Andrew Tolve examines how virtual sales training can boost selling skills—and save money
Training pharma sales reps is an expensive affair. First, there’s the cost of paper-based training materials, which can run as steep as $1,000 per new hire. Then there’s the cost of transportation to get reps from their respective regions to a city for sales kick-offs, where a hotel must be reserved, a meeting center booked, food provided, and staff accommodated for. And then there other expenses, like the help desks that companies generally maintain so that when the training they’ve spent that time and money on falls short, additional layers of support are present to plug the gaps.
“People get into training, they sit there for a few days, sometimes a week, get their information, their handbook, and then they’re sent back to field, which is when the real problems start,” says Michael Huspenina, director of pre-sales and training at Update, a CRM solutions manufacturer.
Huspenina likes to talk about “sustainability of training,” the idea that the training reps receive should leave a lasting impact and that the overall structure in which it is delivered should be equally built-to-last. In this light, e-training, sometimes called “distance learning” or “virtual sales training” depending on the context, is an alternative worthy of consideration. Its proponents say that, done right, it can eliminate paper materials, provide ongoing feedback and support, decrease the need for big kick-offs, and support updates to technologies and brand messaging as they emerge.
“With e-Training, you’re way faster, you’re way cheaper, you have a much higher reach rate, and there’s higher sustainability in keeping information available in the long-run,” Huspenina argues.
Bottom line benefits
In the present climate, cost matters. It matters to the tune of multi-billion-dollar mergers and acquisitions as well as abrupt lay-offs and changes in management. Training is one area where companies can save, according to e-training proponents, without sacrificing quality. “The industry needs to understand that there are ways to get people together and learning other than staying at expensive hotels for several nights for training on a new application,” says Huspenina.
Admittedly, setting up online resources, training videos, and simulations that can engage reps in realistic scenarios costs money, and sometimes significant sums of cash, depending on the solution. But that money often pales in comparison to what companies pay for training weekends quarter after quarter. Greg Harbin, director of business development at Skura, says that figures for big training venues and kick-offs can easily exceed a million dollars when all is said and done: “That’s a large sum of money, especially when a cheaper alternative can deliver a more effective training experience.”
He says one of his clients in Canada and the US trained a whole field force for tablet PCs for $30,000 by capitalizing on e-training. In 2011, Pfizer started providing new rep hires with iPads loaded with training docs and simulations, rather than with paper-based materials. The company estimated at the time that the move would save $500,000 a year, not to mention a lot of trees.
“It can be overwhelming, and sometimes intimidating, to newly hired sales representatives when a delivery truck arrives at their home and unloads several large boxes of textbooks and manuals,” said Dan Reading, team leader, representative field training, in a press release at the time. “Now representatives receive a pre-loaded iPad delivered to their doorsteps with everything—textbooks, manuals and training videos—already installed. And they can carry it everywhere.” (For more on the iPad, see Will the iPad kickstart a pharma sales and marketing revolution?, Future pharma: Making the most of the tablet takeover, Pharma goes mobile: Making the most of the app opportunity, and Pharma sales: Focus on the mobile opportunity.)
e-training best practice
When pharma companies adopt the iPad into their sales forces, the temptation is often to take their paper-based details and simply transition those slides over to the new devices, even though the tablet medium functions in an entirely different way. It’s a similar story with e-training, says Huspenina, as companies often want to start by repurposing paper-based training materials and then stop there. “It’s not enough to just digitize onsite PowerPoint presentations and then say, ‘Here are the slides. If you have any questions, let me know,’” he contends.
Instead, companies should create a dynamic structure in which sales reps are presented with a range of engagement techniques—video, games, pdfs, quizzes, etc.—woven together in a challenging, fun manner. “It’s important when people learn something, they have this experience where they’re free to explore, to learn and click and have small failures, but at the end of the day it’s a positive experience,” says Huspenina. (For more on games, see Future pharma: Making games work for pharma and Technology, adherence and patient partnerships .)
Simulations like Concentric Rx’s “Rep Race,” a role-playing video game that puts reps into the heat of a professional environment, replete with disinterested doctors, rival reps, brusque secretaries, and evolving brand messages, can help prepare reps for real-world challenges and equip them with fine-tuned sales techniques and enhanced brand awareness.
Critics point out that solutions like this are expensive and that some virtual tools are virtually out of date the moment they’re created. To which proponents reply that this redoubles the importance of making sure that your e-training suite is flexible and accommodating, rather than as rigid as typeset printed on a page. Create a central repository where managers can add brief videos that keep reps informed on new applications. Make sure if you do pay for expensive simulations, those simulations can be modified through time so they continue to reflect current market conditions. And be sure to create ways to measure progress and success so that you can be assured of your investment.
One e-training course that Huspenina oversees uses the equivalent of a driver’s license exam to ensure participants have grasped the information. If they fail, it’s not a blight on their records, simply an indication that they need to go back and re-study the material. “That’s all part of sustainability of training,” he says. “We need to make sure that the model works from the start, and continues to work through time.”
Blended training models
Considering the slow rate with which pharma typically adopts new methods, and given the proven benefits of on-site training (team building, face-to-face experience), a wholesale move to an e-training model is likely not the most prudent course of action. More realistic is a blended model in which managers reinforce some on-site training with some e-training backup. The more experienced reps get, the more their managers can rely on virtual support.
“We have dramatically increased the use of virtual training, most especially with representatives who are learning their fourth and fifth products,” Reading of Pfizer noted last year. “Now, no matter where they are, they have all the materials at their fingertips.”
Huspenina points out that when pursuing a blended model, be sure to record on-site presentations and stream them live in a WebEx session. You can also store them in an Internet portal where reps can go back, review, and expand their knowledge after the fact.
“Too often in the pharmaceutical space, training is a B topic,” he says. “It’s an admin thing and all sales reps hate admin. Managers need to be aware that training is a vital part of every rep’s and every employee’s job and that committing yourself to a structured on-site and virtual plan will translate into real results for the company.”
For more on e-training and sales, see Special report: Pharma and the iPad.
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