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Smart Thinking blog

Insights and expert advice on the key issues facing today’s pharma marketer

The lost art of selling

Pharma marketers need appropriate training to effectively engage with customers
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I guess it's a clear sign of ageing that I want to start this article with the immortal words: "When I was a medical representative." But these words sum up accurately my starting point when my thoughts turn to selling in the pharmaceutical industry.

So, with a sharp intake of breath, let me embrace the reality of my mid-forties and delve into this idea fully – the idea being that there was a time when this industry fully embraced the art of selling.

First let me be clear what I mean by selling. I'm talking about a discussion that leads to the identification of needs and the proposal, and hopefully subsequent agreement, of product the rep is selling as a potential means of addressing these needs. This was a time when reps joining a company could expect their first six to eight weeks to consist of enduring the, generously described as functional, three star hotel nearest to their company's head office, where they would spend their time learning to sell their company's three main brands. And to those of you reading this who are under the age of forty, yes that was six to eight weeks, not the six to eight days that would seem like “a long time off the road for training” these days.

Now if you're in that sub-forty age bracket you're probably wondering at this point what on earth could a training course agenda have possibly consisted of to fill up six to eight weeks of a reps time. Well believe me when the invite arrived on my doorstep twenty-something years ago I too wondered the same thing and I'm sure did most of my 'Initial training course' alumni did too.

However, I can tell you that the time flew by and I'm pretty sure we all learned quite a bit about how to sell pharmaceutical brands. So let's look at how the eight weeks broke down. The first four weeks focused on the disease and the product. None of the distance learning we see nowadays, rather proper face-to-face teaching delivered by people that had made it their craft to both understand and be able to teach representatives with a variety of backgrounds, about diseases, their diagnosis and treatment and how, where and why their company's brand was of benefit. Three brands covered across four weeks, the culmination of which was a written and verbal exam to test understanding.

The next four weeks focused on learning to sell these brands. Time was spent understanding the buying process, time working on how to structure a selling conversation, time learning how to recognise personality types and establish needs through appropriate use of questions, time understanding ladders of adoption and establishing a reasonable goal for a call, time spent learning how to succinctly tailor, edit and propose the appropriate information about the company's brands to the customer and then time learning how to close a call gaining a clear agreement to useful action on the part of the customer.

This was repeated, practised and tested for all three brands. And then finally came the ultimate test, which was to tour the company's office with a variety of 'appointments' with the senior management team who were in character as customers expecting you to 'sell' them the benefits of your brands. I jest not when I say that careers were made or ended on the basis of this day.

Now as I write this I recognise that I sound like an 'old man' reminiscing of a past filled with better times and this is not the message I want to put across. We have an industry full of very capable sales people but we do not invest in selling training the way we used to and so we do not give our current representatives the best chance to turn into great sales people. So the point here is to question whether or not there's more we, as marketers, could do.

Let's start with the humble sales aid. In my opinion we used to be pretty good at these. Somewhere between six and twelve pages long, sales aids generally started with a few pages of facts to support a scene setting conversation where needs could be agreed. This was followed by some data about the brand and then a summary page upon which to base a close to the discussion. The content was light and crisp, the idea being it was a 'visual aid' to the discussion. These days, with a shift to iPads and the ever more complex challenge of dealing with medical and legal approval, we've allowed ourselves to become distracted away from selling support in favour of actually completing a sales aid on time and I'm saddened to say that the quality of our selling materials has plummeted and plummeted a long way.

Lesson one - Sales aids should be created by people who understand how to sell

Which means either having spent time working as a sales person or having taken time to learn and understand the importance of each part of the selling conversation and been present in enough ride-along field visits to have grasped the physical and emotional dynamic of selling to a real healthcare professional in their own environment.

Lesson two - This individual must also feel suitably confident and empowered to drive the process and passionately own the output

My medical and regulatory colleagues, for there was no legal input back in my day, were very clear that if they wanted to add, change or subtract anything from the sales aid then there had better be very good grounds for the change and anything that fundamentally weakened the primary purpose of the sales aid - that being an aid to selling - would be met with strong challenge. The debates were lively to say the least, however, our sales aids were all the better as a result of the robust discussion and everyone fully supported their roll out and subsequent usage.

Today's sales aids all too often seem to be the product of an altogether different and, some might say, unhelpful trend in our industry, that being the design by committee tendency. This rarely results in anything earth shatteringly brilliant but is a great process for the creation of flabby, data-laden encyclopaedias that do little to help a rep sell and bring fear to the eyes of the customer on the rare occasion when they leave the reps back.

Lesson three – avoid the committee design mentality or at least minimise its impact

You can see the thought in the customer's eyes as the iPad comes out, "Will they ever leave?" These sales aids have become the committee's idea of the sell as opposed to the tool the good rep might want to support their sell which will be tailored to the specific needs of their customers. And in case this sounds like the ravings of an out-of-touch forty-something let me share some actual quotes from real customers in focus groups I chaired for two different companies in the last few years.

From a specialist in oncology: "Do these pharmaceutical company reps think I have no memory? They come in visit after visit and tell me exactly the same thing each time."

Or from a specialist working in diabetes: "If reps took a little time to talk about the issues I have that need solving then maybe their products could be proposed as solutions to my problems and I'd be interested in hearing about them."

Or from a doctor that works in primary care: "My job is about patients and drugs are a very small part of my day. Reps should talk about my patients first and then how their drugs fit to that discussion."

Or from another specialist in diabetes: "As a specialist I manage lots of patients and will use most products. Reps need to talk to me about managing specific groups of patients with their drugs as part of the solution."

And lastly, and perhaps most damning, from a primary care doctor: “My day is really busy and I'm not obliged to to see reps, I choose to. I find it infuriating when reps abuse that friendliness by talking at me about what they want to talk about instead of having a conversation with me that makes my day more interesting, which is why I see them in the first place.”

All in all a fairly damning reflection on selling in our industry today, however let me add balance. When asked, all of the above doctors could talk about good reps they knew. And when asked what made them good reps they mentioned some familiar ideas.

Lesson four – copy what the good reps do.

“Good reps do the following: they talk to me as a person; they talk to me about my patients; they try and understand my problems and needs; they tell me about how their products can fix my problems; they add value to my medical practice.” This sounds uncannily like the lessons delivered on my initial selling course of twenty-something years ago.

So as a marketer today what can we do? We can produce sales aids that are a genuine aid to good selling by capable representatives and we can find a way to do this without being steered off course by the very real challenges that new technology and our increasingly regulated industry serves up to us today.

And with a final thought to our medical and legal colleagues; these are some of the smartest people employed in our industry, often with higher degrees and actual personal experience of working as a customer. In my experience when their thinking is appropriately structured, the experience they bring can give rise to some of the best ideas I've seen to improve the sales aids we produce … and these sales aid still remain compliant.

Article by
Bruce Ritchie

is head of strategy at S&H Group, UK. He can be contacted email or telephone +44 (0)7500 854 852

4th September 2014

From: Sales, Marketing

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