples’ lives and makes their lives better.”

‘Selling’ isn’t a bad word

Williams is clearly passionate about many aspects of her role, including the process of selling – a word and concept that can remain with a patient-focused agenda. Indeed, she ends the interview with the words, “Selling isn’t a bad word if it’s done right.” She certainly demonstrates this herself very clearly, and without reservation, day after day. 


Victoria Williams will be presenting on "The Journey Towards Patient Centric Sales Force Excellence - Beyond the Sales Target" at eyeforpharma Barcelona 2016. For details, click here.


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