Time to Redefine ‘Selling’

I vividly recall when I first joined the industry and my first day out with a rep ‘on territory’. What an eye opener that was for me.



Into a primary care practice, eye ball the doctor walking down the corridor, walk up, do the introductions, including me, then out with a detail aid, run through some key messages, another product then off to the samples cupboard. All done in record time. Well I thought it was record time, as I have never ever seen a 2-minute sales call in my whole life.

I walked out amazed and in awe of the representative. How could she do that so quickly, then do it all again 8 or 9 times a day. Almost everyday.

But how was that selling?

A smiling face. Push some sales messages. Try and get some half-hearted agreement from the doctor, ask if they will prescribe this medication for the next ‘x’ number of patients, then gone.

No order taken or written. No products bought, no money exchanged.

Welcome to the world of pharmaceutical selling. Or at least, the traditional world of pharma sales.

First of all, we need to be clear and agree what we actually mean by ‘selling’. One dictionary definition of 'selling' is to 'give or hand over (something) in exchange for money' and from this point of view pharma reps don't sell. At least, most don't. Sure some vaccines reps certainly can 'make sales' and take orders and indeed, in some markets it is still possible to sell. But, for the most part, the traditional sales rep role does not meet these criteria.

However, this definition can be extended to include the idea of 'persuading someone of the merits of', 'to talk someone into, win someone over' and the like.

This  approach, usually defined as Missionary Selling seems to fit the pharma market better: ‘it is a form of selling in which a sales person provides information about a product to an individual who has influence on the buying decision rather than directly selling the product’.

If we agree on this latter description and take this as a more accurate description of the pharma sales model, then it does call into question the role definition of MSLs and where they and other emerging sales roles such as Key Account Managers, Hybrid or Orchestrator Reps, Customer Service Reps and others should fit within the organization. These roles, by this definition, are selling roles yet often do not  fit well into the traditional sales structure.

Now I know why pharma wants to try and keep MSLs  from being called sales people, but that clearly is what they are. And if indeed MSL’s are sales people then that poses a host of issues for pharma, not least of them being how to reward and recognize success and where they fit within the organization. After all, the whole industry has worked hard to try and keep medical separate, at least in the eyes of customers, from the commercial side of the business.

The old product-focused approach is not particularly appealing to many of these customer types and pharma needs to rethink and recraft not only how it interacts with these different customers but also why it now interacts with them as it will no longer be all about writing prescriptions.

A compounding challenge is the rise of ‘new customer types’ that are becoming ever more important to pharma. The importance of payers, of pharmacists, health insurers, integrated healthcare systems in the US, government bodies in many countries and, of course, patients and consumers around the world.

New customers are starting to take the limelight from HCP’s and pharma has responded with a slew of new ‘maybe sales roles and job titles’.

The old product-focused approach is not particularly appealing to many of these customer types and pharma needs to rethink and recraft not only how it interacts with these different customers but also why it now interacts with them as it will no longer be all about writing prescriptions.

And, out of that flows the need to measure what a successful interaction looks like, if indeed, the plan is to measure the effectiveness of each call, rather the company may take a longer-term view of the call and seek to measure the engagement with this customer over time.

Clearly focusing primarily on scripts written is not going to continue to rule supreme, as many of these new customers – together with a sizable proportion of existing customers like KOL’s – are not, first and foremost, prescribers.

We’ve seen some experiments and tests in changing how the traditional representative is rewarded, the best, and most comprehensive, being GSK’s bold move to change its business model and subsequently recognize and reward it’s representatives differently. In the US, this year, following strong push back from it’s US field force, and declining sales, the company has again reworked its incentive program for reps to try and address both issues while still staying true to their bigger overall strategy.

Changing any representative’s incentive system in any industry is always a controversial and difficult process even when these changes focus only on the how reps are measured. In pharma’s case the potential change, and its impact, is much more than this.

Representatives will need to be measured against a new set of KPI’s, leaving behind many of the measures that they have been comfortable with for a long time. Coupled with this is the thorny issue of how to reward these other pseudo sales people.

Whatever approach the industry chooses to take they will need to refine what selling looks like, how success will be measured and how the organization will need to be restructured to help it move away from its traditional sales approach.


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