The Sales Rep of the Future

Sales reps will need to update their skills to match customer needs

The role of the sales rep is one that has perhaps seen more change over the last two decades than any other – and the evolution is showing no sign of slowing.

“The role of the sales rep is changing very quickly,” says Gonzalo Rodriguez, Region Europe Sales Excellence Head at Novartis. “Information is very easily available and this means that reps cannot focus on simply informing about products or ‘selling’ in the traditional sense of pushing products to physicians to get them to prescribe.”

The reach of patient-centricity is so great it is even influencing this most customer-facing of roles. “Companies now need to consider how they keep the patient in mind at every step and are increasingly required to clearly demonstrate how their medicines benefit the patient,” says Karen Bell, Business Development Director at Ashfield (part of UDG Healthcare plc).

Closer to home, in the shift from volume to value, sales rep are at the sharp end as new selling practices emerge, changing the traditional sales model. “The sales rep’s role will continue to evolve as a new balance will appear between the product promotion and the product-linked services/solutions promotion,” says Celine Genty, VP Customer Excellence EMEA at Janssen.

To ensure that sales reps continue to deliver commercial success, companies across pharma are looking at their recruitment and selection criteria, as well as ensuring their training and development keeps up with a new set of skills, capabilities and performance goals.

From sales rep to solution provider?

The future sales rep will be expected to handle a much larger and more diverse customer base – becoming key industry partners to patients, prescribers, and payers – and to seamlessly switch between functional hats and operate across various engagement channels. From product information experts, sales reps are morphing into multi-dimensional customer solution providers, but how will the role shape up over the coming years?

The work of the sales rep is expanding to include business support to customers, says Anthony Francomme, Head of Business Excellence France at Sanofi Genzyme. “The role of sales force effectiveness/excellence teams will evolve away from technical and analytical topics to bring advice and added value to BU heads and sales directors” he says.

Today’s representatives need to understand the agendas of local health economies in some detail, and be able to articulate a strong value proposition to a diverse range of stakeholders.

This is a long way from simply ensuring they meet prescription targets – now sales reps are expected to anticipate and meet the needs of HCPs and other customers. “Sales reps of the future will need to be competent and comfortable in engaging with payers, providers, and clinicians on a range of topics,” says Bell, emphasising that reps will need the flexibility to adapt to different customer needs. The customer service representative, focused purely on providing value to patients, will also be a key role of the future.

Reps will also need the skills to switch from one customer-facing hat to another. “Today’s representatives need to understand the agendas of local health economies in some detail, and be able to articulate a strong value proposition to a diverse range of stakeholders,” says Bell. The role of the sales rep in the future will encompass the ability to identify opportunities that create value for customers AND for the company, while also considering the professional boundaries of the regulatory and compliance framework.

“Companies need to recruit, train and develop individuals who are easily able to plan and deliver a multichannel approach to their interactions with customers, as well as being confident and proficient with both technology and the delivery of sales calls through the remote channels. Future sales teams will be staffed with ‘hybrid’ sales reps “where there is a mixture of face-to-face and e-detailing activities,” she adds.

However, as hybrid reps become more common, they will only be effective “if companies give careful consideration to the type of individuals suitable for this role, provide ongoing training and development opportunities, and implement a robust strategy for a multichannel approach,” says Bell.

Building the future rep

“Building new capabilities and training will be key to helping sales reps evolve from their past role to their new one,” says Genty. However, what capabilities will sales reps need?

Deep knowledge of customers and the market landscape: Future sales reps must articulate strong value propositions and tailor them to different stakeholders. To do so, they must have the ability to understand in great detail the local, regional, national, and international health markets, as well as the key economic drivers. “Future sales reps need to devote a lot of effort to understanding the customer in order to perform excellent segmentation and targeting that match with the customer interaction needs and that is focused on adding value to the customer,” says Rodriguez.

Multichannel management: To engage effectively, advance the conversation with the customer (either face to face or via web coaching) and amplify the impact of each interaction, sales reps must acquire basic IT and digital skills. “Companies need to recruit, train and develop individuals who are easily able to plan and deliver a multichannel approach to their interactions with customers,” suggests Bell. They must also develop the drive to service customers in new and different ways, and the ability to pinpoint the channel mix preferred by individual customers.

Empathy for customers and a strong patient focus: Before they can elevate the conversation with HCPs, sales reps need to position themselves as partners who are committed to driving health outcomes for patients. The future sales rep is focused not only on meeting the commercial requirements of the company, but also the value requirements of patients and other customers. “We need to consider emotional intelligence throughout the hiring and training processes in order to develop a strong focus on patient and customer interaction needs,” explains Rodriguez.

Measuring performance

As companies invest more in new assets, channels and digital tools to deliver novel customer services and promote patient outcomes, processes and infrastructure must be complemented by a change in behavior among customer-facing people. To ensure compliance, the indicators used to monitor and assess sales rep performance must be adjusted.

The balance between financial and behavioral targets is one that must be struck by each individual company, says Genty. “The sales rep’s role is evolving with a different balance between the volume approach and the value approach, but this trend is very different from one company to another, depending on the product portfolio, the competitive environment, and the company culture. Companies will need to find the right balance between quantitative and qualitative incentives that are the most relevant for them.”

Whichever way companies opt to balance their new incentivization schemes, they need to keep in mind how they can reshape their sales force into agents who think and behave in patient- and outcome-focused ways. 

To learn more about the sales rep of the future, see GSK’s new ‘ethical’ customer approach: Is it delivering?

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