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Top Dog

What is it that gives top sales representatives their leading edge, and how can the rest of the team adopt these success strategies?

Have you ever wondered what takes a successful sales rep to the top? We all talk about sales skills, key messages, call rate, coverage and frequency, but what is it that makes a fifth of your salesforce sell more than their colleagues?

The Pareto Principle is often quoted. It is a familiar story and one that crops up constantly in business life: 80 per cent of business comes from 20 per cent of customers. Sometimes it seems that it is cited so often in presentations that people can begin to be blasÈ about it, but it really does hold true and the veracity of the principle has been established in numerous pieces of research.

Most people will be familiar with the figures: 20 per cent of symptoms presented to a GP will account for 80 per cent of referrals to secondary care, and 20 per cent of patients generate 80 per cent of the work. This is quite simply the Pareto Principle in action.

This principle is also known as the law of the vital few, and it is this name that senior management should always remember when managing pharma sales teams. Every sales director knows that within the salesforce, no matter what its size, there will be a vital few representatives who really drive sales.

Therefore, it begs the following questions:

  • How can we identify the vital few when recruiting a salesforce?

  • Is it possible to turn the vital few into a vital many?

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Finding the differences
Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) tells us that excellence in any field can be modelled, and therefore replicated. Modelling involves not only observing what an individual does and how they do it, but identifying their conscious and unconscious drivers, beliefs and working preferences.

By using this strategy, it is possible to determine the elements that lead to differences in the performance of individual sales reps. These elements can then be adopted by existing staff and profiled for recruitment.

The NLP approach was used recently in research for the contract sales organisation, AmDel Services, to find out what it is that enables a small number of its representatives within a dedicated team to deliver 70 per cent of the sales, and how these successful strategies can be adopted by the rest of the sales team.

Using modelling techniques
The research began by modelling the company's top performing representatives - as measured on the sales league table - and those reps who were positioned in the middle of the league table (they were making sales but not as many as they would have liked, or their experience should have called for). All were promoting a new and exclusive pain product, so the territory results were entirely down to them.

Modelling can be used to identify the best sales strategy by helping to identify preferred patterns for certain customer groups with a particular drug. The modelling approach adopted was specific to this company, and this product.

We modelled:

1. Values and beliefs - the role of the representative, their perception of the role of the doctor, their future career goals, work ethic, personal responsibilities and accountability, self-belief and product belief

2. Language and Behaviour Profile (LAB) - profile of motivational and working traits based on work by Roger Bailey (see Words That Change Minds by Shelle Rose Charvet).

3. Skills

  • Selling skills (following the sales process)

  • Selling skills - level of rapport

  • Product knowledge

  • Business acumen for own business (analysis, planning, awareness of call rate, sales and competitor activity).

The results showed that in the more tangible aspects of the job there was little to choose between the reps. Strategies for the selling process, explaining data and product benefits were similar in both groups. However, when neurolinguistic modelling techniques were used to analyse drivers, motivators and beliefs - conscious and unconscious; language profile; business acumen and personal rapport - it was clearly possible to identify the differences between the two groups.

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Values and beliefs
The first observation was that beliefs differed markedly between the groups in terms of what they felt they could achieve, and the value of both the product and their role. Perhaps this finding should not come as a surprise; after all, we have all been in a situation when the passion and belief of someone's opinions begins to shape our own, sometimes against our better judgement.

However, the research showed that the top performers had an overwhelming ownership and belief in the product. They were known to their customers as the `x rep'. They believed it was their duty to ensure that patients had the opportunity to have this superior product, and they had many anecdotes of success stories using the product.

They also believed that their goals were achievable and adopted a `can do' attitude. They had a strong work ethic, saw their role as important to themselves, their customers and patients, and carried out their role with pride. They enjoyed the partnership they had with their customers and believed that each doctor had the potential to prescribe more, so it was always right to call on them again. They believed neither doctors nor receptionists when they heard the word `no'.

Although the other group understood their goals, they felt these were not achievable on their patch. They thought the product was good but they lacked the conviction and enthusiasm of the high performers. They accepted 'no' and did not want to upset anyone by going back too soon.

