The Sales Survival Guide
To deliver more valuable customer interactions, sales reps and account managers need support and training
The demise of the pharma sales rep has been predicted so many times over the past two decades that you start to wonder how the role has survived at all. Every time an uber-trend rocks pharma – whether it be the shift to a smaller sales force with the end of the blockbuster, huge drops in customer face-time or the disruption of digital – people start to question the value of the sales rep in the modern world.
The secret behind the great survivor of pharma is that the sales rep of 2017 is not the same beast as the rep of 1997 or 2007. The role has evolved over and over again, rising to meet the new challenges thrown in its path, constantly seeking to prove its value. Once more, as yet more trends and issues bombard pharma, the role of the sales rep is evolving.
It all comes down to people, says Alain Carre, Director, Key Account Manager for Canada and Europe, at Merck Sharp & Dohme. “In sales, people should be at the center of your universe,” he says, describing a “people-first” model for success that balances patients, customers and company, although with people in the center.
The HR departments should be equipped to find the best possible account managers and sales reps with the most relevant skills, and then provide measures to support account management excellence, he says. “Perfection does not exist and never will, but balance does, so support your account managers.”
To implement the company’s vision or strategy, sales reps and account managers must work as a team in collaboration with customers for the patient’s sake, he adds. Building patient-centered trust with customers leads to coveted long-term relationships.
Yet, the quality of customer interaction is not high enough, says Craig Flanagan, VP Sales, Hematology and Oncology, at AMAG Pharmaceuticals and formerly Global Head of Field Excellence and Capabilities at Sanofi. “Eight out of every ten customer interactions are subpar,” says, claiming that while the need to make the right number of calls to the right people is still important, the focus should be firmly on the quality of customer interactions.
To accomplish that, the sales force must show customers that they are listening to them and acting on suggestions for improvement. He believes the major objective of the sales force should be to identify the customer’s current and long-term priorities and then focus on those areas that overlap with their companies for greater sales success.
The role of the sales manager is shifting also, says Colleen Schuller, VP and Global Head of Selling Excellence at GSK. Managers need to look beyond managing accounts and sales numbers to focus on boosting sales reps’ repertoire for effective customer interaction. They must be able to bring out the best in their teams and be adept at change management as it evolves around business planning.
“Managers must be brilliant at first-line sales, setting direction, and inspiring because the team will go as the leader goes,” she says. The world is VUKA – volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous – and industry must constantly adapt.
Fear of change is a powerful force to be overcome, says MSD’s Carre, who calls for a proactive instead of a reactive response. New training methods are needed for account managers and sales reps as well as first-line and even second-line managers, plus greater support is needed for sales force goals from upper management, HR, IT and marketing departments.
To deal with the disruption and change, boldly disruptive moves are needed, says GSK’s Schuller. While sales quotas have historically driven the measurement of sales force success, newer models that focus on adding customer value are emerging. Remunerating drug reps on sales numbers is bad for patients and opens a potential conflict of interest.
“Sales targets make sense at a retail store or car dealership, but they don’t make sense in hospitals,” she says. “In fact, it’s a dangerous trend.” As was widely publicized, GSK made a bold move in 2015 by removing all sales targets from their reps and first-line sales managers globally, shifting the company toward a customer-focused approach to sales.
The company now focuses on building customer relationships by improving the skills and abilities of its sales force. They do this with ‘input incentives’ such as increasing sales force scientific knowledge, selling skills, ability to create and execute effective and measurable business plans, and making company values a priority. Last year, the company saw a 6% increase in sales.
For Schuller, industry must do more to live up to society’s expectations and build trust. She calls for greater transparency around where medications should not be used, noting that such a shift would require changes in sales training to emphasize patient safety.
Rather than sending reps to training, training should come to reps, says AMAG’s Flanagan, who proposes an elite sales training team that travels to the sales force on a regular basis for consistent and frequent training. “The old way is to use training time to teach reps about the product and then we send them out and say ‘it’s all about the customer’ when we haven’t trained them in quality interaction with the customer,” he says.
But which skills does the sales force need moving forward? The answer is not simple, says Gonzalo Rodriguez, European Head of Sales Excellence at Novartis. “We need greater scientific knowledge about the products, better understanding of the influencing factors on physicians as customers, the ability to suggest the best medications for patient outcomes, and more understanding of the challenges within the healthcare system itself. We should be obsessed with adding value to our customers.”
As the role continues to evolve, it is clear that sales reps will remain at the heart of the pharmaceutical industry as a key link to its customers. With unique contact opportunities, they can identify emerging customer needs and trends in real time, and through specialized training can embrace a more customer-focused approach, helping to deliver an improved customer experience.
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