Language and behaviour profile
There were also distinct differences in the LAB of the top performing reps compared with the others. The top performers had mixed patterns which affected the way they organised themselves, and they adapted their language to suit the customer. In other words, they made their customers feel comfortable in the exchange, which resulted in doctors being more open to the arguments being presented.

Of the key motivational and working traits modelled, two were of particular interest. One was motivational direction. This examines whether a rep is driven and energised towards a goal or away from a problem. For example, we know the vast majority of pharma representatives are driven towards a goal. They have a target to achieve, want to earn their bonus and want to be top of the table.

Being goal-focused is considered to be a good pattern for sales people. However, the motivational direction of most GPs is to avoid a problem, to move away from it. They want to avoid disease, death, side effects and hassle. Differential diagnosis is an `away from' procedure. People who display these `away from' patterns are motivated and energised when they are in a place they do not want to be.

The results showed that the average performers had strong `toward' patterns, in short they were goal-focused. The top performers had mixed patterns, apart from one who had a strong `away from' pattern. The benefit of this is that they were not only goal-focused, they were able to match the doctors' `away from' language, in other words, the language the doctor needs to hear to say yes.

`Toward' reps and marketers tend to talk about what a drug will give them and what it will achieve. Doctors are more motivated to prescribe a drug if they hear what it will avoid. With this product you won't have to worry about drug interactions or patients returning, etc.

Another interesting point is that the average performers had either an exclusive `options', or `procedures', pattern. An options pattern usually indicates that a person chooses how they work, and can feel stifled by set procedures. Adopting a procedures pattern means a person prefers to follow a tried and trusted formula - they are usually great planners.

The top performers had a mix of `options' and `procedures', meaning not only could they naturally match the doctor's procedural language but they had the flexibility to work around a tough day and the discipline to follow a plan. This is good news for marketers and sales managers, as `procedures' suggest doctors like to follow a logical story in a detail aid.

It is also interesting to note that the influencing language required to match these customers can be learned and adopted by others, and the profile can be used as an additional recruitment tool.

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Building a rapport
Another significant difference was in the representatives' emotional intelligence and in their curiosity about people. These allowed the top performers to achieve what we call `exquisite rapport' within the call - a state that could almost be described as camaraderie. They had a clear call purpose, a genuine curiosity about others and an empathy with the doctor. They were able to demonstrate emotional intelligence and natural conversation. They were invited back and if the doctor had not prescribed they would apologise to the rep. The average performers had some skills but lacked this curiosity and desire to please.

The top performers also have incredible belief in the product and possesses a logical, sequential selling technique. They used pre-suppositions in their language to gain access and to persuade doctors to prescribe. They all asked their customers, `how will you remember to prescribe product x?'

Interestingly, they did not criticise the competition but, instead, asserted the superiority of their own product. By contrast, the average performers neither criticised the competition nor did they assert their product's superiority.

Essential business acumen
The top performers were all aware of call rate, sales data and competitor activity, and devised their strategy based on targets and sales. Conversely, the average performers used geography and `a sensible route'. The top performers would ask successful reps what they did in order to learn and would replicate this for themselves. They would always look for another way. Average performers were unaware of the exact numbers regarding call rates, sales data and competitor activity, and felt things were different on their patch.

The top performers saw planning as essential and had a written contingency. They also made written records of the information post call (`away from'/'procedural'). The average performers had a plan in their head, but rarely on paper.

This research clearly shows that top pharma representatives perform well not just because they have better call rates, or because they display superior product knowledge, or hand out more free samples. It is down to their belief, their flexibility and their interpersonal skills. Importantly, it also revealed that these elements can all be improved by appropriate training of managers and representatives.

At AmDel, these results are now being shared by regional business managers with their teams. Reps are being coached to use the new language patterns within the sales call, and the full LAB process has been incorporated into the firm's recruitment strategy. The company is already seeing results, with sales increasing among former average performers. The vital few becoming the vital many?

The Author
Judy Shaw is managing director of Shaw Results and wrote this in association with Duncan Morris, managing director of AmDel Services

2nd September 2008

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